cover_story (2005-43)

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THE PEARLY GATES: Visitors are draped with a symbolic cloth before entering the Heaven scene at Holston Baptist Church.

Halloween is the perfect season for adrenaline junkies. Thrill-seekers who court the gauzy veil between life and death can find ways to experience in relative safety the elation that results from surviving a frightful event. A California psychotherapist speculates that humans who seek out heart-pounding experiences tap into the primal fight-or-flight cycle, except that, instead of actually having to outrun a predator, we can approximate the triumphant feeling of survival. There’s no real danger, but the mind can still engage the hormones that make us feel glad to be alive.

This weekend, daredevils and their apprehensive kin can choose between houses of horrors, a haunted cave, and evangelistic plays demonstrating the elusive line many believe they can draw between Heaven and Hell. Being scared to death sure can put some perspective on life.

It’s always the quiet ones.

“He was such a nice man,” muses the puzzled neighbor as police haul away the guy next door after finding body parts stashed in his freezer. “And to think, I let him water my plants.”

Were he your neighbor, Chris Dotson wouldn’t inspire the least bit of suspicion either. But you’d be wrong to think there wasn’t something dark lurking beneath his calm exterior.

Dotson, 32, looks like a run-of-the-mill geek whose pale skin and bony frame imply an avoidance of athletic activity and, perhaps, a fondness for all-night Star Trek marathons. He’s casually dressed and soft spoken, but there’s a mysterious twinkle in his eye. For behind Dotson’s innocent demeanor is a man who loves to make people scream.

For 20 years, this unassuming producer at Knoxville-based Jewelry Television has used the occasion of Halloween to frighten neighbors, friends and now paying customers via those darkened halls of terror known as haunted houses.

His first experience behind the scenes of a haunted house was as a sixth-grader at Thackston school near the University of Tennessee campus. Soon after, he began creating haunts—a shorthand term used by haunted houses proprietors—in his front yard. Now, he’s a member of the group called Frightworks that puts on public haunted houses in the Oak Ridge Mall.

More than a series of dark turns with hairy werewolves and chain-rattling ghosts hiding in the bends, these haunts scare by virtue of what they don’t reveal. Disembodied voices cry out. Drawers rattle inside a bureau. Bloody body parts hang from chains rigged to the ceiling. They are self-contained worlds with complete histories performed by the volunteer crew that backs up the spooky front. 

When Frightworks announced it would be taking Halloween 2005 off, Dotson and his longtime friend Pete Carty, whom he met when they both worked at HGTV, decided to spin off their experience into a Knoxville-based haunt. Professor Lockjaw’s Odd-Itorium is a museum of the macabre, a tidy exploration of urban legends that goes awry.

On a windy Saturday in early October, Dotson stands outside the Fireproof Storage & Van Co. on Depot Avenue just north of the Old City. The only screams to be heard are from circular saws cutting plywood. Opening night is a week away, and a dozen or so volunteers work diligently to assemble the house of horrors in time.

While many haunted houses plunder horror cinema’s leading men, like Jason, Michael Myers and Freddie Kruger, Dotson says the Odd-Itorium presents the case for urban legends as the scariest source material. Stories with a hint of possibility—freaked-out witnesses, some tangible if bizarre evidence of foul play or unexplained occurrences—can pluck that high-pitched string of fear within us all.

These tales are scarier by virtue of their possibility.

“We try to be original,” he says. “We wink at the classics, but most of the stuff we make up on our own.”

Take for instance the oft-told story of the Lovers’ Lane killer. A couple is parking at Lovers’ Lane when the radio announcer comes on the air saying a madman, whose distinguishing feature is a hook at the end of his arm, has just escaped from the local prison. The frightened girl cuts short the petting session and insists the boy drive her home. Frustrated, he slams down the gas pedal and speeds away. After arriving at her house, the boy comes around the car to open her door and finds, latched onto the door handle, a hook connected to a bloody stump.

Dotson insists this popular urban legend is anchored in fact; an unsolved case in Texarkana circa 1946 appears as a reference on the Snopes website of urban legends.

“We like to blur the line between truth and fiction,” says Dotson as he stands beside the dusty shell of an old Volkswagen Bug in the haunt’s first room, an apparent piece of evidence from the legend’s crime scene. “We want people to look this stuff up.”

In the next room, three women in black T-shirts hang pictures on wallpapered walls that look grimy with age. It’s an homage to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another supposedly true tale that’s been spun into horror mythology. One of the women steps up to Dotson. “We need an ear,” she says, “to put in the shadowbox.”

 

In previous years, Dotson could be found inciting chaos inside the haunt. Although spooks don’t touch visitors, they do get very, very close, and he’s been hit at least once a year, mostly by women.

His favorite room, known as The Dark, is the most simple and most terrifying. As visitors stumble into the pitch-black room and search for a way out, their hands may reach out into the darkness and find unexpected company. Unseen entities can sidle up and breathe on the neck of an unsuspecting visitor, inciting much hysteria. People’s imaginations take over in the dark, says Dotson. “We did this room six years ago, and people wet themselves.”

This year, however, Dotson will trade in his ghoulish persona for a managerial role. “I’ll miss being inside,” he says. “A scream is music to my ears.”

 

Frightworks’ endeavors have always benefited nonprofit agencies, and the Odd-Itorium follows suit with two charities that also serve as sources of volunteer help. Dotson recruited Regal Entertainment’s children’s charity, Variety. Regal’s Robbie Arrington, a volunteer and boardmember of Variety, says he sees nothing ironic about a PG-13 haunted house raising money for totstoo young to visit. “In the end we are raising money for children,” he says, adding that the recent screening of The Dukes of Hazzard raised more than $200,000 for Variety.

The other nonprofit beneficiary is Tiptoe (Tennessee Independent Production and Talent Organization East), a cooperative of skilled film and television production types who meet regularly and work together on small projects. Tiptoe was a natural match for the creative endeavor. Paul Izbicki, the non-profit group’s president, works with Dotson at Jewelry TV. The dry-witted 60-year-old has brought his sense of humor to the project as well as technical experience as a business manager, technologist and common laborer. And then there’s his specialized skills, like, he says, “knowing how to precisely coordinate pushing a VW Bug out of an oversized packing crate while beeping the horn and flashing the headlights at the exact moment needed to produce maximum hysteria.”

Because Tiptoe’s mission and membership correspond directly with all things cinematic, Izbicki says putting together a haunted house on this scale shares a great deal in common with shooting a film—“meticulous planning, pre-production meetings, casting, scripting, directing actors and crew. It started with all the same excruciating detailed planning, then, like an Ed Wood production, it went to hell in a handbasket.”

Hell in a handbasket sounds frightening, but the volunteers wielding tools at Fireproof Storage seem relatively calm and un-zombie-like.

“Welcome to the Habitat for Inhumanity,” quips a guy with a drill, hanging a door within a plywood frame.

The room is painted a sickly hospital green, appropriate for the site of a medical military experiment gone awry. A gurney lies empty near industrial-sized metal barrels. Gory, smashed-in faces push against the glass lids. Such details that hold the haunt’s storyline together require the most work, says Dotson. Details like glass cases full of evidential material (a partial jawbone, a shriveled chicken foot, freaky metal tools with unknown sadistic purposes), front-page newspaper articles pasted on the walls, and wall after wall covered with the scribbled ravings of The Babysitter, a known graphomaniac. Such materials build the mythology of the urban legends from which the Odd-Itorium cultivates its fear factor.

“It’s the detail that keeps us here ‘til all hours,” says Dotson. John Melton, one of the most devoted workers, has put in 19 hours or more at a stretch. During a break, Melton shows a fellow volunteer pictures from his North Knoxville home, which is notorious for its proliferation of decorations this time of year. He’s something of a mystery to Izbicki. “Who can account for the inner workings of a guy who drives a hearse and decorates his lawn with a cemetery?” he says.

Dotson has accumulated most of the haunt’s building supplies over the years through purchases or donations. This year Regal supplied concessions to be sold in the adjacent alley and the many speakers needed to deliver the all-important sound effects.

As the echoes of construction continue, Dotson and his team count on the final piece of the puzzle necessary to pull the whole thing off: impressionable visitors.

“It’s 90 percent imagination, the other 10 percent is us,” he says, with that wicked glint flashing. “Most of the time people scare themselves, which makes our job easier.”

What: Professor Lockjaw’s Odd-Itorium When: Oct. 27 thru 31, 7-11 p.m. Where: Fireproof Storage & Van Co., Randolph Street, one block north of the Old City. How much: $7. Get info and a $1-off coupon at mad-labs.com.

Dead leaves swirl along Millertown Pike on the drive out to North Acres Baptist Church. The white warehouse-style building stands austere against a background of spindly tree branches on the autumn sunset, the orange melting curiously into silvery gray.

There’s always something eerie about the fall—the way warm air mingles with the cold and the earthy, ashy scent that hovers like a fog even when no one is burning leaves. The whole season feels like a prelude, a brief respite before the sunless winter. Fall’s fickle weather and almost spooky stillness seem to naturally call to mind the occult.

Perhaps that explains some of the tradition surrounding Oct. 31, first conceived by the ancient Druids who designated the date “Samhain,” the holiday that’s now evolved into Halloween. On the eve of the Celtic New Year of Nov. 1, the Druids believed the line between life and death weakened, allowing souls of the dead to walk amongst the living. Townspeople would roam the streets in costumes, hoping to avoid goblin encounters, sometimes partaking in evil trickery, protected by a cloak of anonymity.

Though Halloween still has supernatural connotations, its modern form is more commercial than creepy. Sugar-high kids marauding with plastic pirate swords are perhaps the fiercest hazards. In the past few years, though, some fundamentalist Christian groups have taken issue with the Halloween celebration, denouncing it not only for its pagan origins (though Easter and Christmas share those influences), but also because they simply don’t see the world as a safe place to send kids out trick-or-treating. “It’s really a shame that people have to be so afraid these days,” says North Acres’ Pastor Charlie Lynch. “I just don’t think it’s safe anymore turning a busload of kids loose in a neighborhood because of all the fears of razor blades in candy and things.”

Many Christians have adopted an alternative means of marking the holiday. “Judgment Houses” combine elements of theatrical productions and traditional haunted houses, with plenty of Christian ideology and evangelism thrown in. The eight-scene dramas feature different themes like abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, drinking—all the big no-nos ofChristianity—and end with a visit to simulated versions of heaven and hell. Paradoxically, these “houses,” performed in the churches themselves, have more in common with the Druids’ Samhain than do mainstream festivities, in that the line between life and death as well as Heaven and Hell takes on dire, life-changing magnitude.

The founder of the Judgment House, which is now copyrighted under a Clearwater, Fla. company called New Life Evangelism, is a former youth pastor named Tom Hudgins. The idea came to him when he and his youth ministry in Alabama brainstormed about an alternative to Halloween in 1983. “The kids wanted to have a haunted house, and I thought they were crazy at first,” he says. “But then I started thinking that we could put a positive spin on it rather than scare people to death.”

This year, 300 churches in 30 states and two foreign countries will hold Judgment Houses. Though certain scenes are just as terrifying as traditional haunted houses, Hudgins counters, “We’ve been accused of scare tactics, but we believe that the Bible is truth and Jesus is the only way. So in this visual generation, we just found a way to visually relate the Bible. We are an alarm to this world—this devastation is coming and you need to know about it.”

 

Inside North Acres Baptist, guests fill out cards with personal information. On the back, there is space “For Counselor Use” with boxes labeled importantly, “salvation,” “rededication,” “prayer request,” and “request for church information.” “Salvation” is a big word. It sounds calming like a salve, with a lilt that implies a cushion, a safety net. And according to Christian belief, it’s easy to acquire. All one has to do is ask Jesusfor it.

The sole purpose of the Judgment House is to convince people to make that request. “The biggest thing is to bring people to have awareness of Christ, to save them from going to hell,” says attendee Jeff Ogle. “It’s just an evangelistic play.” A dimple-cheeked and amiable electronics technician, Ogle is here to support his wife and children, who act in the production. He’s brought along a blond-haired boy named Cody, who plays on the baseball team Ogle coaches.

Group two sits in a circle of chairs chatting and waiting for the go-ahead to enter the church. There’s a teenage boy with searching blue eyes, a young mother with a toddler daughter, an elderly couple, a young couple, Ogle and Cody, and a couple of older women, one of whom is talking about the side-effects of her radiation therapy.

Our guide, a portly woman named Jeanne, summons us inside. Some scenes are not appropriate for children, she says. The young mother reassures her daughter, “Don’t be scared. Remember, I told you that Chelsea got saved last night?” The daughter inquires of Jeanne, “Did Chelsea cry during the Hell scene?” Jeanne replies, “I don’t know, honey. I was crying myself.”

The first room introduces a character named Whitneywho decides at a Bible study to accept Jesus into her heart. The actors are primarily mumbling, awkward teenagers, at times hardly audible, much less convincing. Still, their conviction isn’t all that important in overall impact. The story speaks for itself.

Jeanne explains that Whitney and her two brothers are rebels, always drinking and partying, maybe even having sex. But now Whitney is reformed, and in the next scene, she tries to talk her brothers out of throwing a party while their parents are out of town. They refuse, ridiculing her for becoming “all religious.” The next thing you know, the party is in full swing, kids are drinking “beer” from IBC root beer bottles, and the room smells like Doritos.

Whitney leaves to take an intoxicated friend home, and while she’s gone, one of the heathens’casually flicked cigarettes sets the house ablaze. Whitney returns and enters the house to attempt to save her brothers, but she and her older brother perish in the flames.

The next scene is Hell. The little girl wants to stay outside, and so does Cody. Ogle whispers encouragement, but Cody recoils in fear. Leaving the little ones outside, the adults cram into a closet-sized room and the lights go out. It is hot and cramped and utterly pitch black. The only sound is of heavy breathing, and against all reason, it is truly terrifying. The room plays on the basest human fears—claustrophobia and darkness. And fear, as the clever evangelist knows, has the ability to trump logic. Then the voice of Whitney’s dead brother begins screaming, “Please, Jesus, save me…I was wrong, give me another chance. I’m so lonely here. Please, Jesus.” He’s just an actor, but his anguish is palpable all the same. The tiny room is suffocating and disorienting and lonely. It feels like it will never end. Then the door opens, and the thin light reveals that nearly everyone is crying.

The Heaven scene, though surreal and pretty cheesy, is a welcome relief. Bright lights, billowy sheets and fake plants adorn the room, and “angels” with white choir robes stare in adulation at the young man playing Jesus, whose squeaky-clean looks and sandy beard perfectly match the cover images on illustrated children’s Bibles. He appears to believe in his own glory, his face glowing with a spacey benevolence. After welcoming Whitney to heaven and bringing in her grandmother, who’s been “waiting for her,” Jesus places a firm hand on each of our shoulders, whispering intimately, “Welcome, there’s a place for you here.”

The final room is the clincher. Seated in a row, we’re asked to bow our heads and close our eyes. Several people are still audibly sniffling. A middle-aged woman recaps the eight scenes and asks if anyone would like to take the Lord into their hearts. “If so, raise your hand, and a counselor will take you to a private room.” She adds, ominously, “Remember, we’re not promised to make it home tonight. If you were to drop dead right now of a heart attack, would you be all right with Jesus?” A quick peek reveals that the woman with cancer and the teenage boy are being escorted away, both holding their faces in cupped hands but making no attempt to suppress streams of tears.

 

The bright white Heaven, the bearded Jesus, the eternal blackness of Hell—it’s all very iconic, which is part of what makes Judgment Houses at once powerful and accessible. “It plays on every stereotype about Heaven and Hell. Those images come from medieval folklore,” says Chris Buice, pastor at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, a non-denominational church which interprets the Bible loosely and accepts members of all faiths and lifestyles. All of this slick symbolism, he fears, overshadows the positive tenets of religion. “My gut reaction is that it uses fear to intimidate people, and I think that hurts religion,” he says. “If you believe something just out of fear, you really don’t understand it.”

Whether or not it serves the cause of religion, the sensationalism appeals to people. Like scary movies, the lurid images at Judgment Houses are both titillating and chilling. “A lot of people would sooner come to see a drama like this than go to church,” says Scott Rines, who heads up the Judgment House at Holston Baptist Church on Andrew Johnson Highway. Here, the operation is much more high-tech than at North Acres. Scads of workers race around wearing headsets and T-shirts monogrammed with the Judgment House logo. Some of the scenes use strobe lights and fog machines. The Heaven scene is quite a production in itself. Held in the church’s large sanctuary, angels swathed in satin and feathers sing and do sign language as the Jesus figure goes around the audience, leaning in so close that you can smell his minty breath as he says, “Welcome to Heaven. It’s all for you.”

Holston Baptist’s Hell is equally theatrical. Red lights flicker over the actor playing the devil, who’s clad in a gruesome blood-red mask and a black robe. His voice bellows as he threatens the crowd point-blank that this eternal Hell could be their final destination. Women moan in the background, urging, “Go and tell your family that Jesus is real. Save yourself from this Hell.”

Though just as freaky and provocative as North Acres, no one in tonight’s group is saved at Holston Baptist’s Judgment House. A look of failure overcomes the counselor’s face as she wishes us a good night. Even so, pastors at both churches boast about success rates in previous years. Rines says that in six years, Holston Baptist has had 368 people saved, 623 rededicate their lives to Christ, and 550 give prayer concerns. Lynch says 70 people were saved at North Acres last year alone. For just two weekends in October, that’s a lot of souls.

But one has to wonder how many of those people were scared into submission by the onslaught of shocking imagery. “I reject this kind of approach because it is a literal effort to scare the hell out of people,” says Buice. “I believe in faith, not fear.” Even Ogle admits, “We’ve had some people get scared into getting saved, though I hate to put it like that. And some of them drift away afterwards, but if they really truly open their hearts, it’ll last.”

Bob Gann, a tobacco farmer in Dandridge, says fear, as well as some help on the farm, led him to the Lord. “My wife had cancer and a bunch of church members came to help me cut my tobacco, so then I started going to church,” he says. But it wasn’t until he attended Judgment House that he decided to change his life. “We went into the devil room [Hell], and it scared me to death. It was dark as could be and all you could see was smoke and a pair of white eyes. It made me feel like I better straighten up.” He wasn’t saved on the spot, but Gann says he asked the Lord into his life a few days later and has been going to church ever since.

Some say the scare tactics are the means to justify a worthy end: saved souls. “I think they have a genuine belief that if you don’t believe, you are going to hell, and I think they have a genuine interest in helping people get saved,” says Daryl Houston, a professed atheist and president of Rationalists of East Tennessee. “But in my mind, it’s better to endorse something that you can see rationally rather than understand by fear alone.”

Buice echoes wariness of logic guided by fear and doesn’t want to associate that negativity with religion. “I think the idea of God is love, and the idea of eternal damnation, well, they just don’t go together,” he says.

Some would say logic is what led to religious thought to begin with. “People tend to be afraid of what they don’t know, and it’s very tempting to make up fictions to explain it,” says Houston. “Heaven is a way to explain death, which is something we don’t understand, and God is a way to explain how we got here, which we don’t understand.”

In the Judgment House, though, it’s all very cut and dried—there is only one choice, and there’s no room for doubt. That’s what makes it such a powerful evangelistic tool. Witnessing, or bringing others to God, is an important tenet of Christianity, and one that could be perceived negatively as an attempt to assimilate and build up church rosters. But Pastor Lynch says this isn’t the purpose of Judgment House. “It does introduce us to a lot of new people, but we’re not doing it for the church,” he says. “We’re doing it for the people that come here. We’ve seen tremendous changes in people’s lives. I’ve seen Mafia guys and drug addicts turn their lives around.”

In some ways, the Judgment House is the ultimate sales pitch; it packs in entertainment, life lessons, and the chance to save your soul, all in about 45 minutes. It’s easy to see why someone down on his luck might think it a good deal—all your sin washed away in an instant.   But Lynch stresses that it’s important for everyone to get saved, recalling that the only sin he’d committed when he was saved as a teenager was stealing a honeybun from a convenient store. “It’s not just people with extremely bad lives who need salvation,” he says. “God is able to save the honeybun thief and the murderer. He doesn’t look at extremes the way we do.”

Sometimes reality is even scarier than fiction. While simulated cornmazes and houses of horror can induce the heebie-jeebies at the flick of a chain-saw, the geological wonders of a cave can be just as eerie when accented by strobe lights, smoke machines and unexpected screams. Stalactites that looked like giant icicles suddenly appear as falling daggers. Breathtaking columns of dolomite encrust what feels like a musty, forgotten tomb. For the month of October, the Cherokee Caverns in Karns takes a break from its usual stint as geologist’s playground, masquerading as The Haunted Cave.

Jim Whidby, who developed the idea for the haunted cave in 1989, believes his attraction is more “naturally” suited for old-fashioned scare tactics.

“I tell people the mazes, the haunted trails—they’re all great...but none of these compare to the Haunted Cave. With the cave you already have a damp, dark, cool, spooky place...before we even decorate it,” he says.

On entering the cavern, which seems more like a system of catacombs, visitors will feel an almost immediate change in temperature; Whidby says the cave usually holds a constant 58 or 59 degrees. A tour guide leads guests for approximately 25 minutes on the dimly lit trail, which meanders through several Halloween-related scenes situated among the cave’s natural splendor. Well-placed lights illuminate the background just enough to showcase the cave’s extraordinary features.

In some parts of the Haunted Cave, such as the fan-favorite “Snake Pit” scene, visitors find themselves in complete darkness, where the only way to advance is to form a “human chain” and depend on the person in front of you to lead the way back to refuge.

Throughout, strategically placed volunteers help enhance everyone’s terror experience and make sure guests stay on their toes. And while they stay very committed to raising the collective heart rate, the tour guides always make sure everyone makes it out in one piece, sanity intact.

Jennifer Johnsey, assistant director of the Haunted Cave and occasional tour guide, has been helping Whidby with the annual event for the last eight years. Johnsey, whose favorite holiday falls on Oct. 31, takes pride in making sure all guests exit the cave a little “shaken up.”

She and the other tour guides always manage to experience “flashlight trouble” in just the right places, allowing all sorts of gruesome creatures and walking corpses to move into the crowd.

“I love getting good screams out of people. That’s when you know you’ve done your job right,” she says.

In addition to providing Halloween entertainment, the cave is also rich in history. According to the Cherokee Caverns web site, the caverns were originally discovered by Native Americans and rediscovered by farmer Robert Crugdington in 1854. But it wasn’t until 1929 that the first commercial tours were conducted by his daughter, Margaret Gentry.

Through the next several decades, many improvements were made to the cavern trail and lighting. A restaurant was even built over the cavern entrance, but it was destroyed by fire in October 1980. (A coincidence? Some aren’t so sure.) During the next eight years, Cherokee Caverns would experience extensive vandalism, some of which is still visible in the cave today.

“Motorcycle gangs used the cave for months. There were even handfuls of 30/30-caliber rifle shells lying on the cave floor,” Whidby says.

Whidby, a member of the National Speleological Society, volunteered to take care of the property (the owners wish to remain anonymous) in the late ’80s and help preserve its natural state. And opening the Haunted Cave every October helps him to raise the funds to maintain the caverns.

“I’ve taken a lot of time to protect the cave,” he says. “I’m not going to let the vandals take it back.”

The 17th Annual Haunted Cave, which is handicap-accessible, will operate on Oct. 28, 29 and 31 from 7-10 p.m. Admission is $10, but thrill-seekers who bring a non-perishable food item will receive a $2 discount. Donations, which will benefit Second Harvest Food Bank, must be made at the cave prior to or at the time of ticket purchase. Everyone is welcome, but parents may want to use their own discretion in bringing very small children.

For directions and more information, visit www.thehauntedcave.net .

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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