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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Scare Tactics

Phil Wolter’s Downtown job sites are haunted. His tools of the trade include battered coffins, fake blood, and high-tech monsters, and his employees are a bloodthirsty clan of vampires. He keeps his work under wraps for 11 months of every year, but on fall weekends at the Old Courthouse, spectators wait outside in the chilly evening air, eager to see what Wolter’s dreamed up this year. Wolter, a full-time haunted-house designer, has produced haunted attractions every year since 1980 and currently operates the Olde Courthouse Catacombs and the House of Lecter in Downtown Evansville.

After graduating from the University of Southern Indiana with an art degree, Wolter, an Evansville native, was hired to design a haunted house on the Evansville State Hospital campus for a fundraiser. “It really was intended for one season,” he says, “and it went over so well the superintendent hired me full-time.” For the next 14 years, Wolter led activities and an art therapy program for patients, and he created increasingly elaborate haunted attractions that he traces back to a passion for theater. (He has designed shows for Evansville Civic Theatre and area high schools.) With costumes, lighting, makeup, blocking, and special effects, “haunted houses are just another form of theater,” he says.

In 1990, Wolter leased the old Vanderburgh County jail Downtown and operated a haunted house there for five years. In 1995, he moved “13 steps across the street,” he says with a laugh, to the eerie environs of what he now bills as the Olde Courthouse Catacombs. The dirt floors and Roman vaulted ceilings made for a deliciously creepy setting, Wolter decided, not to mention the mysterious events documented by ghost hunters. In 2003, members of the Indiana Ghost Trackers visited the catacombs and grew thoroughly spooked when their compass began to spin in a complete circle. Digging into the dirt floor directly beneath the compass, they found only an old whiskey bottle filled with crumbling, 1920s-era newspaper clippings — all detailing brutal murders.

Two blocks away, Wolter found a similarly spooky location: the historic building at 325 Main St., built in 1874, which he bought in 2000 as the setting for his House of Lecter. Wolter describes the Olde Courthouse Catacombs and House of Lecter as “two haunted houses, two blocks apart, twice the scare, and one low price.”

Naturally, most people associate haunted houses with Halloween, but they require a yearlong effort for Wolter. “I plan the shows a year ahead. Since 1980, I’ve been working on haunted houses every day,” he says. “When one show ends, another show starts. There’s so much more to the whole thing than meets the average eye.”

Each of Wolter’s haunted houses begins with an original story. This year, visitors will walk through a vampire-themed attraction. Wolter eschews what he calls the “heavy-duty, ‘blood, gore, and guts’-type haunted house” for a smart storyline: This year’s show, “Colin Vale’s Clan,” stems from local history. “There’s a whole story of how Colin Vale got his start — and it’s tied in with the Old Courthouse,” Wolter hints. As the story goes, visitors enter a newly discovered area of the catacombs, ominously littered with caskets, skeleton heads, and a rusted box of wooden stakes. The action continues at the House of Lecter with a vampire ritual and grand finale.

Every year, Wolter issues a casting call for his characters and hires 80 to 90 employees — ranging from 16-year-olds with work permits to older adults who have staffed haunted houses for decades. One of Wolter’s longtime employees is Bubby May of Evansville, who has played characters and worked behind the scenes since 1993. “The best thing,” says May, “is people’s faces when I scare them.” He’s had ample opportunity to do so, playing serial killers Michael Myers from the Halloween slasher films and machete-wielding Jason Voorhees, star of the Friday the 13th series. Most memorable to May, however, was his turn as the captain of a sunken ship. “I had barnacles all around me and white contact lenses in my eyes,” May recalls. “A lot of people turned and ran after they saw me.”

The live actors are the most important part of each show, Wolter emphasizes, but he accents his story with props discovered at the annual TransWorld Halloween and Attractions Show in St. Louis. “When I first started, there were little catalogs where you could get eyeballs or a little bit of makeup,” Wolter says. “Now, there are huge companies that make all kinds of props used in movies.” Trade show vendors sell everything from wristbands and wigs to animatronic monsters costing thousands of dollars. “I’ve got one huge monster this year: It’s what Colin Vale changes into,” Wolter says. “He’s kind of a good guy vampire … but he’s certainly got a nasty side."

Vampire Colin Vale’s story may have been inspired by the popularity of vampires in the hit book and movie series Twilight and HBO show True Blood, but ironically, Wolter says he isn’t fond of horror movies. The veteran haunted-house designer has come a long way since his first attraction nearly 30 years ago, but his philosophy hasn’t changed: To Wolter, haunted houses should be fun, safe, and scary. “I’m not a real big fan of horror films. But I am into theater, and I look at this as a legit form of entertainment,” he says. “What I’m in is the entertainment business.”

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