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NETHERWORLD Haunted House

THEMES FOR SCREAMS
Behind the scenes at NETHERWORLD Haunted House

By JOHN PORTER
The South has a special affinity for ghosts, spooks and places where the darkness lives. After all, writers like Anne Rice, James Dickey and Robert R. McCammon call the area home; horror movies ranging from Two Thousand Maniacs! to Frogs to The Texas Chainsaw •Massacre are set below the Mason-Dixon Line, and TV’s The Walking Dead is filmed in Georgia, where the locals have gotten used to extras lumbering around in grisly makeup.

So it’s only fitting that one of the nation’s top haunted attractions, Netherworld, is situated near Atlanta. On a typical night during its approximately six week season, Netherworld attracts so many people that the turning lane off Interstate 85 is bumper-to-bumper for hours. Nearby businesses with decent parking lots supplement their bottom line by renting out spaces to the throngs that flock to this ever-changing frightfest.

Billy Messina and Ben Armstrong are the owners and driving forces behind Netherworld. Messina, a former film makeup and FX artist; teamed up with Armstrong, a television producer and one-time horror host, to create a unique and truly scary experience. “Ben and I were fortunate enough to be introduced by a mutual friend, special FX guru Bill Johnson,” Messina says. “We both had been working on haunts for other people, and Johnson thought we should meet. Little did any of us know that this would be the spark that kicked off what was soon to become Netherworld!”

Armstrong got Messina hired on at an attraction where he was employed called Silo X-a franchised event that, in retrospect, helped shape the future of haunts. When the owner decided not to open one year, the duo gathered their resources and created the first Netherworld. Their goal was to create a heavily themed, detailed and unique show that did not employ the screen villains most haunts were dependent on at the time. Years later, the creators and staff are still marching down that road – though on a much larger scale.

Theming is critically important to the Netherworld experience. From the very beginning, neither Armstrong nor Messina wanted to employ movie characters; they wanted to create something different and memorable. So they started with the basic theme of a madman’s foolish experiments opening a doorway to another world-a place where monsters dwell. That place, of course, was Netherworld. “Every year since, we have evolved that idea,” Armstrong says, “but we always tie it in to the core theme. We’ve introduced many different story arcs and customized characters over the years. Those include everything from werewolves to vampires, zombies to cyborgs, with lots of esoteric Lovecraftian concepts that one might not expect as part of a haunted house. We’ve found that although most attendees don’t get or are even aware of such deep theming, others simply can’t get enough of it.”

Changing things up has been a key goal for Netherworld since 1997, and Messina, Armstrong and co. do everything in their power to offer guests a new and different experience each year. Some sets and scenes may stick around for a while – especially the big FX that people love – but they consistently give Netherworld a major overhaul. “We never want anyone to say, ‘Oh, I went to Netherworld last year,’ ” Messina notes, “because that doesn’t matter – it’s a whole new haunt this year. We strive to make it bigger and better every time. You would think that after so long, we’d run out of ideas, but ideas are not the issue – it’s space that’s the problem!”

Netherworld has come a long way since those early days, starting out at 4,000 square feet and now occupying a space almost 10 times that size. The staff has grown from about 30 employees to over 300. Their first year, the team endeavored to build their own vortex tunnel, which was a very new and expensive effect back in those days. It was made out of aluminum tubing and sheet metal; Armstrong laughs, “It ended up looking more like an egg than a circle, and it made a lot of noise,” and Messina adds, “It sounded like a thunderstorm.” Today, they have a remarkably constructed 40-foot tunnel. In 1997, their few FX were all built in-house out of PVC, mostly driven by a small air compressor; today, the attraction has hundreds of animations and a giant screwless air compressor backed up by several other industrial-strength compressors to keep up with all the pneumatic demands.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the team’s continuing desire to “scare and entertain” their guests. “That was the goal on day one,” Armstrong says proudly, “and continues to be our main goal today.”

While much of Netherworld’s nightly audience is made up of young adults, the house appeals to a broad spectrum of the population. As Atlanta has several major league sports teams, a thriving arts community and top-drawer businesses, numerous celebrities have had the bejeezus scared out of them there. Messina smiles and points to a few pictures on his office wall. “Lots of celebs have stopped by to get their scare on,” he says. Quickly recognizable are The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, Janet Jackson, WWE Superstar CM Punk, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Chandler Riggs of The Walking Dead, Evander Holyfield and Usher. According to Armstrong, there haven’t been any Elton John sightings as of yet, but he’s hopeful that this will be the year …

Netherworld has another unusual aspect going for it: It’s actually two haunted houses in one location. Armstrong recalls how they came to the decision to expand their attraction. “In 2000, when we moved into the place where our main event is currently housed, we felt we had an enormous amount of space, so we decided to split it up and also operate a 3-D haunt. A few years later, we acquired additional space on the lower level of our building and created a third attraction. But it wasn’t long before the crowds caused a major traffic jam, so we decided to cease operation of the 3-D show and expand the main event to fill the entire
upper level.”

Messina picks up the story: “This made directing patrons much easier, since now Netherworld only had two events, on different floors with separate entrances. Symbolically, this also worked for us, because our main [upstairs] attraction is and always has been Netherworld through and through-massive, macabre, Gothic, definitely a more traditional haunted attraction. Our downstairs haunt [the basement show] gave us an opportunity to do things we would never do in the main house. It’s much darker, tighter, gorier and generally dirtier and grittier than the main event.”

If you look closely—probably through the fingers you’ve clapped over your eyes—you might see a few familiar creatures. The Netherworld team often rent props and FX to TV and movie productions; some of their work has appeared in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, and the haunt itself was featured prominently in Zombieland. Additionally, every year the group has the most fun and elaborate float in the Dragon*Con parade, perhaps the most bizarre procession outside of Greenwich Village and Mardi Gras.

Messina and Armstrong work hard to come up with fresh frights for their audience. Both attend multiple conventions every year (those catering to both haunted houses and amusement parks) to pick up new and creepy stuff. Then they retrofit those items, making them quintessentially more “Netherworld” than when they were first acquired. They also create many FX in-house, employing a talented core group of people who can (and do) make just about anything, or make anything that’s been purchased better.

“At Netherworld, we love to create effects that no one else has,” Armstrong says, “and we love even more to create effects that take our actors to soaring new heights, sometimes literally. Big animatronics are awesome, and we have tons of those, but to strap live actors into devices that make them fly overhead, or in a manner or direction that the patron would never expect-those create much more than the ‘wow’ effect of big monsters. Those are the effects that really get the great scares. In recent years, we have been very focused on what we call ‘experiential’ effects, those that the patron has no choice but to interact with directly, by walking through or traversing it in some manner. Customers might expect a big monster to jump out in a haunted house, but do they expect the very walls to come to life and engulf them like a giant beating heart, or to slowly descend into what seems like a swamp, struggling to keep their heads above ‘water’? Probably not!”

Netherworld beckons on the Internet at www.fearworld.com.

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