THE DENT SCHOOLHOUSE
By HEIDI HONEYCUTT
The story of Charlie McFee is familiar to those well-versed in urban legends and American horror folklore: In Dent, Ohio (near Cincinnati) in 1942, children attending the local schoolhouse begin to go missing. They keep disappearing over the next decade, and in 1955, an angry mob discovers that Charlie, the school janitor, has been keeping the rotting bodies of murdered students in gruesome states of disarray in the basement. Charlie escapes and is never heard from again, while the ghosts of murdered kids roam the hallways, seeking revenge and release from their violent passing…but is Charlie really gone?
Josh Wells, Chuck Stross and Bud Stross are the owners of the Dent Schoolhouse haunted attraction. When they acquired the actual schoolhouse from a local charity organization, they discovered it had a dark history—one they could fully exploit for local Halloween enthusiasts. Fully theming the attraction around the story of the missing students and Charlie the janitor himself, the trio have created a fully immersive attraction involving the manpower of dozens of people, working all year long.
“We set Dent Schoolhouse up to be like a movie,” Bud Stross says. “You, the audience member, relive the horror of the schoolhouse and what Charlie McFee did to the students. From start to finish, our customers are engulfed by the building and its history. Before you even buy a ticket, guests are met by actors playing locals who are crazed by the grisly landmark in their town.”
There’s a splendid amount of blood and body parts to go with the atmospheric creep factor, and Dent has been called the most detailed haunted attraction out there. “We try to touch on everything people love about horror movies,” Stross explains. For gore fanatics who enjoy the most explicit violence and brutality, there are plenty of gutted parents and children, a cafeteria of human remains and at least a few scenes of horrific torture. “Then there is the paranormal factor,” he adds; the Dent Schoolhouse, he insists, may truly be haunted. “Just walking in the building, guests may actually see or be touched by real ghosts—though that’s not guaranteed, of course.” But there are helpful haunters who create spirits when real ones don’t happen to appear; ghostly children, floating librarians and the eerie ambience of a long-gone era tend to creep people out just fine.
“There’s something about vintage that seems scary to people,” muses Stross, who searches for antiques and hits numerous garage sales to make sure everything within the Schoolhouse accurately represents 1950s Americana. The interior looks as if it has not been touched for 60 years; the paint is peeling, dust and cobwebs cover the desks and bookcases and debris have accumulated in the classrooms and hallways. It’s exactly what a haunted schoolhouse should look like.
The Dent attraction touches on a very American experience: Every kid hates school, right? We can all relate to bad memories and incidents on the playground, and we all know a few urban legends about maniacs killing teenagers on school premises—not to mention that many of the most popular genre films ever made have horrific school scenes (Carrie, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street…the list goes on). The Dent Schoolhouse is designed to cater to these terrors; there are even cruel teachers on hand to lend a dose of discipline to guests entering their classrooms. Like something out of an Elm Street flick, the haunt features a hallway that seems to go on forever, leading to classrooms and lockers that never end. More trompe l’oeil makes adult patrons feel like kids again, as the walls are 12 feet tall.
Guests follow a very natural and organic path through the Dent Schoolhouse. Instead of feeling like a constructed maze, like the attractions at many theme parks, this one makes it seem like guests are actually walking through an abandoned school. To get to certain scenes, visitors actually walk through holes in the wall to get to the next grisly set piece. It has a lived-in (or rather, long-abandoned) ambience that is incredibly evocative.
Some of the creepy characters one meets in the Schoolhouse include Charlie McFee himself; the crowds would be understandably disappointed if they didn’t get to see the legendary maniac. Charlie is lovingly referred to as the “Mickey Mouse of Horror” when it comes to Cincinnati and the Tri-State area, and visitors run into him several times throughout the attraction, engaging in various activities such as killing a student, roaming his creepy sleeping quarters and cleaning a dirty bathroom (after all, he is a janitor, and he takes his custodial arts very seriously). Fittingly, he’s portrayed as a hunched-over, gnarled old man who snarls at anyone who looks at him and stares right into the eyes of his victims.
Those terrorized students roam the schoolhouse, too—begging for help or toying with trespassers. Some are bruised, scraped, trapped and crying, while others are already ghosts. They tug on the heartstrings of those enjoying their torment. The teachers are just like we all remember them: deranged, disfigured, crazed, angry and underpaid. Unfortunately, most of them are not there to help, but instead pick on guests as they walk through the scenes or force them to participate in a victim’s torture. And on top of all that, there are various monsters crawling from behind boiler pipes and bursting out of basement walls. You remember, just like at a real school!
The creepy legend of Charlie McFee has definitely added to the local love for this haunted house. “Everyone wants a chance to see something from beyond the grave or unexplainable,” Stross says.
“We get several messages a month from fans asking to investigate the ghostly activity. Dent is that creepy building you remember as a kid that your friends would dare you to go up and knock on the door…but never would, for fear of what might come out!”
An extremely popular attraction, the Dent Schoolhouse can have lines up to three hours long (especially on Fridays and Saturdays)—a long time, even while actors in costume entertain those waiting. Using improv and all sorts of scare tactics, they try to keep the eager guests amused while they wait their turn. In addition, an in-line video tells the story of Charlie’s horrific murder spree, so patrons are fully prepared for the detailed terror inside.
The Schoolhouse recently added a side attraction called Queen City Slaughter Yard. You see, Cincinnati, also known as the Queen City, has a long history as a major center of pork processing. So imagine a huge slaughterhouse with blood, chainsaws, dirt and … well, you can guess the rest. Beginning at the pig stalls, guests are chased through winding aisles as mad butchers wearing the faces of pigs and human victims pursue them. Meat-cleaning, meat-smoking, processing and freezing rooms offer many varieties of nausea-inducing horror, and a chain saw chase for your life ends the experience. “At last count,” Stross says, “it has anywhere between six and twelve chainsaws at one time.” A visit to the Slaughter Yard is included with every regular Schoolhouse ticket.
Truly a high-end haunt, the Dent Schoolhouse is no small operation; over 50 actors are employed, as well as the many makeup artists, ticket sellers, security people, merchandise booth operators and parking attendants. On any given night, there are over 100 people working to make sure the Dent Schoolhouse is a topnotch show. And it’s not just for the two months out of the year the place is open, either; creating the terror is a 365-day-a-year business. Once the haunt shuts down in November, prep work for the following Halloween begins, and the owners alter over a third of it every year, working at least five days a week (including at least one evening with a construction crew) to make the Schoolhouse amazing. Stross himself can even be found as one of the performers (if you can spot him).
“We all started as yard haunters with a dream of making it big one day,” Stross smiles. “And we did it!”
The Schoolhouse rocks on-line at www.frightsite.com.