It’s been 20 years since Netherworld, the 40,000-square-foot haunted house in Norcross, welcomed its first phobophile customers. Today the attraction is run almost like a movie studio, with a dozen full-time employees building sets and effects year-round. When the doors open, about a month before Halloween, there are 400 seasonal employees on hand to help guide 80,000 attendees through the elaborate scenes.
From the start, Netherworld creators Ben Armstrong, who has a background in TV production, and Billy Messina, a former Hollywood special effects artist, wanted to build a new model of haunted house. “At the time, haunted houses were sort of a mishmash of movie characters. There’d be Freddy over there and Jason over there,” says Armstrong. But he and Messina felt that “the creative parts were the fun parts” of running the business. And they were wary of surviving off content that they didn’t own. So they set out to develop characters and scenes that were completely original.
“Netherworld set a very high standard for quality and creativity, and they also engaged the community by hosting things like parades and horror movie premieres, which is something other haunts hadn’t done,” says Larry Kirchner, who runs Hauntworld.com, which in 2013 named Netherworld the most influential haunted house of all time. Soon the attraction developed a reputation not only for originality but also for top-notch special effects and makeup. Attendance and profits grew slowly, until CBS’s The Early Show showed up in 2006 for a segment on haunted houses, and viewers all over the country got a look at the Hollywood-caliber mega-attraction.
Netherworld continues to innovate—creating ever-more-complicated set pieces or investing in new technology like computerized motion and pressure sensors—to stay ahead of its competitors, who have joined the trend toward super-theatrical scares and high-end effects. “It’s almost like a spooky arms race,” says Armstrong. “Sometimes people will ask, ‘Why are you working on this all year long? Don’t enough people come already?’ But you have to keep outdoing yourself every year.” —Jennifer Rainey Marquez
Makeup artists employed for each performance. —Muriel Vega
Illustrations by Peter Gramlen
This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.