What Scares the Monsters at America's Most Terrifying Haunted House?
Just because they never get tired of scaring the shit out of hapless teens doesn't mean they don't have their own primordial fears.
All photos by Matt Petricone
Michael Jubie strikes you as the kind of guy who might chase costumed teens off his property with a shotgun on Halloween. As an ex-cop who maintains a closely cropped haircut and insists on a fully uniformed staff, he certainly doesn't seem like the type to actively court hundreds of (often young) people to wreak choreographed chaos on 65 acres of his property every fall. But as founder and owner—with his wife Nancy—of the Headless Horseman, an upstate New York haunted attraction regularly ranked among the best in the country by everyone from MTV to the more niche Haunt World, that is precisely how the horror-loving, no-nonsense Jubie spends his days.
The experience is an hours-long smorgasbord of both typical Halloween fright fare like zombies and ghosts, mixed with a few nods to this century's predilection for torture porn, a decent helping of fetuses in jars (and even one being kept warm by a demonic nurse), corpses convulsing in acid, and—because it wouldn't be 2016 without them—some fucking evil clowns.
Every year at Halloween, we are reminded by pop psychology articles about why people watch horror movies and even why they're good for us: the tension, safely grappling with mortality, possible justice for the killer, and a catharsis for the viewer, to say nothing of the artistic value of a masterful piece of horror cinema. But the seven distinct houses of Headless, though quite theatrical, do not follow a linear plot. There are dozens of killers or victims lurking, and the gore exists for its own sake; the terror is the reason for the terror. It is a melange of a jumpy but fairly wholesome hayride followed by scenes of slaughterhouse abuse and malevolent medical experiments and shrieking corn maze exterminators. Guests feel mortal terror one moment and then walk less than 20 feet to buy apple crisp with vanilla ice cream the next.
This coexistence of horror and fine family entertainment renders the behind-the-scenes atmosphere into a social space somewhere between spooky summer camp and elaborate performance art therapy simulation. It's an environment in which performers repeat a routine that cycles in a matter of seconds, popping out of a corner or lunging from darkness at hundreds of people per night. Somehow, they never seem to tire of it, but that doesn't mean they don't have primordial fears of their own.
Jubie got the idea for his haunted house in an actually dangerous situation decades ago. After running with a tough crowd and working as "a bartender in every punch palace in the count," he says, he had an epiphany one night as the cops were chasing him and his friends. "You know, cops always seemed to win. So I said, 'Why wouldn't I get on their side?' You can't beat 'em, join 'em. Bob Dylan said, 'Every cop is a criminal,' right? So I joined the police department," Jubie explains. Seeing as he already knew his way around unsavory characters, they put him undercover and—not wanting to die at the hands of some dope-shilling miscreant—he made sure his disguises were top-of-the-line: beards, mustaches, and eyebrows that wouldn't fall off and looked realistic. The props were so good that Jubie started a business selling the outfits as costumes.
One night years ago, the ex-cop continues, he and his wife Nancy were out with another couple who also happened to be Halloween enthusiasts (as all decent Americans are) who insisted a Halloween hayride was in the Jubies' future. When I visit him in his attic office adorned with John Wayne paraphernalia and Halloween masks, Jubie gestures more broadly at the large property beyond. He shrugs and says, "The more Miller Lite I drank, the better that sounded. The next thing I knew, I bought this farm."
If those aren't someone's famous last words, they really ought to be.
On a Sunday evening, I find my way through a line of of young men and women dressed in all black, standing in small clusters waiting for their costumes and makeup. Most employees are on the younger end of the millennial set, sporting novelty hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. They're required to wear all-black under their costumes as part of protocol, but there is still an unmistakable touch of the goth about several of them. A survey of the performers at a haunted attraction in New York City might overwhelmingly reveal a cast of actors and artists. But here in Ulster Park, 100 miles north of the city, the jobs at Headless satisfy the thrill-seeking and (for the most part) the wage-seeking all at once.
Brett Houghtaling is built like Popeye's nemesis Brutus and has a black beard to match. But both traits are in sharp contrast to his measured speech and gentle mannerisms as he talks about working out his introversion over six years at Headless. The man sells tires at Sam's Club when Headless isn't in operation, and looks forward to it all year. "The scares that get your heart pumping, it brings out the kid in me, " Houghtaling explains. "Man, I'll never get tired of that."
Dave Berman is a testament to how this stuff somehow never gets old: He's worked at Headless for 15 years while also keeping a full-time job as a life coach with troubled kids. When I meet him, he is already clad in a blood-spattered plumber's uniform and wearing zombie makeup, eating live mealy worms from a plastic container as part of his act. When asked about people who leave crying from this place, he says that while those scares have their rewards, "The biggest badge of pride is when you get punched!" (Which Berman and other performers attest that they have been, on more than one occasion, by frightened guests.)
Knowing the mechanics behind the monsters does little to alleviate the very real fears that linger among the performers. "It doesn't matter if they're slow or fast—they never stop," Rosalyn Raponi, a first-year performer, says of her fear of zombies after an otherwise lighthearted conversation about her role as a feral child of the corn murdering people with pesticides. "Eventually, you're going to get tired. There's never enough sleep." Walt Batycki, a four-year veteran of Headless who left his job in Burbank as a Disney imagineer to live in the area after a family emergency, is as gregarious and genial as you'd expect from an improv coach. But when asked about his greatest fear among the supernatural, Batycki's voice quavers. "Everything I'm scared of isn't stuff you can see in a haunted house," he confides. "Something happening to my son—that's the only thing that really scares me."
The scariest moments from their own lives vary greatly across performers; one named Ruta is terrified of clowns and says that her scariest moment ever had happened just the previous night when several clown performers invaded the house she works in at Headless, unannounced. Houghtaling casually mentions that his home was converted from a mortuary and that he occasionally sees small children out of the corner of his eyes, but that they no longer scare him. And when asked about the scariest thing that ever happened to him, Raymond Edwards, a first-timer at Headless, very casually contributes, "My mother passed away in my arms."
Further elaboration on why this was the scariest is unnecessary.
Among the supernatural options of witches and ghosts and vampires and zombies, zombies and vampires seem the clear winners as the most terrifying. But Houghtaling brings up an alternative option—Death itself—as a more intriguing one. "You don't know who it could be. It could be this sweet old lady. Or this big biker guy. Or this small little child that no one knows about," he says. "And they come over, touch you. And you're gone."
But only Berman the zombie-plumber is willing to plainly state that his greatest fear is death itself. He looks around the scene of young people dressed as the undead, the murdered, and the murdering finding their way to their positions. "This is therapeutic for me—it's a link to the supernatural," he explains. "Nothing ever dies here. Everything is alive here in one way or another."
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