What is “the season” to those of us who will never be invited for cucumber sandwiches at Buckingham Palace?
It’s that time of year that kicks off after Labor Day and runs through November 1. It is bracketed at one end by the appearance of Spirit shops in every empty strip mall location and the 75%-off-sale in said stores at the other, and is affectionately known as Halloween to everyone else.
Considering this may well be the very last one, this year we kicked off “the season” in a spectacular and appropriately apocalyptic fashion (it is 2012 after all).
As mentioned last week, Black Gate photographer Chris Z and I had the pleasure of meeting the devious master minds behind one of Chicago’s premier haunted attractions: Fear City. Co-owners Chuck Grendys (also the proprietor of the movie-building shop, Big City Sets) and Jim Lichon (an Emmy-winning set decorator for Harpo Studios) invited us to visit during the day before all the screaming starts, and we burned rubber out of the Black Gate office parking lot to bring you the scoop.
Fear City is actually comprised of two separate attractions: Fear City Apocalypse and Hades Resurrection. For those of us who grew up in Chicago, Hades was a Halloween standard until it closed its doors in the early 2000’s. But thanks to the collaborative efforts of Jim and Chuck, with Hades’ original scare-master Joe Jensen, Hades is back with a serious vengeance.
And we’d love to tell you all about that part too, except Chuck and Jim threatened to make us a permanent part of the attraction if we did. Hades is currently under a heavy veil of secrecy, but suffice to say it would be well worth a road trip to Chicago to check out the resurrected version.
As we learned, there is an age restriction on Fear City for a reason.
But the gents were happy to tell us all about the design of Fear City Apocalypse and walk us through it room by room. Remember, Jim and Chuck are professional set guys with movie and TV experience galore and 40,000 square feet of warehouse to work with: trust me when I say each of these rooms looks precisely like what they’re supposed to be, in nauseating detail.
So follow us while we show you just a few of our favorites.
The premise of Fear City is that a plague has contaminated Chicago and you are part of a (currently) unaffected group being evacuated. Early stages of infection resemble a cold, so whatever you do, do not sneeze. Stage 2 brings on fits of blood-vomiting crazy, so you can only imagine how much fun Jim and Chuck have with that. The third and final stage of the virus results in an all-out, brains-eating zombie state which is pretty much the status of the remaining citizens of Chicago.
With the exception of your little party.
So what’s the fastest and best way out of town? The El train, of course. Which bring us to the first (and in my opinion, the most impressive) special effect that Fear City offers up; a full scale, moving El train done in as much exquisite detail as the station through which you board.
Once you’re loaded in you could swear you were bumping along the rails. That is until the train of course breaks down, forcing you to do the unthinkable: walk out of the city.
You’ll encounter bums living near the tracks who do their best to help by pointing you forward (in a creepy kind of way) and pass through a camp of PETA members who have determined the best way to stave off the voices in their heads is to eat house pets.
And then? Potential salvation in the form of a health clinic that seems to have a small contingent of doctors, who have stayed behind to help the few remaining uninfected citizens (you can just feel how badly this is about to go).
Unfortunately, the doctors are at stage 2 of the infection (the crazy vomiting stage if you recall) and they’re engrossed in conducting all manner of medical experimentation to discover a cure. At the sight of this little tableaux the look on my face prompted Jim to explain the inspiration:
We were doing a carpet commercial shoot and scouting locations on Lower Wacker. I’m walking a couple of the female clients around in their cute little heels when we turn a corner and came upon a spot where someone had clearly vomited an entire Chinese dinner. From the reaction that elicited I immediately knew we needed vomit in our haunted house.
Escaping the clinic, you continue to make your way through a variety of Chicago neighborhoods and encounter increasingly disturbing scenes and infected citizens. When you enter the Hotel Cicero through the service door, you find housekeeping is overseen by a religious zealot of a maid who accuses you of being a sinner and a fornicator.
Jim – “Chuck wants to put a bucket of condoms in the corner as if she has saved all the sins from the hotel. But that might be going too far.”
After you’re accosted by the “crack whore” in the hamper, you find yourself running down an eerily familiar hallway, then being accosted by the bellhop with an axe. The scene in the lobby with a pair of actual elevators, luggage and a check-in desk is worthy of any movie set.
You’ll continue to flee through the Humbold Park Chop Shop, the Gold Coast Antique Store, the Portage Park “Hoarder House” (seriously made me throw up in my mouth a little) and the Meat Packing District Warehouse. And what trip to zombie-infested Chicago would be complete without a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo (the shipping and receiving dock in particular)?
As Jim explains:
The theory is that the monkeys brought the plague so there will be two chimps and a silver back gorilla in this space all ravenous and bleeding and horrible. Zombie monkeys essentially.
The thing with a haunted attraction is that it isn’t like a movie where you have all this time to get the story straight. You have like 30 seconds to tell the story so visitors need to walk in and right then know they’re in a zoo.
With the level of film-quality realism I’ve seen up to this point, I had to ask; were there going to be any smells added to the air?
Jim: Um no, I’m sort of sensitive to smells. I used to be the art director at Harpo (the studio where Oprah Winfrey taped her TV show) and the smell of 350 women coming in just killed my sense of smell. Nobody knows about that trauma but every day at 9 am there would be this overwhelming cacophony of horrible scents. All the perfume mixed together made one horrible scent and you knew we were live at 9.
On the outskirts of town, you encounter “The Last Show on Earth,” where I have just one word for you – clowns. And then it’s on to Midway Airport, where the second most impressive effect I’ve seen in a haunted attraction is housed. Coming through the airport concourse and the gate area manned by a dominatrix stewardess, you see the front end of a full-size passenger jet.
Jim: They were throwing it away so I took it. This was the plane from the first episode of the last season of Oprah. She shipped her audience to Australia and John Travolta drove the plane out onto the stage. Afterwards I said I’d take it. I had no idea what I was going to do with it or how we’d work a plane into the haunted house.
Yes, you actually board the plane. And it is…amazing.
Visitors exit Fear City under the sagging diaper of an enormous Baby Apocalypse (the 2012 New Years baby) to head down a hallway into the Hades Resurrection side of the attraction.
Jim – The last thing you see leaving Fear City is “baby death” and then you exit into hell.
Sure, Fear City contains a lot of inside jokes that Chicagoans will thoroughly enjoy when they aren’t screaming like a little girl. But the realism of the sets alone are worth a visit so I can only imagine what Fear City will look like when it’s fully operational.
We had to know more so we chained ourselves to the Humbold Park Chop Shop set and refused to leave until Jim and Chuck spilled more details.
GC: What did you do before you ran Fear City?
JL: I was the set decorator for the Oprah Winfrey Show (GC: for which he won an Emmy), and prop master at Steppenwolf Theater
CG: I own a set building company called Big City Sets. I’ve been building sets since 1987 when I started on The Untouchables.
GC: Charles, can you tell us some of the places we would have seen Big City Sets work?
CG: We do so many commercials right now; a lot of the Michael Jordon stuff, the Kerry Woods spot that just ran for State Farm Insurance where they pull Andre Dawson out of the ivy. The Untouchables was a good movie to start on because they had a $10M construction budget. I also worked on Adventures in Babysitting, Midnight Run, all Chicago-based stuff.
GC: Can you explain the difference between a set decorator and a set designer?
JL: They work closely together, but the set designer comes up with the overall concept and the set decorator “polishes the turd.”
CG: Which means I build the turd and he polishes it.
JL: The set decorator pulls the concepts into reality, creating what you see.
GC: What makes Fear City different than other haunted attractions?
JL: Our Chicago theme. We aren’t based on any movie. We’re based on the real fears of real people.
CG: We have fun with it and fun with ourselves. We have fun with every part of this. We didn’t just throw a bucket of red paint around and call it scary.
JL: We like to laugh at it too because it’s all sort of ridiculous, you know?
GC: How do you decide on the design of the haunt (i.e. what scares happen where and when)?
JL: We knew we were going to do the apocalypse this year, for 2012. Everything we built last year was gearing up for doing the apocalypse theme this year; from the train and the city stuff to the clinic
CG: All of it is a collaboration between us all. We bounce the ideas off each other and decide what ideas actually become reality.
GC: What is your personal favorite part of Fear City?
CG: I’m a little partial to the train (GC: Us too, Chuck!!). I like the fact that the train moves. It’s a signature piece for us because it’s one of the first effects and we built everything else around it.
JL: The blood-letting room with the crazy cult and our idol “Our Lady of Fear City”. We have our own weeping icon. I think we need to put out a press release saying “the Virgin is weeping at Fear City – check it out!” (GC: Ironically we’re having tee shirts made saying that exact thing!)
GC: What are the credentials for the actors? Do you employ professionals actors or just “regular people?”
JL: We’re employing over 100 actors this year between the two houses. We definitely have some professional Chicago actors. I would say it’s about a 50-50 mix of “haunters” and professional actors. I think it’s a nice balance. The actors bring a level of professionalism that raises the bar but the haunters are teaching the seasoned actors how to haunt.
CG: They’re teaching each other how to scare and how to be better performers. It’s a great collaboration between the two backgrounds. For some of the actors, this is a little more improv-y than some of the other acting they’ve done because here things are always changing.
GC: What will be different about Fear City in 2012?
CG: Last year we only had a month and half to build it, dress it, staff it and get it going. (GC: Due to permitting and inspection delays in their first year, the guys only had a month to construct the entire haunt) Now we’ve had a year to go in and perfect rooms, to add more focus to where the scares are going to come from and to refine some of the rooms we didn’t get to do a lot with last year.
GC: Can you give us one favorite story from being in this business?
CG: Our “front of the house” guy has some rodents in his pockets and he pulls out the rodents and sort of harasses the people waiting in line. He’s the “rat guy”. One night a woman came up and bought her ticket and the rat guy came up (he’s well trained because he waited until she bought her ticket) and he pulls out a rat to show her. She panics and starts running around in a circle screaming. The whole lobby stops to see where the blood-curling screams are coming from. Then she goes running out the door with the rat guy right behind her pulling a second rat out of his pocket. He goes toward her with a rat in each hand and she runs screaming down to Austin Avenue where the cop was directing traffic.
JL: All I heard was the screaming then saw a woman running out of the parking lot so fast she was kicking her heels into her own ass.
CG: Next time we’ll make sure we have a camera. She never came back either.
GC: Can you tell us about your Bloody Red Carpet Event?
JL: There are events every weekend here. It’s not like you’re just going to a haunted house. The first weekend is the premier, so we are going to have a blood red carpet and treat everyone like there are paparazzi and they’re going to a premier. The second weekend is Hades Retro Weekend, when we’ll have B96, who was an original Hades sponsor back in the day. Third weekend is the Halloween Pre-Screams, when we’ll run costume contests. Then there just happens to be seven days until the end of the month, which we’re calling The Seven Days of the Apocalypse.
CG: We’ve also teamed up with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to raise money for them; 3% of all our ticket sales benefit the Greater Illinois Chapter. It seems like everyone here knows someone who has been touched by MS. We participated in their fundraiser softball tournament this summer – our team was Zombies. We raised a lot of money for MS research and we had a lot of fun.
GC: What scares you?
CG and JL: Nobody showing up.
Do you have local haunted attraction you’d like to tell us about? Have you ever worked as a professional haunter? Post a comment or drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.