A peek behind the spiderwebs of Netherworld

Photo by Tyler Meuter

Every year, based out of Norcross, Ga., Netherworld Haunted House receives high marks as one of the best frights in the country. The Technique had the opportunity to talk with Ben Armstrong, owner of Netherworld, to discuss what goes into creating such a popular attraction.

Technique: How did Netherworld get started? How long has it been going on?

Armstrong: This is the 19th year of Netherworld Haunted House. It started when a bunch of people who are in film and television that loved haunted houses got together. We wanted to make a haunted house that was unlike any other. At the time, haunted houses were Freddy, Jason and movie-themed but we wanted something that had a different kind of storyline, and that’s what we did. We brought together our production skills and created unique things.

Technique: How earlier in advance do you start planning for next years’ theme?

Armstrong: We are always planning. Quite often we have a three-year arc of storylines. Right now we are actively discussing ideas for next year. We know the general theme and will start talking about the name a lot in the next couple months after this season. Once we have the name, we’ll roll out the logos.

Technique: How are themes chosen each year? Do they follow popular media trends?

Armstrong: I have a philosophy about design, “Give them what they want and give them what you want.” What that means is you want to give them the things they want like chain saws and spinning tunnels.  But you want to give them something unique that they are not expecting.

Generally, our theme doesn’t conform to popular trends but quite often it follows them anecdotally. For example, we had a vampire theme around the time all the vampire things were popular. But we didn’t shoot for that, we had a three-year arc of classic monster themes. This included werewolves, vampires, and our version of a Frankenstein monster. We strike out our own path but we have to keep in mind things that are familiar to people and things that they will understand.

Technique: What does the Netherworld’s haunted house design team consist of?

Armstrong: There’s a core group of people here that work on building the main attraction. We basically start right away. We have a number of metal fabricators, carpenters, and large group of special effects artists we use. Bill Johnson is the guy that comes up with our icon characters and Roy Wooley is in charge of the makeup room. We have talented designers that do costuming.

We all get together and based on the theme as a core, we start creating all the different elements. We work all year and it evolves as we move along.

Technique: How long does it generally take for the actors to get ready every evening?

Armstrong: We generally have an excess of a hundred actors on a given night and crew call is one hour before performance. However, a lot of them will come in early just because they don’t want to get stuck in traffic. But we have a very rapid process. They go through casting where they get their positions for the night and then go to costume or the armory from there. The armory handles the big monster suits and costuming takes care of everybody else. Finally they go from there to makeup. A lot of them have masks but they need some kind of makeup to go with it. The masks we use are made of silicon or foam and move with an actors face for much more realistic effects.

Technique: Do actors play the same role all season?

Armstrong: Generally, people fall into certain categories. We have a stunt team that does all of the wire work, but they might do different stunts depending on who is currently available. Our parking lot monsters tend to work in the lot all of the time. They usually are our more experienced actors. We also have people that operate giant puppets.

People tend to gravitate towards certain roles but we continually move them around until we find out what they are best at. Unlike a lot of places, we are open seven days a week so we need multiple cast in different spots.

Technique: Have you been an actor yourself?

Armstrong: Oh absolutely! There were many years at Netherworld that this show did not open until my contacts were in. I don’t act as much now because its gotten so big I’ve got to spend a lot more time running the business. However, I was actually acting last night. Quite often when I’m an actor, I’m just goofing off. It’s fun and I love doing it.

Technique: How do you know the right moment to scare people?

Armstrong: Scaring people is an incredibly simple yet simultaneously complex thing. They come around and you jump out, that’s easy. But its not like that. You have to figure where they are looking, and you make judgments about who is going to be scared. You’ve got to figure out what you’re hunting. If you find someone you think will scare easy, you can do that but sometimes you want big game. You’re making selections about where your hit is going to be.

From there it’s all about your presentation; how you look, the approach, how you get at them, and then what happens when you get there. Once you get the initial shock, then you’re doing dialogue, you’re freaking them out, and you’re moving around the group. There’s a lot involved with being a haunted house actor.

Technique: When you get a good scare out of somebody, how does it make you feel?

Armstrong: It’s awesome! People came here to get scared and you’re here as an actor to scare people … If you’ve got a couple tough guys in a row, you think to yourself, “Aw man this is a bummer. What’s wrong with me?” But then people start craving in and falling for it and you think, “Yeah! That’s it, I’m doing it right.”

Technique: Are there any special effects tricks you can share?

Armstrong: We try to use almost everything. We have a lot of floors that move, spinning tunnels, projections and lasers. This year we have also added a foam room at the end of our Vault 13 where you get immersed in bubbles over your head. We also have a brand new elevator simulation that’s really cool.

Technique: How many people do you attract every year?

Armstrong: We generally get over 75,000 people to visit Netherworld. We want everyone to come out and visit your local haunted house. Enjoy the season and get your scream on!