It’s finally fall. Temperatures have dropped below 60 in the evenings, pumpkin patches have sprouted up all over town, and the countdown to Halloween is officially on. For folks like Angelo Lambiase, October brings more than hot apple cider and harvest festivals; it also marks his favorite time of year when people transform into ghosts, ghouls and witches. “I believe that’s what gave me love for the fall and for the Halloween season,” he says, “and absolutely for haunted attractions.”
For Lambiase there’s no bigger joy than seeing people laughing and burying their faces in the people in front of them while walking through elaborate scenes of psycho-killers and malicious clowns. “It’s like we can share experiences with complete strangers that they will probably remember for quite a while,” he continues.
Lambiase cites Panic Attack’s closing a couple of years ago as a huge loss to the Wilmington community, not only for die-hard haunted-house fans, but the actors and set builders these seasonal attractions employ.
“As far back as I can remember in the mid-‘80s, there always was something to do in this community,” he tells. “It became part of the Halloween tradition. I think when they left, it left a big void in our community and people had to seek other places—going down to Myrtle Beach or elsewhere—to find a haunted attraction. I think the community felt a big loss. I know we did as the performers.”
Lambiase is now preparing for a new role in Wilmington’s latest three-part haunted attraction: Morbid Wonders, Death Dance and the interactive main event, Fear Show.
Owned by the founders of the Nightmare Factory in Havelock, NC, Justin Yates, Eric Duggins and James Moore have been preparing to debut their first expansion into Wilmington for almost 11 months. Now open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights throughout October in the Independence Mall parking lot (closest to Oleander Road, facing Harris Teeter), the show’s backstory is centered around a group of traveling misfits who have settled into town. As passersby bravely enter the show and wander from tent to tent (led by a ringmaster who has two personalities, so to speak), everyone soon discovers just how sinister these characters are.
Just as they did with Nightmare Factory, Yates and his team have hand-built props and sets for this new haunt. Folks won’t find animatronics or fake creatures of the night Madam Gore procures in her Morbid Wonders. “This one is my niece’s and nephew’s favorite,” she says while holding up a jar with a bunny, which looks to be sleeping inside the jar of its liquid cocoon. It’s among moles, kittens, squirrels, and heads of various other creatures—all which died of natural causes, she assures of her taxidermy.
“A lot of people discard and I recycle,” she quips, and smiles brightly with her ice-blue cat eyes. “It’s my way of taking something that people no longer think about , and giving it new life and perspective.”
The Death Dance performance is led by Wilmington-based belly dancer Angela Tallent. “What she does in there is a secret,” Yates says, as he navigates us past a fiery red-headed clown who is sharpening his ax. Yates points to the Death Dance tent, “There is something about her you don’t find out until the ending.”
According to Yates, a typical haunted attraction has folks going through it and reacting to the space. He designs spaces to react around the people, as seen in the final stop, Fear Show. Twenty people may enter Fear Show’s viewing area, with 12 in front and eight in the back. They have to follow instructions.
“Once you put your hands into the holes you gain access to what the executioner has in there,” Yates explains, as he places his hands through the only access point visible to the room on the other side. A large clear partition otherwise separates the audience from what happens on the other side.
From there, Yates only reveals it is a chilling experience for almost all the senses (touch, taste, smell), where viewers become a part of the show. These interactive scares are much like the activities young trick-or-treaters may remember from touching “eyeballs” (peeled grapes) or veins (cooked spaghetti) at Halloween parties. Only Yates’ version is the “adult edition.”
“It’s very graphic,” he promises and points to the backdrop behind an executioner’s chair. “That will be for projected images of stuff most people fear . . . and ends with a pretty vicious display of actual carnage. It’s designed and edited in a way to, of course, make you feel uneasy and disturb.”
Yates and company first started versions of these “one-room haunts” in an effort to expand the Nightmare Factory’s offerings. This particular scene started off as “The Chamber,” with one main character and similar interactive experiences. However, in his updated version, multiple characters show up in multiple scenes for 6 minutes. “It’s a high-intensity build-up that gives you (hopefully) the scare of your life in a way that people haven’t experienced before,” Yates adds.
Like Lambiase, Yates, Duggins and Moore have been fascinated by horror and the macabre since childhood. Now in their early 30s, they all found themselves back in North Carolina where they started Silent Edge Entertainment more than 10 years ago. While they did video production and other projects, their talents and passion were in creating attractions which led to opening Nightmare Factory.
“We’d been wanting to expand to Wilmington for years and years,” Yates says. “We said from the very beginning: ‘Expansion by year 10, we’re going to Wilmington.’ Here it is, season 10, and it took a lot to get to this point. The ideas have been ever-changing, and it’s changing right now on opening night.”
Though they never envisioned running a haunted attraction for vicious or malicious frights, they definitely take it to the next level of haunted experiences. At the Nightmare Factory, there are rated-R hours after 10 p.m. clearly meant for older patrons, wherein performers are allowed to use adult language and they’re allowed to touch people. Folks can come to the Wilmington attraction with their families at their own discretion.
“We want to be more broad and more ‘Disney’ down here,” Yates jokes. “Because [Nightmare Factory] has a reputation of being very vicious, so with this, we let kids under 10 years old for free—but we’ve seen kids 5 and 6 years old walk right through it and then there are 40-year-olds that cry the whole way … it’s really a role of the dice.”
In addition to Morbid Wonders, Death Dance and Fear Show, all included in the $20 all-access admission (or purchased separately), Star Anderson is also on site throughout the month as the resident tarot-card reader. Typically found at the Juggling Gypsy on Thursday nights, she’s taking a hiatus from her normal post to offer $5 5-minute readings. Anderson’s been reading cards for more than 30 years and has been doing it professionally for about 15. For these “express readings,” she uses dragon cards.
“They don’t read the same,” she says. “Dragons, they’re very blunt. You don’t have to ask questions, you don’t even have to touch—which makes them good when doing mini-readings. That way they don’t get full of somebody’s energy.”
Fear Show is open through October 31, Thursday through Saturday nights from 7 p.m. until the last person has entered and exited.