Jon Libbesmeier, founder of Gravensteen Haunted Productions, is serious when it comes to Halloween. His love for the holiday dates back to his childhood, when he spent his time trick-or-treating and scaring his neighbors. This holiday season, Libbesmeier and his company built a haunted house big enough to match his obsession.
Called “The Curse of Frau Meuller,” the haunted attraction has been a dream project for Libbesmeier, who has worked on the warehouse with a group of five other people consistently since May. Averaging about 50 hours a week, he and his team transformed three floors of a warehouse into a maze of terror.
The warehouse is filled with handmade creations built from wood, Styrofoam and paint, depicting tombstones, mausoleums and other Halloween frights. Throughout the three floors, the attraction is divided into various rooms, each with its own theme. Visitors cautiously creep from a graveyard with faces popping out of the ground to a farm with a pig’s head on the table.
The different scenes cover all major horror tropes, from creepy dolls to cannibalism. Scattered throughout are vignettes of scarecrows in cornfields, clowns in carnivals and pots of body parts in the kitchen.
“My favorite room is the Witch’s Room,” said manager Ryan McGrath. The scene is designed like a living-room and features a “witch” sitting in the center. “It’s one of the smallest rooms and it’s lit entirely by candlelight, so it’s really easy to freak out in there.”
He has gone to great lengths to make every detail of the warehouse as perfect as possible, including traveling to Atlanta for a Halloween convention to buy the best props.
“We even went to a farm in Frederick, [Md.], to get cornstalks for the farm scene. We really wanted the room to feel genuine–to look, feel and smell like the real thing,” he said.
These various scenes are tied together through a story of a murder in 1913 on the same ground that the warehouse was built on. Since then, the land has been cursed and has led to various murders that customers witness as they walk through the warehouse.
“So many other haunted houses don’t have a theme or story, and it’s like watching a movie with no plot…The story makes the audience feel part of the experience. They get connected to it,” Libbesmeier said.
Making sure the warehouse is a unique experience is one of Libbesmeier’s main goals, which is why he avoided depending on the same old, played out props. He wanted real people to create real scares, so he hired about 20 actors to dress up as clowns, demons and murderers and hide throughout the warehouse, pop out or just stand still and talk to the passersby.
“Having a $50,000 animatronics may be cute, but there always so obvious, and honestly make me cringe. A good actor can always get a bigger scare,” said Libbesmeier.
To make sure his actors are as scary as possible, each actor went through a short training, where Libbesmeier teaches them the art of scaring people. Each actor is encouraged to think out a background story and motivation for their character, as well as relate to the overall theme of the story.
“We want the actors to scare the people forward and get them running through the room,” said McGrath, who is partly in charge of the makeup and actors. “In training we teach them the right way to time their scare.”
The actors are also equipped with monster make-up from experienced makeup artists like McGrath, who paints on anything from fake blood to stitched-up scars.
“It’s really like a theatre stage,” said Amanda Shifflett, an actress who plays a cannibal in the gory kitchen scene. “Except instead of making people laugh or cry, your making them scream.”
While the journey may be horrifying, the results are surely not. A portion of the profits will be donated to Operation Rebound, a charity focused on helping disabled veterans live active lives. The Curse of Frau Meuller is located on 50 Florida Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20001 and is accessible from the D.C. Metro. The haunted house is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until November 2. Student tickets are $15.