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BE VERY AFRAID ; Catacombs frightener relies on timing, improv [Evansville Courier & Press (IN)]

October 20, 2013


While dressed in a welder's mask for his role, Vance Voyles waits for groups of people to walk through his dark corridor in the Olde Courthouse Catacombs on Fourth and Vine streets. Hiding in the shadows, he looks for two types of targets: high-nosed scare connoisseurs swaggering by, and meeker visitors burying their heads in companions' shoulders. Once the whole group is in his vicinity, Voyles sneaks up to his targets, distracted by flashing lights and disturbing props. Then, he yells.

And he elicits screams.

"All you gotta do is say boo most of the time," Voyles said. "They just all, like a domino effect, try to crawl out of the house.

"Then I think, 'I did a good thing just now.'"

Voyles works as an actor for the Olde Catacombs and House of Lecter haunted houses, businesses of the "dark entertainment" variety as coined by Phil Wolter, the manager and designer of both productions. Since 1980, Wolter has helmed these productions, each year spicing them up with a new theme. The current theme is Bates Motel, inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho." As every year, Wolter established this year's theme while last year's production was still playing. Then he starts his research.

"I probably viewed it five or six times to pick up all the things I wanted to make," he said.

Choosing to re-create the movie's most famous shower scene, Wolter and his co-workers spent most of the year drawing, painting and building several sets to replicate specific shots from the scene. Set, sound and lighting all work together to scare customers primed for fright.

While waiting in line, customers interact with characters such as the Grim Reaper. After they enter the catacombs Wolter has memorized during his lengthy career, the thrill seekers tour the sets, which include a room of chains where a man might be shackled.

The House of Lecter on 325 Main Street boasts its own sets, such as its traditional black vortex tunnel.

Near the end of the catacombs, customers see a miniature of the Bates Motel far off on a hill, made in eleven layers to capture the depth as if they were walking up to the hotel. A couple dozen dim LED lights strategically placed around the motel portray nighttime.

Deafening composed and licensed music strikes visitors' ears. Water falls in small streams from a drain pipe, simulating rain. The entire room is black and light blue, mimicking Hitchcock's blackand-white film. Nearby, an animatronic old lady rocks in her chair.

"Your senses are heightened, you're disorientated, a light turns on and a live-action person is in your face," Wolter said.

Actors such as Voyles are key to the experience, Wolter said, as they portray the horrific characters. Among the cast will be Norman Bates, the owner-manager of Bates Motel. Each year, Wolter hires about 90 to 100 actors, who meet for two weeks before the show to rehearse in workshops. There, they learn the keys to horror performance, such as repetition, timing and improvisation.

While Wolter creates roles with specific directions for actors to follow, they still have room to flex their acting. In Voyles' case, he rattles chains to scare most groups and if he sees the same group at a later time, he hides elsewhere. Then, when they approach, he pops out to scare them when they aren't expecting him.

Some customers hyperventilate from the claustrophobic hallways or exhibit similar symptoms. Voyles said actors will drop out of character and offer to guide that person through special hallways exiting the building.

Though Wolter recommended parents use their personal judgment, he emphasized that his productions are family entertainment. Of the many customers that he and his supervisors survey while they leave, several were families.

"I'm in the entertainment business, not the scare business," Wolter said.

Of course, not everyone gets frightened. If fear fails, Voyles or other actors may surprise visitors.

"If you can't make' em scream, make 'em laugh," Voyles said.

Combo tickets are $20 for tours in both the Olde Catacombs and House of Lecter and $12 separately for each. Both productions run from 7 to noon

Friday and Saturday and 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday and Sunday each weekend until November 2.

After shows end, Voyles is often exhausted, his throat dry from the constant screaming in the hot underground. He and the other employees will sometimes eat at Denny's to cool down, hang out and catch up.

"It's like being a superhero," Voyles said. "By day I'm a Target salesman, and by night I'm scaring people."

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