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Terror abounds at the Wisconsin Fear Grounds

What’s the scariest haunted house in the country?

Ask a lot of people, and you’ll get a horror movie-ready response: right behind you.

The house in question is the Wisconsin Fear Grounds in Waukesha, which consistently ranks as one of the top haunted houses in the United States. Haunted Attraction magazine gave it the No. 1 spot for Wisconsin and the nation at large, while USA Today readers have placed it as high as second place in a still-ongoing contest.

For such a spooky place, the Fear Grounds started small. Husband and wife duo Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski started it all with an annual small spook house in their garage, for their neighbors, before making the big, scary investment.

“Tim was nearing retirement,” Ann Marie says. “And one day I asked him, ‘What’s next?’ Tim replied, ‘I want to start a haunted house.’”

In 2004, beginning with a $55,000 investment to build and a matching amount in advertising, they opened their first haunt — The House of Darkness — at the Walworth County Fairgrounds. The people’s need for entertainment that could provide fear-induced shots of adrenaline grew and the Gavinskis subsequently expanded to the Waukesha Expo Center.

When you visit the Fear Grounds, Ann Marie says, “You know you’re going to get a great scare. We put on a huge theatrical production. We have 100 monsters every single night.

“I would never ask our actors to do anything I wouldn’t do and we’ve done it all. I have to give credit to the great people who work here — we wouldn’t succeed without their dedication and willingness to come back year after year.”
The whole thing starts in August, when methodically packed trailers are unloaded and a crew of 12 carpenters assembles the four houses. The entire Fear Grounds encompass 55,000 square feet.

As there are multiple houses in one location, the Fear Grounds are more like a haunted sub-division. Compared to the 3,500 other haunted houses in the United States, it’s unique in that regard.

The Gavinskis recommend at least 90 minutes for the full set, if you can make it through them all.

No self-respecting modern haunt would be complete without zombies. So, if you have a thing for The Walking Dead, try out Revenge Paintball. It’s the chance to hone your zombie kill skills before the Apocalypse and a way to entertain kids under 10, who aren’t allowed into the haunted houses. 

If all the terror scares up your appetite, don’t worry. The Fear Grounds offer carnival-style food — including hamburgers, hot dogs, cider, popcorn and caramel corn.

The Fear Grounds are open Friday and Saturday through October, as well as Sunday, Oct. 25, and Thursday, Oct. 29. If you somehow miss that wide window, you can swing by Nov. 13. That’s when the Gavinskis will reopen the houses for the annual TransWorld & Netherworld Haunted House three-day Legendary Haunt Tour, and they’re inviting the public to join 7:30-9 p.m.

Ticket prices depend on which houses you want to enter and how fast you want to get to them all. Morgan Manor is $13, while Morgana’s Escape is $30. The Three-Hunt Combo Pass is $30 ($20 if you reserve tickets online and arrive between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.), but that requires you to wait in line, usually an hour or more. To skip the lines, you can get a Morgana Manor Speed Pass ($25) or Three-Hunt Combo Speed Pass ($45). To reserve tickets or for more details, visit wisconsinfeargrounds.com.

Fear Grounds Houses

Morgan Manor: All things ghoulish and terrifying orbit around Morgana and her eight sisters, who have a twisted thing for terrorizing people in their old Victorian manor. There are the obligatory jump-out-at-you moments of frightening fun — it’s a classic old-school haunt. One of the most startling moments occurs in the Green House.

Unstable: Grip your friend’s hand tightly and hurry through the dead cornstalks to the stables where the horses and barnyard animals are kept. Gentle reader, a spoiler alert: Make sure you’re into blood and gore before you embark.

CarnEvil of Torment: This “three ring circus of evil” is based on the premise of a traveling freak show of yesteryear. If you are at all claustrophobic or afraid of the dark, be forewarned: This house immerses you in total darkness and challenges you to work your way out of the obstacle course yourself (if you can’t handle it, just say, “I quit” and you will be escorted out, although you will have to pass through a personalized “Hall of Shame”).

Morgana’s Escape: The final house — new this year — is an interactive escape game. Fright seekers are locked in a room and given clues and puzzles. They must solve the riddles, locate three keys and unlock the doors or “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”