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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.”

Glitter to Gore specializes in turning people into zombies — or artworks

It’s 5 p.m. on an October Saturday, and Michelle Soltis is waiting patiently for a gaggle of actors to come rushing in. Once that happens, things start to get really ugly.

Soltis and Dawn Marie Svanoe, partners in the Madison-based special effects makeup firm Glitter to Gore LLC, will have just two hours to turn 50-plus amateurs, professionals and just plain hangers-on into clowns, zombies and assorted dead and dismembered people for the evening’s performance at Screamin’ Acres, a seasonal haunted house attraction at Eugster’s Farm Market just west of Stoughton.

“We tell them 5 o’clock in order to get them made up in time for the 7 o’clock opening,” says Soltis, who with Svanoe has been creating beauty and horror with makeup since 2006. “But, well, they’re actors.”

To fill the time she begins a transformation process on husband Sid Soltis, whose burly frame, shaved head and foot-long black goatee make him the perfect choice for the character of Psycho the Clown. A set of contact lenses with alternating black-and-white circles begins the process in a startling way.

Sid smiles: “Just wait. It gets even better.”

Or, if you will, more horrible.

Soltis and Svanoe weren’t always professional makeup artists. Each came to find their passion via different routes.

Svanoe, a native of Loganville, moved to Madison in 1996 and got a job at Clownin’ Around, a former costume rental store in Middleton. She began doing freelance makeup on the side to augment her costuming experience.

Her assignments involved local theater work, including creating the makeup for Z-Town: The Zombie Musical, a locally developed stage production that has since moved on to productions elsewhere in the country.

One of Svanoe’s specialties is full-body painting, an art form not seen frequently in the colder northern climates, she says. It was a logical evolution of her face-painting background and is popular among models who want to showcase different looks in their portfolios.

“I wanted to work with a bigger canvas, which meant the whole body,” says Svanhoe, who planned to spend the Monday following her Screamin’ Acres assignment painting a model who came to Madison specifically to employ her services.

Soltis, who hails from Mishicot, started out studying aerospace engineering on an Air Force scholarship while doing modeling and makeup on the side. Eventually armed with an MBA from the University of Phoenix, she was overseeing the engineering standards database for Kraft Foods in Madison until 2008, when she was laid off during the recession.

“I always wanted to own my own business and figured that it was time get serious about makeup,” says Soltis. “We’re never going to get rich doing this, but we’re having an awful lot of fun.”

Like Svanoe, Soltis does face and body paining, and the pair also do bridal and runway model makeup, airbrush and glitter tattoos, and other related services. Soltis also is one of only two Wisconsin artists with an international certification in artistically applying henna, a type of organic dye used to create temporary body art, popular in India.

But Glitter to Gore’s accomplishments have become more than the sum of its parts. They are Madison’s only body art specialists and have Wisconsin’s, if not the Midwest’s, widest range of makeup services, including online sales at glittertogore.com.

Their work involves more than making actors look spooky. This summer, they were contracted to provide makeup for a mass casualty simulation drill at Dane County Regional Airport, training federal authorities including FBI and NSA officers how to deal with a crisis situation.

On this night, however, Svanoe and Soltis were concerned with the undead and the other denizens of Screamin’ Acres — including Svanoe herself, who planned on joining the artists for the night.

“Stop by later,” she says. “I’d love to scare you.”

Screamin’ Acres

The idea for Screamin’ Acres, a horror complex on a family farm, was hatched three years ago by Jacob Eugster, just 14 years old at the time. Since then, Eugster’s haunted house has grown to a three-facility complex that this year raised $5,000 for Madison’s Henry Vilas Zoo and is attracting record crowds.

“We had 850 people through here last night,” says Michelle Soltis, whose firm has become a Screamin’ Acres sponsor. “That’s a really big crowd for us.”

For $20, or $30 for a line-hopper fast pass, visitors wind their way through three distinct environments, as well as a “haunted cornfield” with no end of surprises. 

Each environment comes with a backstory. The Slaughterhouse offers the story of a possessed butcher who takes his frustration out on those around him, complete with the sights — and smells — of his carnage. The Last Resort contains the remnants of the country home of a doctor imprisoned for his experimentation on human beings, with examples still haunting the corridors.

The attraction’s most interesting building may be Side Effects, a unique 3D experience where, thanks to black lights and 3D glasses, the images jump off the walls and (thanks to special makeup) the actors as well. 

Screamin’ Acres is open 7-11 p.m. each Friday and Saturday in October, including Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. For details and directions, visit screaminacres.com.

Researcher: Zombie fads peak with societal unhappiness

Zombies seem to be everywhere these days.

In the popular TV series “The Walking Dead,” humans struggle to escape from a pack of zombies hungry for flesh. Prank alerts have warned of a zombie apocalypse on radio stations in a handful of states. And across the country, zombie wannabes in tattered clothes occasionally fill local parks, gurgling moans of the undead.

Are these just unhealthy obsessions with death and decay?

To Clemson University professor Sarah Lauro, the phenomenon isn’t harmful or a random fad, but part of a historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval.

Lauro, who teaches English at Clemson, studied zombies while working on her doctoral degree at the University of California-Davis. Lauro said she keeps track of zombie movies, TV shows and video games, but her research focuses primarily on the concept of the “zombie walk,” a mass gathering of people who, dressed in the clothes and makeup of the undead, stagger about and dance.

It’s a fascination that, for Lauro, a self-described “chicken,” seems unnatural. Disinterested in violent movies or games, Lauro said she finds herself now taking part in both in an attempt to further understand what makes zombie-lovers tick.

“I hate violence,” she said. “I can’t stand gore. So it’s a labor, but I do it.”

The zombie mob originated in 2003 in Toronto, Lauro said, and popularity escalated dramatically in the United States in 2005, alongside a rise in dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

“It was a way that the population was getting to exercise the fact that they felt like they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration,” Lauro said. “Nobody really wanted that war, and yet we were going to war anyway.”

The mid- to late 2000s also saw an uptick in overall zombie popularity, perhaps prompted in part by the release of post-apocalyptic movies including “Dawn of the Dead” and “28 Days Later.”

As of last year, Lauro said, zombie walks had been documented in 20 countries. The largest gathering drew more than 4,000 participants at the New Jersey Zombie Walk in Asbury Park, N.J., in October 2010, according to the Guinness World Records.

“We are more interested in the zombie at times when as a culture we feel disempowered,” Lauro said. “And the facts are there that, when we are experiencing economic crises, the vast population is feeling disempowered. … Either playing dead themselves … or watching a show like ‘Walking Dead’ provides a great variety of outlets for people.”

But, Lauro pointed out, the display of dissatisfaction isn’t always a conscious expression of that feeling of frustration.

“If you were to ask the participants, I don’t think that all of them are very cognizant of what they’re saying when they put on the zombie makeup and participate,” she said. “To me, it’s such an obvious allegory. We feel like, in one way, we’re dead.”