Wisconsin Feargrounds: frightful fun

Tim Gavinski’s livelihood depends upon what happens during 14 days of frightening work this month.

He has built a production that requires 152 paid actors and 12 makeup artists, plus dozens of other support staff. The stage is 58,000 square feet of the Waukesha Expo Center. The theme is fear and suspense.

During the duration of this drama, 12 sheriff’s deputies watch action unfold on closed-circuit monitors. Two emergency medical technicians stay on call until each day’s work ends, usually after midnight.

“2 MUCH FEAR 4 U,” a promo suggests, and the intent is to sneak right up to boundaries of personal intolerance. When a bell clangs, it means someone new has raised his hands and declared, “I quit.”

It happens.

Only 12 attractions nationwide earn an America’s Best Haunts seal this year, and Wisconsin Feargrounds is one of them. Judges evaluate the operator’s commitment to safety, attention to details, fear factors and more.

Tim has consulted fire marshals and building inspectors at least four times this season. Workers go through evacuation drills and learn to use fire extinguishers, even though 150-plus gallons of flame retardants cover the quartet of Feargrounds attractions: Morgan Manor, Morgan’s Torment, Morgana’s Labyrinth of Misery and Unstable.

Since 2003, Tim and wife Ann Marie have spent much of their time figuring out how to turn exhibit areas (first at Walworth County Fairgrounds, then the Expo Center) into convincingly creepy Victorian mansions and stables. He builds what they imagine and she orchestrates the operation.

A half-dozen training sessions for actors were completed before October arrived. Ann Marie has a master’s degree in psychology and also works at the 24-hour call center of an employee assistance program, but for her husband, fright is a full-time and year-round job.

Their first haunt was a $55,000 investment, but “today that won’t get you inside a door,” asserts Tim, an Army veteran. “You need to be in the high six-figure range.”

He classifies their initial attempt, called House of Darkness, as an enthusiastic but simplistic venture into the world of terror. Too many straightforward vampires, he says. “That’s OK when you’re at a bar on Halloween, but when people are paying, they expect more.”

Why hire sheriff’s deputies? “When people get scared, they either want to run away or fight,” Tim explains. “We have a zero tolerance policy – you don’t touch the monsters” or cause harm in other ways.

He grew up in Milwaukee during the 1960s, “when trick-or-treating still happened at night” and children with innocently bad behavior were rewarded with candy.

“One razor blade in an apple changed everything,” Tim laments, and he never lost his passion for Halloween. Example: spending Halloween night in 1984 at Castle Frankenstein (the reported inspiration for author Mary Shelley’s iconic character) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The Gavinskis teach their peers an eight-hour class on the business of haunting, which includes advice about building budgets and business plans. “We’ll teach them how and why to account for everything they buy, down to the last screw,” says Ann Marie, who also teaches marketing and psychology of fear classes.

The couple this year donated a 1986 Cadillac hearse for an International Association of Haunted Attractions fundraiser. The group’s 400 members represent all 50 states and several other countries. Tim is a former president.

One of the Gavinskis’ earlier creations was sold and moved to Ohio in 2009, where it makes up the core of the Scare-A-Torium in Columbus.

These actions speak to the cooperative spirit of the frightful businesses. “Our competition isn’t each other,” Ann Marie says. It’s movie theaters and sporting events that eat the free time of their prospective audience.

Tim already is designing next year’s Waukesha attractions. The couple routinely scours antique and resale stores for strange and gory props.

A late addition this year is a disgustingly dank and charming chapel that will host a wedding ceremony Oct. 31. “Two pews come from the Mormons, one from the Catholics and one from the Lutherans,” Tim says.

Elsewhere, facial expressions change from staid to eerie in a gallery of lenticular portraits. We gingerly veer past an exploding toilet, a blood-smeared nursery, the makings for out-of-control horses, a stuffed panda bear that sways with a 13-knot noose around its neck.

Room after room after room holds the means to surprise, scare and sicken. A little latex, brown paint and varnish does wonders to make a plastic skeleton look like a decaying body.

Wisconsin Feargrounds is full of other secrets and tricks of the trade. What we have, Tim says, is the potential for a great date night because of all the spontaneous clinging and clutching that result.

When strangers wonder how odd the Gavinskis must be, for conjuring up such repulsive ideas. Tim shrugs and seems amused. “We’re pretty average,” he says. “I was raised Catholic, got married in St. Joe’s Basilica” in Milwaukee – and just happens to have found a way to make Halloween last all year.

Wisconsin Feargrounds at the Waukesha Expo Center, 1000 Northview Rd., Waukesha, is open every weekend this month and on select Sundays and weeknights. Allow at least 90 minutes to see all four attractions.

Box office hours are 6:45-11:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $30 at the door (save $5 by printing an online coupon). For more: www.wisconsinfeargrounds.com, 262-547-6808.

By coincidence, Matt Mars – a childhood friend of Tim Gavinski’s, operates the Burial Chamber Haunted Complex at 500 N. Lake St., Neenah. It includes haunted woods, two haunted houses and four-minute burial simulations (for people who want to feel what it’s like to be buried alive). For more: www.burialchamber.com, 920-727-4669.

Mike “Tattoo” Krausert, co-owner of Green Bay’s Terror on the Fox haunt (www.terroronthefox.com, 920-430-1844), is vice president of the International Association of Haunted Attractions. For details about other haunted houses and Halloween attractions in Wisconsin, check out www.hauntedwisconsin.com.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.