Editor’s note: Laura Jackson Roberts loves a new adventure. And in that vein, we’ve started our occasional “FRIDAY TRYDAY” series, where she will be trying out and sharing with readers a variety of experiences. Today, she gets the crap scared out of her. Come along …
Sean Cooley is a local entrepreneur with a desire to terrorize customers. But that’s OK, because his customers are seeking that very thing when they visit his new haunted attraction. Infernum in Terra, which means Hell on Earth, is located at 4302 Jacob St. in South Wheeling. It opened on Friday the 13th this month for its inaugural haunting season.
AN ARTIST AT WORK
As a young man growing up in Mozart, Cooley had a talent for art that grew over the years into his current business, Screamation Studios. Thus, the first things you’ll notice when you enter the building are the masks on display in the lobby. Cooley makes them himself and sculpts his own molds, a talent he picked up naturally.
“Back in 2015, I decided to start making Halloween props for myself,” he said. “I always did it for our Halloween parties and stuff like that. And people were like, ‘Oh, you should do that for a living.’ So I bought a mask kit and made my first mask, and it turned out OK. It was my very first time sculpting. And then I started going to Halloween conventions and selling my products there.” Some of Cooley’s masks are for sale in the Infernum in Terra gift shop. He also creates custom masks.
He made the jump to horror on a grand scale a few years ago. While he was working at Lowe’s, he contacted the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. They were interested in buying his props for their annual Dungeon of Horrors Halloween attraction and ultimately offered him a position working on it and performing maintenance.
“They gave me the opportunity to redesign their entire haunted house, because it was in need of a makeover, and some things needed upgraded,” he said. “It’s a fairly costly endeavor if you go to redo an entire haunted house. And they gave us the budget, and we made it work and redesigned … about 95 percent of their haunted house. And then they were ranked seventh in the country, according to [the website] The Scare Factor.”
THE BIRTH OF A HELLHOUSE
Last year, Cooley and his wife Johanna found themselves staring at the empty Chris Miller building on Market Street. He remembered their conversation:
“She said, ‘We should call and see how much they want for the building.’ I said, ‘What for?’ And she said, ‘So you can open your haunted house.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. I can’t have my own haunted house.’”
But that’s exactly what happened when he found the building on Jacob Street. The property itself didn’t cost much, but improvements included a fire suppression system, alarm system and a new stairway, a large investment. Cooley believes the building was once a butcher shop.
A haunted attraction has a lot of moving parts — literally. While visitors tend to focus on props and the actors that jump out at guests, the whole show is run from a computer program in Cooley’s office.
“It’s called Venue Magic,” he said. “The system is the same system that Disneyland uses and Universal Studios uses to run their stuff, and I use it in my haunted house.”
MY CREEPY PRIVATE TOUR
Cooley took me through his haunted house, telling me about the show guests will experience as well as his process of construction and design. In keeping with the feel of the old warehouse, the theme of the tour is that guests are new hires for a construction company working on the building. They file in, get oriented, and shuffle past lockers and desks. But then, the experience takes a dark turn. It turns out that the new hires aren’t going to be getting out of the job alive. Not even in one piece, in many cases.
I got to go through the attraction twice. The first time, the lights were off, but the show wasn’t running, so I had time to look at details. I saw a shrunken head and a lamp with a fetal pig floating in it. I met Jason, the 3-foot python, sitting on a shelf. (Jason stays safely in his cage during tours. But he’ll be watching you.) There were so many gory heads and legs and skeletons and props that I lost count, but the details were remarkable, so much so that I’m glad I had the time to look carefully at each one and appreciate how talented their creators are.
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Not every scare comes in the form of a creepy doll or a lurking actor. In various places, you have to crouch and a hallway narrows awkwardly until you’re more than a little squeezed. More importantly, you never know what’s lurking in the next room, and the rooms get more elaborate and frightening as you work your way through. Your final destination is, of course, the inferno itself, where fog blasts and demons wait.
After Cooley gave me the first tour, we went down to his office to fire up the program so I could experience it with the lights and sounds.
And this is where it gets a little embarrassing for me.
We took the second tour more quickly, and I followed my host as closely as I could. Even when he warned me something was going to happen, I still jumped.
And then, suddenly, Cooley had to run downstairs. A certain light wasn’t working, and he needed to restart the show. He said he’d be right back and disappeared into the maze. I stood there in the dark, with a tiny flashlight, while the house howled and wailed around me.
I admit it: I was scared.
My family really loves Halloween, and I am their favorite target. So my first thought was that this was an elaborate ruse to give me a true Infernum in Terra experience. But then I realized he really did have to reboot his system, and then all the lights and screams shut off. The silence was deafening. Cooley couldn’t have been gone for more than four minutes, but it was a long four minutes.
When the system started up again, the first sound I heard was a theatrically creaking door. Then, it roared back into horrific life. And I screamed a little.
When he came back, I almost hugged him. And then I composed myself and commented on how realistic everything looked and what fine craftsmanship was evident in the demonic babydoll heads hanging from the ceiling.
In all seriousness, when you visit Infernum in Terra, try to take a few moments to notice such things. Cooley has put his heart and soul into this experience, and it’s evident in the attention to detail. Some of the props are his own creations and have traveled with him over the years to Halloween conventions. His wife Johanna painted the dolls.
Cooley’s attraction is populated by 23 actors, some as young as 16. He put out a call in August for actors and makeup artists. The response was positive.
“Some of them, it’s their first year. We got a lot of new actors from here in the city. People haven’t had the opportunity to do anything like this,” he said.
What’s his favorite part of the job?
“I enjoy seeing other people’s reactions,” he said. “Very rarely [do] I get startled or anything when I go through a haunted house.”
THE GORY DETAILS
For the 2019 Halloween season, Infernum in Terra will be open Fridays and Saturdays in September and Friday-Sunday each weekend in October, plus Halloween night. In addition to the Halloween season, Cooley is planning a Christmas show, a St. Patrick’s Day show and a show next summer. The house is a full-time endeavor, one he’s happy to be busy with and one he hopes will continue.
In October, Dixie’s Down Home Cooking food truck will be parked beside Infernum in Terra so you can enjoy a last meal before your descent into hell. Tickets are available at the door starting at 6:30 p.m., and the box office stays open until 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 plus tax, and coupons are available at both Spirit Halloween stores (The Highlands and St. Clairsville), Party City in St. Clairsville, Dugger’s Market on 29th Street, the Sunoco on 29th Street and KFC in Benwood. The recommended age for this attraction is 13 and older. Parental discretion is advised.
Infernum in Terra features free parking, restrooms/porta-potties onsite, food/concessions, gift shop/souvenirs, original characters, uncovered outdoor waiting line, covered outdoor waiting line, all-indoor attraction. You will not be touched by the actors.
*A huge thank you to Sean Cooley for the time he spent with me.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in Wheeling, West Virginia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University and serves as the Northern Panhandle representative of West Virginia Writers. Her hobbies include hiking, travel and rescuing homeless dogs. Visit her at laurajacksonroberts.com.