MARQUETTE HEIGHTS — Those seeking out a frightening time this Halloween season will most likely visit Spook Hollow in Marquette Heights to experience heart stopping moments of horror.
It would be easy to assume that the Marquette Heights Men's Club, which creates Spook Hollow every year, simply loads up the indoor facility and the outdoor forest with an assortment of creepy items, rigs up some heinous looking mannequins and strategically places a few actors to jump out of nowhere to scare people.
But there's an intricacy behind every aspect of Spook Hollow that is conceptualized months ahead of time and then implemented for maximum effect — and many screams of horror. The scares prey on claustrophobia, darkness and bursts of light, and on misdirection. A person will walk past a small open window, expecting the worst but only see an immobile dummy. Before the sigh of relief can even register, a second window obscured in darkness springs to life with a costumed actor popping out of nowhere.
There's even a psychology to it, said Mike Mathias, one of the Men's Club members. One solitary doll might not scare anyone. But a room full of dolls?
“You’d be amazed how many people are afraid of dolls,” Mathias said.
Spook Hollow began in 1979 in the most inauspicious of ways. The Marquette Heights Little League baseball season was drawing to a close with an end-of-the-year cookout. Some of the parents thought it would be fun to do something "spooky" in the nearby trees. Initially called Spooky Hollow, it was only a path 10 feet long in a short patch of woods near the baseball fields. A couple of parents put on Halloween masks and yelled "boo!" at the passing kids.
Since then, the frights have grown exponentially, even though the name lost a "y" and contracted down to Spook Hollow. The current tour takes about an hour to go through, starting in M.C. Manor, sprawling out into the nearby woods, then back to the industrial confines of M.C. Nightmare before ending back out in the woods.
The legend states that an old man named M.C. — named after the Men's Club — lived in a rundown Victorian mansion, M.C. Manor, and owned a decrepit factory, M.C. Nightmare. Both are labyrinths of doors and passageways, chock full of the supernatural, the gruesome and the downright creepy.
Very little remains the same from year to year in terms of the layout. Mathias and the rest of the Men's Club tinker with ideas and rearrange the route to ensure a special and new experience for those that attend.
Last year, there was a Santa room with the mounted heads of all the reindeer on the walls; this year brings a nefarious greenhouse setting to the factory. A horde of scary clowns makes an appearance every year, but this fall's presence of the clowns at the factory will take on even more significance after the runaway box office success of the clown movie "It."
“The maintenance crew at M.C. Nightmare are a bunch of clowns … literally," Mathias said.
Devising all of the minor details and elements at Spook Hollow has elicited an enthusiastic ingenuity from the Men's Club. Any item could be of value for Spook Hollow: old lockers, busted water heaters, drum pedals. Members of the Men's Club will attend auctions all year to unearth more weird items to add to the haunted decor. One of those prized auction acquisitions was a framed, real-life registered embalmer license that now hangs on a wall in M.C. Manor.
The authenticity of the scares has attracted thousands of people over the years. Spook Hollow's stature has grown to the point where the lines to get in on a given weekend might be three hours long. More than 10,000 people went through Spook Hollow last year, and organizers expect a similar tally again this year.
With attendance soaring, the little scares that started as Spooky Hollow in 1979 have become a major fundraiser for the Marquette Heights community. The fruits of Spook Hollow can be seen all around the facility: the gazebo, the pavilion, the walking trail, the dog park. Just last year, the proceeds from Spook Hollow went to purchasing a new SUV for the Marquette Heights Police Department. Though it's an official police vehicle, it also bears the Spook Hollow mummy logo as a reminder of the SUV's origins.
“It was my love of Halloween and scary things that turned into me being a presence in my community,” said Mathias, who goes by "Zombie Mike" because he used to work third shift. Working at Spook Hollow for the last decade has now turned into a family affair for him and his children and a source of pride as he looks around at the improvements to Marquette Heights.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.