A Visit to the HOUSE OF DOLLS
In rural northern Alabama, in October, the weather is still warm if not downright hot, but the leaves are starting to change. The sunlight comes in at a slight slant. The cornfields are full, the stalks high. Pumpkins are for sale in the local supermarkets. And for every lover of things dark and horrific–and at Halloween, who ISN’T a fan?–there’s a little, ever-present shiver of anticipation that races up and down the spine. As they do across the country and in many places around the world, folks in these parts start looking for some cool, creepy fun. Haunted houses pop up in almost every town, haunted corn mazes, ghost walks and cemetery strolls. It’s a Horror lover’s smorgasbord, but some of those attractions offered are of infinitely better quality than others. It is its own special kind of disheartening to pay good money for a haunt and end up leaving disappointed.
Courtland is one of those charming small communities that are a dime a dozen in the South. For someone who’s never been there, driving to, and through, it at night, with a little help from the imagination, it takes on a special, creepy vibe. You can’t get that in a big city. There’s a (admittedly false) sense of becoming isolated. (There’s a reason that THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE didn’t take place in Dallas, after all.) There aren’t many streetlights. As you follow the winding road and rumble across train tracks, there isn’t much traffic. All of this helps to set the proper mood.
Yeah, okay. I hear ya. Enough setting the table. What about the actual meal?
Each year for the past six, at Halloween time, the old Courtland high school building has served as home to the HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR, although owners Stephanie Jones and Brian Knipper work on the attraction year-round. As Knipper told me, “We start working, getting ready for next year’s season, on November 1st and keep at it.” Their dedication shows. The HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR is beautiful in its horribleness, a work of macabre majesty. There are walls that look to be carved of ancient stone, with skulls protruding, glaring at you as you wind your way through their corridors. The wooden floors shift beneath your feet.
Greasy glass panels in pockmarked, locked doors allow views into empty hallways, strewn with bloody rags, the walls blood-spattered. And, as this year’s theme is the HOUSE OF DOLLS (after a while with the same theme, Knipper told me they wanted to change things up a bit), there are dolls EVERYWHERE. They stare at you from niches in the aforementioned catacomb-like walls. They peer down at you from their perches in high recesses. They get their own room; there are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of them. Old, creepy, paint-flecking-faced dolls, staring unblinking, glassy-eyed.
(And as would seem obligatory to a place called ‘House of Dolls,” Annabelle puts in an appearance. A life-sized Annabelle. Is she real, a performer, or just a mannequin? Do you dare get close enough to find out?)
Don’t come to the HOUSE OF DOLLS if you suffer from pediophobia (the fear of dolls, not pedophiles). Or coulrophobia–there are clowns there, too. Lots and lots of clowns.
And they aren’t of the funny variety. “Two things guaranteed to scare people are clowns and dolls,” Jones said. Sure enough.
One of the workers, who greeted people as they entered the attraction, told me that, the week before, they’d had a grown man pee in his pants. They jokingly offer Depends undergarments to patrons, she said, but some people actually take them up on it.
Check out this photo of me with Twisty, along with local favorite “Dr. Trauma.”
So what’s inside the attraction, aside from the clowns and the dolls? There’s a train–or at least a speeding train LIGHT, complete with sound effects–speeding at you (considering that real train tracks run along outside the school building, with the occasional real train rumbling past, there’s an extra level of realism to it). There’s an electrical transformer arcing sparks, a smell of ozone in the air, and of course a guy strapped in an electric chair. (The guy in the chair is a mannequin, but the one torturing him is real, and “personable.”) One of my favorite areas was the “White Room,” where everything is covered with sheets–and some of those covered things move. As visitors pass through a dirty, dimly-lit church with moldy pews and an open casket–I’ll leave that part to your imagination.
Severed heads and spiderweb cocoons dangle from the ceilings. As you watch a video of a Leatherface impersonator cutting into a victim with his trusty chainsaw, you get sprayed with “blood.” And the performers, who are all volunteers, all committed to their roles, don’t treat the whole thing as a joke. They’re dedicated in their attempts to scare you.
That the HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR is a labor of love for the owners is obvious.
While so many of these yearly attractions seem thrown-together, offering a bare-minimum effort, you can tell Jones and Knipper really care about the experience they provide. To anyone in the southeast, I recommend seeking out this place. It’s worth the drive, you get your money’s worth–the attraction is HUGE, and if you don’t run through it (easier said than done for some people) it takes a while to see the entire thing, and, as stated, it has an atmosphere impossible to find in cities like Nashville or Atlanta. By all means, check this joint out. The dolls are waiting for you.