'Everybody likes to be scared': Spook Hollow brings 45 years of frights to Marquette Heights
Halloween is just around the corner and a chill is in the air. It seems like the perfect time to seek out some scares. If you’re new to the area, Marquette Heights’ Spook Hollow may be just the place.
The Marquette Heights Men's Club of Central Illinois started Spook Hollow 45 years ago. Actor and trainer Mike Mathias said it started as a way to keep dads busy at the end of Little League season.
“It kind of grew from there, a lot of those parents were members of the Jaycees,” he said. “The problem with the Jaycees is, once you hit the age of 37, you age out.”
So, Spook Hollow became the purview of the Men's Club.
Since the beginning, the haunt has grown to three distinct areas: the woods, MC Manor and MC Nightmare. MC stands for Montgomery Crescent, the boogeyman of Spook Hollow and founder of the mythical Crescent Coal Mine. "Manor" is his home and "Nightmare" is his industrial plant.
Dale Hamm does marketing and safety for the haunted attraction. He said going through the whole thing takes about 45 minutes.
“We actually start planning for next year’s Spook Hollow now,” Hamm said. “We’ll start building and redoing rooms inside the building, usually we start about March.”
It's a lot of work for an entirely volunteer crew. It's not just the construction, it's also building the mythos and inhabitants of Spook Hollow: an abandoned mining town plagued by mysterious death and corrupt overseers.
It's home to characters like Mathias' threatening foreman Elias Grim.
“Most people, they don’t have a work ethic, they’re not very bright,” grumbles Mathias in character as Grim during our interview. “So I’m constantly having to deal with stupidity.”
Then there’s very different characters, like Mathias’ fun-loving goofball Randy.
The characters go beyond your typical haunted house archetypes. Mathias said volunteers participate in a day-long "scare school" that usually runs twice a year.
The school works on the psychology of scare acting.
“You know, why are people scared? What scares people? How to effectively scare people,” Mathias said. “Also, in that, we work on character development. You know, who are you? Why are you motivated to do the thing you do? How do you move? Everything from how do you move to how do you use the space that you’re in?”
He might take the actors through the haunt, place them in different rooms and say, "How would you use this space? What could the scenario be here?"
It's a mix of lecture and hands-on experience, as the volunteers at Spook Hollow can range from seasoned haunt pros to newcomers to the craft.
While Mathias handles the frights, Hamm handles the safety.
“We want to make sure that every room, whether it’s in the house or in the woods, when our actors are working or a patron goes through, is safe for them,” he said. “We don’t want anybody hurt.”
Community first responders also are deeply involved in ensuring the safety of the haunt: Hamm saids the local volunteer fire department and police department are both staged near the attraction, just in case.
It also means occasionally addressing unruly patrons.
At this point, the haunt is a community fixture, and it gives back to the community as well. Mathias saids all of the proceeds from the event are donated.
“Be it to our volunteer fire department, our police department, our schools, scouting organizations, food bank, things of that nature,” he said.
Spook Hollow also might specifically raise funds for a community member going through financial or medical issues, depending on the year. It's all part of being a community and family-focused attraction.
The close ties extend to the staff, too. Hamm's wife and son are involved with Spook Hollow, while Mathias' wife, son and daughter also help out.
Mathias said one family has more than 15 members regularly involved, from the grandparents to the grandkids.
“Because we live this 24/7,” he said. “To us, Halloween isn’t just a day. It’s not even a month, it’s a lifestyle.”
There's no denying it's a lot of work. But Mathias and Hamm said it's worth it for the thrill of the scare.
“To me, it’s kind of the core of Halloween ...,” Mathias said. “Is the idea of just being able to be someone and something else for a little bit. Step out of that societal mold you’re already in.”
“And, well, let’s be honest,” Hamm added. “Everybody likes to be scared.”
Spook Hollow is winding down its season, but you have one more opportunity to see the sights this weekend. It's open from 7 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Make sure to arrive early — the haunt saw more than 2,700 guests last Saturday and wait times peaked at multiple hours. Tickets start at $30.
This weekend also features a visit from CJ Graham, the actor who played Jason Voorhees in part six of the "Friday the 13th" franchise. He'll be doing a meet and greet, and will sign things for a fee.
You can find more information about Spook Hollow on their website.