You know a giant scary monster can hatch out of a tiny egg? That's the story of Frightworld, America's Screampark.
It began 16 years ago as a back yard haunted house. Every year, it grew. Now, still locally owned, it boasts five houses of horrors: the Eerie State Asylum; Camp Massacre; Grind House; Insanity; and the dreaded Night Stalkers. Horror connoisseurs rate Frightworld among the best haunts in the entire nation. One list on the website Buzzfeed put it as No. 3.
What's its secret?
It could be that Western New York creativity -- plus the amount of junk we have floating around. The flotsam and jetsam used in Frightworld fills 30 50-foot trailers. The Eerie State Asylum boasts actual castoff equipment from Erie County Medical Center.
It could be our local theater prowess. Eighty to 100 actors, some from Niagara University, prowl Frightworld's ominous halls.
Beyond that -- well, let's dare to find out.
Frightworld moves around, depending on where there's room. Right now it is in Tonawanda, in the old BJ's Wholesale Warehouse, 800 Young St.
Not wanting to brave it alone, I took my friend Tracy, a nurse. We are both girly girls, though, and preparing to enter Grind House, we hesitated.
With good reason. Hardly had we walked in when something jumped out at us and shrieked. Spotting a doorway with tattered curtains, we ran through it, and out leaped a psychopath with an ax.
"Get out!" he screamed.
Room gave way to room. Who knew this place could be so huge? It was full of decayed oddments: old sinks, telephones, road signs, funky couches. Later we laughed about that with two 20-somethings we met in there, Brook Zdrojewski and Alexander Hall.
"It looks like my house," Hall joked.
Tracy told me later that after Grind House, she wanted to call it quits. But she said nothing at the time, and so she wound up in the asylum, which was worse. Bodies on tables, operations gone awry, muttering patients -- this is no place for a nurse.
Insanity came next.
The Buffalo Bills happened to be visiting, escorting kids from the Boys and Girls Club. We saw them encouraging a timid kid. The boy was afraid to walk through the door, and we found out why.
You squeeze in darkness through a claustrophobia-inducing squeegee tunnel that, after an eon, spits you out into a maze -- a warren of rooms and chain-link fence. Strobe lights flash and you run into fogs of fuchsia and electric blue. In an ingenious touch, an air raid siren blares unceasingly, over and over. The stress is unbelievable.
In one room, two creatures cornered us and blocked our way out. Next, another goblin chased us through three rooms, as we ran screaming.
In a green mist, we were able to make out Hall and Zdrojewski, from Grind House.
Zdrojewski gasped, "Oh, my God, I'm going to pass out."
Stuck in a blind alley, we shuddered as a huge shape took form in the fog. To our relief it morphed into Bills linebacker Deon Lacey.
"That a dead end?" he yelled over the siren. We yelled back yes.
He turned, joined by fellow linebacker Tanner Vallejo, whose No. 40 jersey was flashing crazily. We lurched after them, bumping into them, stepping on their feet. If we were going to be lost in this maze of monsters, better to be lost with these two giant Bills. How long the group of us stumbled around, I will never know. But after a final twist, a stunning surprise involving neon stick figures, we were finally free.
"It was hard, but it was fun," Lacey said. "The only time I was scared was when the faces jumped out at me." Did I mention the faces?
Each haunt has emergency exits in case you need to bail. That thought comforted me in Night Stalkers -- a strange place in which each group gets a flashlight -- but they control the flashlight. Tracy took our flashlight. I followed, cringing.
I kept putting off Camp Massacre. It's inspired by a slasher movie, and I was afraid I'd see gore.
But when we ventured in, I was fascinated.
It looked exactly like outdoors. There were corn stalks, trees, a rope bridge, a real waterfall. And I know this is hard to believe, but at one point, you realized you were up to your waist in water. You weren't wet but ... it sure looked like water. A hand came out of the water -- aiiiiieee! But the effect was breathtaking.
No wonder I was cornered by the machete-wielding madman. He backed me up against a fence and brought his masked face close to mine.
"Hrmph, hrmph, hrmph," he murmured. So creepy!
But not as creepy as what happened at the end. A ghost sneaked up behind me and --
"Mary!" he yelled.
I went flying out of that campground.
Whatever that thing was, it must have heard Tracy talking to me. That was when I suddenly guessed Frightworld's secret.
The folks there get the details right. They do it with flair, humor and originality. And -- dare I say it? -- taste. Chilling as the place was, I saw nothing demonic or disturbing.
To create a respected haunted house within those parameters, that is talent.
It's famous, but our fun house still has its sense of fun.
Story topics: Frightworld