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Architects of Fear

“Rule No. 1 - don’t jump up and say, ‘Boo.’” This is what Liz Kline, sister of Gary Bingham – aka Dr. Screams, tells us before we’re sent onto the Trail of Terror portion of the experience in the woods to terrify the visitors/victims. We stand in full makeup, our faces look bloody and bruised like the skin has been ripped clean. Kline says, “I can’t really tell you how to scare people. You have 15 seconds to own the character. It’s all what you do with it. Sometimes you can scream or groan or make a sound that doesn’t sound human. Sometimes you can just stand there with a scary look on your face, make your movements unnatural. You can touch but don’t grab and be careful...don’t get hit.”

Solid advice but nothing truly prepares us like experience. Back in the woods, in the pitch black, crouched down behind trees and shrubs, waiting with adrenaline pumping, the sound of canned screams and eerie music piped out of loud speakers, waiting for shadows along the trail, waiting for the cue to rise from the underbrush, to steal the fear from these faceless gluttons for punishment. As they cross in front, we plunge forward, release a guttural scream, smack the low-hanging branches, blurt nonsensical words in a demonic voice, “Die you now!” And no one jumps, they barely move; one of them laughs.

We’re failures in the scare game. Until the next group comes down the path, we challenge ourselves to dig deep and find the intensity, the ferocity. We wait until the middle of the group is right in front of us. We growl, bend the small trees over, into the path, let the branches splash across the unsuspecting walkers. The girls sequel and clutch the guys. The guys’ mouths drop open, their eyes beam big and white like pairs of human flashlights in the dark. And we smile. But in this makeup, a smile is not comforting. It’s sadistic. Then, we get it – we own this character.

And that’s what happens year after year after year on the Grand Strand. These haunted houses rise up from seeming ashes and specters of closed businesses. But they’re not thrown together, spaghetti-in-a-bowl-called-guts kind of haunted houses. The owners and operators pour thousands of dollars into their productions – they come up with original storylines, create elaborate sets, design their own costumes, spend hours doing makeup, round up hundreds of volunteers who work tirelessly for hours each night. And for some this is a family business that’s been around for decades. This time of year as Halloween approaches, the Grand Strand is fortunate to have not one or two but a handful of engineers of horror and no shortage of horror fans to contribute to bringing these off-kilter architects’ vision to life - and we’ve gone undercover (literally) to find out what scaring the living crap out of the masses is all about.

Working stiffs?

Getting ready to work our first haunt, Heather Maxon applies our makeup in the women’s bathroom at the Myrtle Beach Speedway. There’s a female patron in one of the stalls and we lean over the sinks while Maxon slathers the red paint around every crease of our eyes, nose, ears. She tells us she just moved down from upstate New York, that she works at a hotel by day, that she’s working on an independent film on the side, and now she’s here doing makeup and playing a demented nurse at a haunted house. This is the way it seems to be, even if you’re new to the area – the geeks and freaks of the Grand Strand come together a couple of times a year. They converge for X-Con, the annual comic book/fantasy convention, and The Zombie Walk in the spring, and then meet again in October to work the haunted houses circuit. Kids and adults alike, who work in the restaurants and retail and hotels and students and anything else they can find. But this time of year…they’re demented clowns or psycho doctors or zombies or insane nurses or carnival show mutants.

Erika Ehrenford, promoter for Dr. Screams, comes into the bathroom, fixes her hair in the wall-sized mirror and says, “I’m getting the horse.” Maxon replies, “To do the headless horsewoman thing?” And Ehrenford shakes her head in the mirror, “Yep.” Maxon without breaking her stride on our makeup says, “I want to ride it…please, please, please mommy can I ride it?” And as simple as that, they have a new aspect to the show. With weeks to get everything together, they rely on volunteers and donations and favors. In the meantime, owners run around taking care of the logistics.

“It is so much more than putting on a mask,” the co-owner and operator of Terror Under the Bridge in Conway, Adrianne Anderson, says. “We start in the summer building, researching and collecting; permits, zoning, advertising, insurance, safety regulations and taking care of the behind-the-scenes work. Once October gets here, it is countless hours and energy. In this area, we have heard of budgets ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. We run completely on volunteers, many have been with us from the beginning, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, but they all love to scare and love to entertain people.” When we asked Anderson why she’d go through this every year, she responds, “We are gluttons for punishment...just kidding of is really a lot of fun and amazing to watch it come together. You do not go into a haunted house to make money, it is more about creating something different and awesome and the relationships you make. Not to mention that on a typical year we donate between $2,000 and $2,500 to Fostering Hope (which, according to its Web site, “provides goods and services to children residing in the foster care system in Horry, Georgetown, Marion, and Dillon Counties”) right before Christmas.”

Bingham/Dr. Screams is not only a master of horror – he’s a man of the community. He runs Savemore Superstore, The Bargain Warehouse, has endeavors in real estate, does several charity events each year, and starts working on the haunt in the summer as well – enlisting 25-30 people to help with the event in October. He says, “We literally work from sun-up to sun-down every day to make this happen. It takes tens of thousands of dollars to put on a successful event. We spend over $20K just in advertising. Is it worth it financially? Probably not, but the thousands of satisfied customers annually make it all worthwhile.”

Large conglomerates of the actors are returning members to these haunts. They come in while the sun is still up, hours before their first scare, to get suited-up, to prepare their characters for the night. Douan Bingham says, “Whether they’re blood or not, we consider all these people who work with us family.” And from haunt to haunt, this odd-collection of people, ranging in demographics, feels like a close-knit group. Gary Bingham says, “Volunteers come year after year to have fun. We compensate our actors with food and gas money. They just love to be a part of the event.”

Down on the Boulevard in Myrtle Beach at Nightmare Haunted House, because it is open most of the year, they push for a small group of professionals. Jeff Bracey, who’s in his fifth year at Nightmare, says, “The job is very demanding physically during the summer. It feels like running a marathon. The best employees are those who have prior experience at a good haunt or horror enthusiasts. You want people who love this stuff, the whole thing – the makeup, the costuming, the performance art of it. We want people who are passionate and committed. People who are able to create a character for themselves or build upon what we teach them. We have each developed a fan base for our efforts. They love us and we love them right back.” Before Bracey retreats to apply dead-man contacts, extended vampire fingers and bloody fangs, he says, “This is a job sure, but it’s also a labor of love for us. There are other reasons as well. I also get the benefit of using the actors and often fans of the haunt for my short films. Plus, it’s a free location for my shoot. I think for all of us, it’s in our blood. Each of us has always been a performer in one way or another and the Nightmare has become our stage, our creative outlet.” When he returns, staring through the dead-eye contacts, 12-inch dead fingers dangle, and he fights to talk through the fangs, “They cause my fingers to go numb but this is the price I pay for my art.”

Before our makeup and our pep talk at Dr. Screams, Kline explained to us the impact the Bingham family has had on the Grand Strand on Halloween. Her siblings, the Bingham Brothers, have been doing haunted houses since 1981. When they were kids in Wilmington, N.C., they set up off the side of their house and charged a quarter for their first haunted house. They started doing haunted houses in Myrtle Beach in 1994 but things really got going in 1998, when the Bingham Brothers stationed at the defunct Myrtle Beach Air Force Base where the title, Dr. Screams, was born. The brothers, who were always competitive, split into two groups in 2007. The two oldest, Gary and Jay, stayed with Dr. Screams and the youngest, Douan, started Visions of Horror which is housed at Broadway at the Beach this year. But both groups are a family affair. Their sister, mother, and the children (from grown-up kids to toddlers), all work the haunted houses and Douan Bingham is still connected to the business side of Dr. Screams. But there are extreme differences in style. Kline says, “Douan’s Visions of Horror is more of a theatrical production and Gary goes for the classic scare.”

But the Binghams don’t have the only long-running franchise on fear. Conway’s Terror Under the Bridge is going into its 7th year of doing dirt. And two haunts operate almost year-round on the Boulevard – Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and Nightmare Haunted House. All have crews work their chainsaws off, trying to create something special and new. So we have to ask…

What’s the story, morning gory?

The key to any good haunt is the storyline. The story brings the characters to life, makes the customers feel like they’re part of something larger than a quick scare. The story transforms it from being a bunch of people in sweaty costumes into an experience. What does each of these haunts bring to the table? Let’s investigate.

Dr. Screams 4D Ride of Your Death and Trail of Terror is taking on a whole new element this year – Part 1970s highway horror, part 1980s maniac in the woods. The visitors/victims crash into a wasteland inhabited with the undead of Dr. Screams’ asylum on an interactive bus where nothing is ever as it seems and you’re never safe. Gary Bingham tells us to expect, “famous horror villains as well as this new crop of Zombies, Killer Clowns and of course, the classic chainsaw killer.” He adds, “The 4D bus ride has never been done in South Carolina. The ride is equipped with lights, sounds, video, live actors hidden inside. A definite got to see.” Gary Bingham gives us his philosophy of the Halloween season, “We get a thrill out of hearing the screams from the groups. That is the sound of a happy customer. I take pride in making every year the best and most unique experience we can produce. I want to make sure all who attend get more than their money’s worth. I don’t want any unhappy customers, if the day comes that I run out of exciting ideas to excite my customers, I will stop building the Dr Screams event.”

Nightmare Haunted House is an eerie event you can experience all of spring, summer and the Halloween season (it does close for updates and repairs in the winter months). Nightmare offers a creepy carnival sideshow of carnage. Jeff Bracey is the greeter, doorman and one of the main characters in the show. His alter-ego is named Pig Boy or Piggy, who was the head butcher at a BBQ joint. In other words, Nightmare is all about character development. Bracey says, “We have Buddyman the master of voodoo mind games, The Creeper with his unsettling contacts which make him appear blind or eyeless. Then, there is The Mad Clown. Each of the actors has come up with his own innovation or alteration to the storyline but there is no doubting our origins are rooted in the setting of the carnival side shows.” These guys have been doing this for years and their makeup and costumes are elaborate. They go to school for special-effects makeup and they spend thousands of dollars generating their horror-personas. Bracey says, “Some of us go for the gore, others the startle, others like to play mind games with you. We don’t only manipulate what you see but also what you hear and sometimes what you smell.” The visitors/victims of Nightmare have to figure out how to get out, once they’re in. Bracey says, “There are horrific noises and music but suddenly, eerie silence. In either case you never hear us coming until it’s too late. The most insidious thing is we are always listening, from the time you walk up to the attraction, till the time you exit. We listen for you to say what scares you. We listen for someone to say your name. Once we get inside your head we own you. We can lead you around in circles all night or make you tap out. Tap outs are great because you’re asking us permission to leave. You failed to finish and we win.” But Nightmare’s torture is done with love. Bracey adds, “We have a reputation for being the best haunt on the beach and we take pride in that.” Bracey says they want to, “scare the crap out of them and then be able to talk and laugh with them afterwards.”

Ripley’s Haunted Adventure is open year-round, almost everyday, and has been a staple of the Boulevard for decades. Operators have sunk loads of cash into making this an ongoing attraction. It incorporates animatronics, a whirling tunnel, special lighting and effects, a cast of professional scare-actors, and a bunch of dangling, bloody body bags. Last year, they brought Oldtime Hollywood Horror Fright Nights to the Grand Strand. For this year’s Halloween boom, they are altering the show again and presenting Zombie Superheroes. That’s right, dropping dead from the pages of the comics, into the grave and then climbing back out again in walking-dead form. They have an established name, a rooted location with a lot of space to scare you in, and they’re open early for those looking for the midday squeal.

Terror Under The Bridge has become a mainstay in Conway drawing a crowd from all of the surrounding areas. Owners and operators, Luke Anderson and Adrianne Anderson, plan on bringing a real haunted experience. They offer a guided tour of an enclosed 8,000-square-foot warehouse, which was built in the 1890s and has been visited by the Charleston Ghost Hunters. There is plenty of creep going on and plenty of intense moments. Things will go bump and jump at you in the dark, your nerve endings with tingle and we’re guarantying goose-bumps. But as Adrianne Anderson says, “We do stay away from too much gore. That is just not our style.” She describes the house like this: “Some scenes are an assault on the senses and the next scene will be very subtle. We aim to disorient and always leave you guessing.”

Visions of Horror, as previously mentioned, is an offshoot of Dr. Screams but couldn’t be more different. Douan Bingham and his clan have teamed up with Fear Factory (another Grand Strand scare-team) to push the possibilities of what a 4,800-square-foot building in a shopping district can be. They are also trying to set a record for the Zombie Walk this year which they are calling, “The Dead Walk,” which starts at 1 p.m. on Halloween day (Wednesday) with bands playing and professionals applying makeup to the participants with the walk beginning at 7 p.m. But his haunted house is no slow-moving zombie parade. As you are guided away from the Zombie Apocalypse Vehicle parked outside and into a zombie quarantine unit under armed guard, with a TV playing news broadcasts about a zombie outbreak – the excitement is adequately built. It puts you into what feels like a scene from a zombie movie. Things go from crazy to worse, it is what Douan Bingham’s wife, Jill Bingham calls, “An in-your-face mindscrew.” It is indeed a mindfuck. We are led and misled into a spiraling maze of what-the-hell-is-going-on? There are zombies eating flesh and crazy clowns dancing and murderous maniacs and all of a sudden - it’s pitch black and we’re surrounded by the very batch of bloodcurdlers that chased us here in the first place. And we’re lost. When we ask the people that look normal around us to help us out…they just laugh. And it’s disturbing. When we finally fall out onto the walkway of Broadway at the Beach we stop to talk to a couple who had just made their second trip through. His name is Kyle Deppe and hers is Chaunte Brockway. They tell us their first date was at the Zombie Walk last April and they plan to hit all the haunted houses before Halloween. Brockway says, “It’s awesome because you don’t know what’s coming.” And Deppe adds, “It’s the reality of it, the anticipation.” And we take a deep breath and say, “The scare is not the worst part, it’s the release of the fear. It’s the buildup that gets you.” And they both answer with a resounding, “Yeah.”

Home for the horror-daze

Back at Dr. Screams, towards the end of the night, we’re standing around the fire – rubbing our throbbing hands that are swollen from smacking the side of the bus carrying the visitors/victims, clearing our rusty throats that are sore from the yelling and the growling, waiting to scare another bus full of screamers. We ask the chainsaw player who’s standing in a cloak beside us, “How long you been doing this?” And he answers, “My whole life.” His name is Tyler Bingham and he’s Gary Bingham’s, aka Dr. Screams, son. He’s 20-years-old, lives and works in California and comes home on Halloween to help out.

This is his home for the holidays.