Gazette Article by: Rochelle Santopoalo, Ph.D.
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2007
The Winnetka Community House is an unlikely location for the longest running community-based haunted house in America. A local institution since opening its doors in 1911, the Community House has operated a Haunted House on Halloween for the past 90 years.
The original entrance to the “Spook House” was a one-story-high, metal slide that propelled unsuspecting patrons from the main floor down into the pit of the building. Once in, they had to frantically crawl nearly 30 feet while dodging menacing monsters before being allowed to stand. This sense of relief and safely was decidedly temporary as they faced their next challenge: traversing the intricate maze of tunnels and bridges. Making the close quarters even more bewitching were the 100 or so staff and volunteers who hid within the maze and jumped out to scare visitors. Touching of patrons was a common tactic used to heighten the scare factor in the haunted house until the practice was banned in the 1970s.
A festival atmosphere has traditionally filled the Community House during Halloween. In previous years admission included “a world of magicians, ventriloquists, gymnasts, cartoon movies, ‘spook’ rooms, all topped by free ice cream,” according to the description in G. Brodsky’s book This House Is Ours: The Story of the Winnetka Community House. It was visited by upwards of 2,000 youngsters and parents in a single night. Current-day attractions include a carnival-style game room where games like Boo Buckets, Dungeon Toss and Ghoul Fishing are played for prizes—not candy but small toys and Halloween trinkets. Open for just one evening and one late afternoon for a total of four hours, almost 900 kids and adults visited the Haunted House in 2006.
Since its opening, the Haunted House remains the ultimate Halloween experience for kids and parents alike. Moving the Haunted House from the basement to the main floor in the early 1980s allowed for more elaborate floor designs, a process which begins in July. Each year the goal of designers Jeff Wahl and Patti Schmidt is to enhance the experience over the previous year. A post-production evaluation in November, plus attendance at the Transworld Hallowe’en Trade Show in March, provides them with fresh ideas. For example, in 1997 the corridor leading to the entrance was lined with strings of colored strobe lights that create, according to Wahl, a “queasy,” disorienting feeling, a perfect way to prepare for the ensuing fright-filled tour. Damage to the room exhibits led to some being relocated within corridors which helped to facilitate traffic flow and reduce reliance on volunteers. Elsewhere, flame-retardant paper now lines the eight-foot-high panels that constitute the walls of the maze to provide fire protection. Building by Community House staff occurs over a mere six-day period with special light and sound effects provided by Woolson Production Group of Glenview.
For many residents of Winnetka, Halloween would be incomplete without a trip to their beloved Haunted House at the Community House. Fortunately, the commitment of the staff and support of the community should ensure its continuation for another 90 years.
_Dr. Rochelle Santopoalo is the founder of the Global Hallowe’en Alliance, which operated in Evanston from 1998 to 2005. _