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The Building of Fear City (Part II)

By Alexander Hough in News on Oct 13, 2011 4:00PM

Construction in progress. (Image Credit: Magaret Vincent)
It’s Alive

When I returned to Fear City two weeks after my initial visit, the haunted house had evolved substantially. With the exception of Heeter’s brief working vacation over Labor Day weekend, he, Lichon, and Grendys had been working every day for about a month. They did not look well. Each had dark bags under his eyes, and it appeared that none of them had touched a razor in several days. They had the aura of being slightly shell-shocked, although that could have just been the fallout from a battle against exhaustion waged with Keurig coffee packets and a variety of candy.

Though tired, they were in good spirits; their workload, extreme as it was, was something they were all accustomed to. Marathon sessions are typical in film, television, and theater; Oprah, for instance, operated on an erratic schedule, with periods of inactivity alternating with frenzied, extended blocks of 12-18-hour days. The work was paying off: all the rooms were in varying stages of completion, and Fear City was recognizable as a haunted house.

Fear City’s design process began approximately one year earlier. After Oprah’s huge premiere for the final season in September 2010, work at Harpo settled into the relatively calm regular season routine, and Grendys, Lichon, and Heeter began spending their evenings doing research. This meant seeing as many haunted houses as they could within a 90-minute drive, hitting 22 haunts in October. One thing they were sure they wanted to include was two separate houses within Fear City, a common tactic in the industry that allows for a thematic shift and more bang for the customer’s buck. They also wanted to include a healthy dose of Chicago-centrism. And clowns. As Heeter told me, “Everyone hates clowns.”

The trio decided to have a more traditional first house and use the second to explore the surreal. There would be plenty of Chicago references, some overt, like the Cubs’ curse and the CTA; some more oblique, like the room that reminisces about the city’s time as the hog butcher for the world; and some more unique (Rod Blagojevich’s uvula plays a prominent role).

To develop the individual scenes, Lichon drew on his experience as a set decorator and prop master. “It’s telling the story through the placement of objects” said Lichon, summarizing the role. “So when you walk into a room, you know exactly what happened in that scene. So I’m not telling a story through words. I’m telling it through what it looks like. I shop as if I were the characters and do character analysis through their stuff. Like, what comb would they have? It’s not just a couch. It’s what kind of couch would that character have?”

Getting Fear City Ready for its close-up. (Image Credit: Magaret Vincent)
Thanks in large part to Lichon and Fear City’s production designer, former Harpo scenic designer Dustin Efird, Fear City’s rooms are meticulously detailed. The filthy kitchen of a dysfunctional family is disturbingly realistic, with dirty dishes and empty food boxes covering the counters. A basement scene contains jars of fake urine. A hoarder’s living room is filled with a dizzying array of musty antiques. Most individual quirks will go largely unnoticed by customers, although the haunted house wouldn’t have the same effect without them. The properties in Fear City come from a variety of places: Lichon’s personal collection he has amassed through the years; strategic shopping, usually at thrift stores; and the ReBuilding Exchange , a nonprofit that resells materials from sustainably deconstructed buildings, where Meegan Czop, Lichon and Heeter’s old Harpo coworker, is the general manager. Friends, family, and other Fear City workers also pitched in. For example, the walls in the doctor’s office waiting room were the detritus from an employee’s recent basement renovation.

The construction of the rooms was a collaboration of a variety of specialists, from carpenters to electricians to painters. Nearly a dozen workers in production, lighting, sound, special effects, and scenic painting were former colleagues of Lichon and Heeter’s from Harpo. Other employees were culled from Lichon’s, Grendys’s, and Heeter’s other connections around town. Every aspect of each room was thoughtfully considered to create a highly realistic environment. The lighting, co-designed by Travis Shupe and Lee Fiskness, went through what Heeter called “light-sculpting,” where specific bulbs, some as low as one-half watt, were painstakingly positioned to precisely illuminate the scene. The flickering fluorescent lights found throughout the house are actually LED strips programmed to turn off intermittently. Sound - music, ambient noise, and effects - is equally controlled, with careful attention given to what might bleed into other scenes.

Grendys, Lichon, and Heeter also felt it was essential to fill Fear City with Chicago’s pool of acting talent, particularly performers with improvisation experience. According to Lichon, most haunted houses cast people based on which costumes they fit into. Fear City worked the opposite way, coming up with characters, casting the appropriate person, and then designing a costume to be constructed by a professional costume designer, Jeremy Floyd.

The resulting scenes are immersive. “There’s really no difference between doing this and doing theater and TV,” Lichon told me, but that isn’t quite accurate. In film, television, and theater, the audience is separated from the scene; in a haunted house, the audience is in the scene.

A bag of babies, waiting for their place in the haunted house. (Image Credit: Margaret Vincent)
This is a crucial difference, and although Grendys, Lichon, and Heeter did not have much experience with it prior to Fear City, their results are startlingly effective. A ride on the CTA has the dizzying feel of actually barreling through Chicago’s underground. A hotel employee brushing past you while running for her life elicits a chill.

On that Friday night in mid-September, I felt bad about my presence; Grendys, Lichon, and Heeter all seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse. My photographer showed up, and I offered to take her through the house myself - I’d been through earlier so I knew my way around - so that they could finish up their work and head home earlier. The trio insisted on guiding us, though, which I initially assumed was a polite way of keeping an eye on us, but, as we walked, each of them perked up. Heeter, whose mild, warm demeanor never seems to change, was gamely accompanying me for a second time. Grendys mugged for the camera, running to the room ahead to pose in the scene. Even Lichon, the most visibly spent of the three, started talking effusively about each room. They were walking with us because they wanted to show off their baby. More than the coffee and sugar from the break room, the guys at Fear City were fueled by their excitement for their project.

Dogs Chasing Cars

One week before Fear City’s opening night, Lichon, Grendys, and Heeter looked much better. When you’re working extended hours with little sleep, a small amount of rest goes a long way. “We took Sunday off,” Grendys said. “I let the guilt set in. I was sitting on the couch, going, ‘Football’s on. This is wrong, I shouldn’t be doing this” - Grendys gave a fake snore - “I woke up and it was the third quarter and I thought, ‘I guess I did need to take a day off.’”

Prepping a goat for frights galore. (Image Credit: Margaret Vincent)
The working days were longer than ever, with the different specialty crews staggering their time in the space: carpenters got the early shift, starting as early as 6 a.m.; lighting and sound arrived at the tail end of the day, around 8 p.m., and often stayed late into the night. In spite of the full-tilt schedule, everyone was in good spirits, even a little bit goofy. Knowing that I was talking with Lichon a few rooms over, Grendys began whispering “No escape” into the two-way radio, a reference to Fear City’s television commercial. Someone else in a far away section of the house emitted a plaintive, ridiculous wail, apropos of nothing.

Each room appeared almost complete, needing only finishing touches - a painted floor here, a tweaked special effect there. There was still the ever-present bustle, but with the finish line in sight, there was an air of optimism. With minimal experience in professional Halloween attractions, Grendys, Lichon, Heeter, and 100 highly skilled workers put together a movie-quality haunted house in one month. “There’s no bullshit,” Lichon said, describing the past month’s work. “We talk right to the point. Like when me and Aaron talk, there’s no mincing words. We’re dear friends, but there’s no cushioning your words at all. And that’s the thing we learned from Harpo. Sometimes people find it abrasive, but you have to get it done. It’s not really abrasive. It’s efficient.”

Fear City is currently signed to a five-year lease, with an option for a five-year extension. It was designed to be reusable and easily changeable, with modular walls that can be disassembled and constructed into an entirely new haunted house next year. Grendys, Lichon, and Heeter all spoke excitedly about having the structural, plumbing, and electrical work on the building itself behind them, which will free up time to invest in the design and construction of future versions of the house. These plans were all made under the presumption that Fear City will be successful. If the alternative has even occurred to the trio, they don’t appear to have spent any energy dwelling on it.

“What have we done? We just invested all our money into a haunted house,” said Lichon. “Are we crazy? There’s a little part of my brain that thinks I’m nuts. But I don’t know what else to do. It’s sort of like, ‘Why do dogs chase cars?’ It’s just what they do.”

Fear City is open October 13 - 16, 19 - 23, and 25 - 31, 7:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Friday, Saturday, and October 30 and 31; $25, $35 VIP