Originally published October 27, 2007
Scared silly: Terror of Tallahassee strikes again
By Mark Hinson
Democrat senior writer
It's too dark too see anything but fuzzy shapes as four pledges from Florida State's Teke House blindly feel their way through the maze of black walls deep inside the Terror of Tallahassee haunted house.
A stocky male figure wearing a mechanic's jumpsuit and a mask that looks like melted lasagna steps suddenly out of the blackness.
"I got a baby in a burlap sack," the angry ghoul shouts like Tom Waits with a head cold. "Who's got a baby in a burlap sack? You wanna a baby in a burlap sack?"
"OK, dude, you're really starting to scare me," one of the Tekes squeaks and laughs wildly. "Stop doing that."
Of course, the point of the Terror of Tallahassee is that the live monster will not stop. The one-on-one interaction with the undead and unsightly is exactly what has made the "haunted attraction" one of the most elaborate and most visited Halloween houses in the state.
"Two weekends ago, I was at Universal Studios in Orlando and stood in line for 90 minutes for a haunted house that wasn't nearly this good," said Tau Kappa Epsilon pledge and FSU student Josh Grover, 20, after taking his tour into the heart of darkness. "This one is better because the actors follow you around and the (visual) effects were sweet and the maze at the end was very cool."
"Yeah, it actually scared me, and I'll be honest about that," said Chris Stahl, 18, a fellow Teke pledge and FSU student. "You don't know who's going to be standing there when you turn around."
Comments like those are as pleasing as a funeral fugue to Kurt Kuersteiner's ears. Kuersteiner is the mastermind, creative director and ringmaster who oversees between 25 and 35 Terror actors and technicians each night. He also plays the mad scientist who greets visitors at the large, metal, slamming front doors of the dusty old warehouse (or scarehouse) on Gaines Street.
"We find that the audience likes real people (playing the monsters)," Kuersteiner said. "That way it's more unpredictable. You can't tell what's about to happen. They use a lot machines and mechanical displays at Universal, and it's just not the same. The people who come here keep coming back night after night."
Kuersteiner was wearing a messy Warholian wig and a lab coat splattered with blood and held a convincing-looking severed arm as he talked. He staged his first commercial haunted house in a closed restaurant on North Monroe Street in 1999 and has been doing them ever since.
"This whole thing is basically like a community theater," Kuersteiner said. "We're doing it for fun because no one is making much money."
When Kuersteiner is not scaring the wits out of people, he teaches speech communications at Tallahassee Community College and runs a collectibles business called Monsterwax. He's also the author of "The Art of Jack T. Chick" and is currently finishing a documentary film about Chick, an artist and evangelist best known for his idiosyncratic, shocking religious comic strips.
Besides loving classic horror films, Kuersteiner is also a fan of sideshow illusions and visual trickery. This year's Terror of Tallahassee features a woman who is transformed into a hideous beast, a "butcher girl" who is still alive despite being cut in half and a skeleton who turns into a marauding demon "before your very eyes."
"Most of the money I make off of this goes back into the sets and illusions," Kuersteiner said. "Most of the things we build from scratch and the illusions can cost anywhere from $5 to $10,000."
"I'm a big theater person and this is theater, it's acting," said Jordan Tranberg, Terror actor and Tallahassee Community College student. "It's hot. It's tiring. You've got 500 people coming through, but it's fun. This is just one big stage. You just have to walk through it."
Tranberg, who was playing a monster who is re-animated by a mad scientist, was feeling especially proud of his work from the previous night.
"I don't know if I did it all by myself, but I helped make a woman (wet her pants) last night," Tranberg said. "I was playing the butcher, and she actually messed herself. That's when you know you're doing a good job."
Tranberg first visited one of Kuersteiner's creations when he was 10 and got hooked.
"Jordan went to the first house when he was a kid, and he can still describe every room and what was in it in great detail," Kuersteiner said. "It was burned into his brain. I only wish I could make that much impact as a teacher."
"It's actually kind of a catharsis doing this," TCC student Bonnie Futch, 19, said as she took a break from playing a blood-soaked psycho who runs wild in an insane asylum. "You get to scream at people, and no one calls the cops. It's a great stress-relief. . . . Tell all the skittish girls in Tallahassee to come on down."
Futch's sister, Jennifer Futch, 20, is also a member of the Terror troupe. On a recent evening, the older sister was playing a caped vixen who wore a blood-dripping mask and carried a machete.
"I love it," the FSU anthropology major said. "I was a huge scaredy-cat before this but not anymore. Now I am a creature of the night."
If You Go
What: Terror of Tallahassee haunted house.
When: 8 to 11:30 p.m. now through Halloween (Wednesday). Also open for one final night on Friday.
Where: 826 W. Gaines St., corner of Woodward Avenue near Campbell Stadium.
Cost: $10 for adults, $6 for children.
Contact: 513-9190 or visit www.TerrorOfTallahassee.com.
It's hot inside the warehouse. Dress with that in mind. Wearing sensible shoes is a good idea.
It's too intense for small children. Don't take them unless you want to stunt their growth or turn them into screaming insomniacs.
The lines are the longest on Halloween night. Be prepared for a wait, or visit before Halloween. Tours take 15 or 20 minutes. Use the bathroom before you go.
Do not touch the live monsters and they won't touch you.
No alcohol or abusive language is allowed inside the haunted realm.
Make sure your will is up-to-date.Tallahassee.com: Readers scared our pants off with short films submitted for our spooky movie contest. You can view these scary flicks, too, by clicking on "Video." Also, don't miss the photo gallery from Terror of Tallahassee.