Saturday, October 19, 2013

Locally Geek: Cincinnati Haunts

As I said yesterday in my Flashback Friday post, I love scary stuff. I've always been a huge fan of horror movies, haunted houses, horror literature, et cetera. I absolutely love being scared. Psychological horror is my favorite rather than slasher films, though I am a fan of those too. With less than two weeks until Halloween, I wanted to go ahead and share something in what is the first in a continuing series on the blog called Locally Geek.

Locally Geek will be a way for me to showcase some awesome geeky places wherever I may be. I'm currently living in the Cincinnati metro, so it might be something up here, or it could be a place I happen to visit while visiting friends in Lexington, or it could be a location in a completely new city. There won't be a hard rule to the criteria other than it's something that contributes to the geek culture of a given place.

I've had the opportunity to visit two haunted attractions in the Cincinnati metro since the season kicked off in September (Friday the 13th, I might add!) and I have to say that the town loves to be scared. I hear radio ads for various attractions every day in communities such as Wilmington and Middletown, but I'll be reporting on my experiences at two haunts a bit closer to the downtown area: USS Nightmare in Newport and Dent Schoolhouse on the city's west side.

The thought of a haunted attraction on a steamboat was unsettling at best and I think that uncertainty of the dark waters of the Ohio River really increased the scare factor of the USS Nightmare. One of the things that impressed me even before I went through the haunt was the concern for the history of the boat itself. The website details the real history of the dredge William S. Mitchell in addition to the haunted history. From the website:

The vessel is a city of its own.  Crew would live aboard for months at a time.  All of the ship and crew needs would be provided on board - from cooks, dentists and surgeons to carpenters, engineers, and chaplains.    One Master and five additional officers with 60 crewmembers all lived and worked on the boat.
This was fully incorporated into the haunted attraction. You follow the story of the "death dredge" from Captain's quarters, to infirmary, to mess hall, and everything in between. All facets of the ship are included, including some unexpected surprises. For 2013 they boast an expanded and more sinister tour, which I can definitely attest to. Included in the attraction are: Anna’s Bedroom, the Captain’s private quarters, the Rat Lady’s quarters, Pump Well, Cargo Hold, Dredge Engine Pit, Engine Room, Infirmary, Wheel Wells, Galley, Freezer, Crypt, Pantry, Vortex, Torturer’s Chamber, Machine shop, and many others.

Dark corridors which take you around the ship's interior were permeated by fog, the chill of the river air, and rattles of chains. The haunt uses practical special effects and animatronics, but I really felt that the true testament was the usage of the ship itself and the scare actors who portrayed the ship's crew. There were moments where the scare actors effectively pulled off the scare by saying little and of course some just tried to be as creepy and disgusting as possible (the infirmary is a prime example of this) but on the whole I was very impressed by the cast. I really liked the ship's captain and he's responsible for one of the biggest scares in the haunt. I, of course, want to be as vague as possible so as not to spoil many of the surprises, but you can hear us talk about the attraction in some detail with spoilers on the Cincinnati Comic Expo episode of Beaucoup Pop.

I went with Matt, Tressa, and Kerry of Beaucoup Pop. We waited in line for maybe 20 minutes at the most and were taken in as our group of four. With Kerry and Tressa leading the way, we did at one point catch up with the group ahead of us, but were quickly separated again. From entering to the chainsaw exit (as per usual) we were in the USS Nightmare for upwards of 30 minutes. There are a lot of rooms and we did walk slowly, even getting turned around just after the vortex, which by the way, is where I started to crack. Even after we left it took around 20 minutes for me to truly regain my composure and for my adrenaline to stop causing my heart to race. This, in my opinion, sign of a well done haunted attraction.


Dent has received some rave reviews and has been featured in specials from the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel. Recently, ABC News named Dent the number one haunted attraction in the country. With a story that rivals that of the worst serial killers in the world, Dent Schoolhouse has a legacy of child abduction and murder that will chill you to the bone.

The old schoolhouse, which opened in 1894, was the premiere place of education in Cincinnati. Dent School, in Green Township, was lauded for its excellence and continued to be a jewel in the crown of the Queen City for decades, but beginning in 1942, students began to disappear. Disappearances continued for more than ten years and in 1955, community members stormed the school and demanded to see what was going on in the basement. What they found was grizzly. The missing children were dismembered, stuffed in boxes, barrels, and various containers. Charlie, the school's janitor, fled never to be seen again. Not only do the spirit of the dead children roam the halls of Dent School, but Charlie is said to still clean the school.

Pretty cool story, huh? That's what I was expecting when I embarked on my journey into the Dent Schoolhouse. From the website it was obvious that there was a lot of hype surrounding this haunt, so it got me really jazzed to check it out, especially with the high remarks from Matt and Tressa. They commented on the usage of various parts of the school, taking you both upstairs and down into the depths of the basement. I was expecting something akin to the USS Nightmare, which takes you through many parts of the boat through at least two levels.

I'm going to talk first about what I did like about Dent. The sets themselves were awesome. You really got the creepy turn of the century vibe from the school. Even the shop class had a 1950s style car in it. I loved the concepts. The idea of the janitor kidnapping the children only to be holding their bodies under the noses of school administrators makes for a pretty compelling tale. In fact, I think it would make a decent move plot. The protagonist would be a local police detective set out to solve the mysterious disappearances of local children. I'm imaging Mark Ruffalo for some reason. But I digress...

My experience with Dent was less than awesome and here's why: Firstly, the Queen City Slaughter Yard, which is the maze/outdoor attraction this year was great if you have a fetish for chainsaw wielding dudes in pig masks. The Slaughter Yard plays on the legacy of Cincinnati's Porkopolis days of the 1800s, when the city the largest pork-producing city in the world. They constructed a stockyard maze in which you traverse through copious amounts of fog. That, coupled with the chainsaw fumes, left me with a headache. And although I did get freaked out by so.  many. chainsaws, by the end I was really just over it. The most refreshing thing about it was some girls who were chained up, which sort of fit the theme of a video that was playing as you wait to enter the Slaughter Yard. Had there been a bit more of a story behind that part, I may have been a bit more satisfied.

I'm pretty glad that we elected to go through the maze first. I probably would have said to heck with it had we done the school initially, but alas we did the maze and then waited for two hours to enter the main attraction. All in all the time didn't pass that slowly. When we were toward the back of the line there was a constant barrage of scared souls exiting the school, which was entertaining.

Here's my beef with Dent School House: haunted attractions are ALL about timing. You can have the best actors and the best effects, but if the scare's already gone off by the time your group makes it through, the whole effect is lost. And that's precisely what happened to Matt, Tressa, Kerry, and I. As hyped as we were about the haunt, as excited as we were to go through, we ended up sorely disappointed. After the two hour wait, which I get because there had to be at least 200 people waiting, we ended up smashed with a group of five or six ahead of us. Because we weren't actually with the larger group, they were just far enough ahead of us that they ended up getting the scares before we were able to see them. At one point, the folks ahead of us met up with the group ahead of them, which put the total at around 20 people.

The problem with Dent School House is directly related to the person at the entrance who allowed us to go with the larger group. In my experience, and went off without a hitch at USS Nightmare, the person asks how many in your party, then if necessary hold you back for just a moment to allow the group in front of you time to go through and have the rooms reset. Walking through only to see the animatronics being pulled back in or actors walking back to their spots takes you totally out of the illusion and out of the experience. In addition, the reliance on animatronics and props seemed to ruin the illusion as well. There seemed to be several rooms with totally untapped potential simply due to no actors being in them.

If you're going to make the trek to the Cincinnati area to visit a haunted attraction, the USS Nightmare is definitely worth it.

USS Nightmare
101B Riverboat Row, Newport, KY 41071 (It's literally RIGHT behind Newport on the Levee, so I recommend you park at Newport Landing and walk up for some Tom+Chee. Parking is free down on the river.)
General Admission: $13 Wednesday; $18.00 Thursday through Sunday
RIP Express Pass: $22 online

Images of USS Nightmare courtesy of, Dent Schoolhouse images courtesy of and Ohio Valley Haunts

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