Arts preview: The ScareAtorium, a spooky Columbus favorite, gets a new home. We hear it's haunted.

By Columbus Alive
From the September 26, 2013 edition

The insane-asylum inmates, living dead and cross-dressing clown that stalk Columbus' newest haunted attraction have a lot up their membrane-soaked sleeves to scare visitors' pants — and 3D glasses — off. 

Technically speaking, ScareAtorium isn't new, but its location is. 

Since 2011, the ScareAtorium has operated out of the Dublin Village Shopping Center; however, owners Neena and Kelly Collins secured a sprawling spot for the house of fear in a 40,000-square-foot space in the Northland area and quickly started to move in a few months ago. 

The larger size of their new location has opened a lot of creaky doors for the couple, which has been in the biz of scaring Ohioans for decades. (The Collinses perviously operated Terror Park at Cooper Stadium and haunts at Six Flags and Wyandot Lake, and they're the spooks that produce the Midwest Haunters Convention.)

"We are so excited about this new space," Neena said. "We can really do a lot with it."

For its first fall in the former Phar-Mor spot, ScareAtorium will put brave visitors through two tours. 

First up is "Northland Asylum." Story goes that from 1899-1956, a demented doctor operated the Northland Asylum for the Insane; Dr. Robert Collins — who looks suspiciously like Kelly — and his twisted experiments were quickly lost to time when the 1970s took over and a mall was built over his former hospital. The souls who lived their tortured days there, though, haven't forgotten, and their howls are certain to make history remember. 

The asylum tour includes a visit with the hospital butcher, er, chef, a stop in the hospital morgue, a jaunt through the children's ward and more. 

The Collinses bought the walls, panels and animatronics of "Northland Asylum" from fellow haunters in Wisconsin, where it had been previously voted the best haunted attraction in that state, Neena said. It's worth taking a lights-on, actor-free tour on Sundays just to see the details of this set-up — from the medicinal names in the pharmacy to the "to-do list" on the asylum receptionist's calendar.  

A quick breather after guests are spit out of the asylum, they put on 3D glasses and enter "Rip's 3D Funhouse." 

Fun, here, is subjective. The disorienting effect of wearing 3D glasses while being chased by clowns is sure to delight — or terrify. In between peeing their pants, guests can admire the work of internationally renowned 3D artist Stuart Smith, who painted several beautifully nightmarish clowns for ScareAtorium. Smith's mom lives in Columbus, Kelly said, and "he's the best 3D painter in the world."

All the death-tolling bells and whistles, though, can't replace what ScareAtorium puts its highest premium on: its actors. 

"This is not a typical haunted house that just hires high school kids," said Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, a medical nurse by day and hyena-laughing ScareAtorium zombie orderly by night.

The actors, about 35 to 45 of whom perform each night, audition for their roles in the haunted house tours. 

"We, of course, don't expect people to be highly credentialed," Neena said, laughing. "But we do look to see if they can express themselves physically."

Those who make the cut are trained extensively on how to identify the most scared individual of a tour group. (Hint: If you're shuffling your feet or quickly, repetitively looking side to side, you're going to be the spookers' prime target.)

Some of the ScareAtorium actors have been with the Collinses for 22 years.

"They're very good," Kelly said. "Acting is very important for us. When an actor interacts with you in a haunted house you're not done being scared until the scene's over."

When the actors aren't scaring customers, they can be found in the expansive makeup and costume rooms or working in the ScareAtorium's retail shop. The new location, where the Collinses will employ their merry band of undead for the next several years, also has a party room available and room for a third attraction that will be designed and put up by next Halloween, Neena said. 

Tickets to ScareAtorium are $20, $18 for advanced tickets. Fast pass-style tickets and VIP tickets are also available. Ghosts get in free.