Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Chief makeup artist and creature fabricator, Roy Wooley, applies detail to a giant eyeball just before Netherworld Haunted House opened. The set designers work daily to tweek and make repairs to the set during the Halloween season.
NORCROSS -- Most folks decorate for Halloween sometime during October. The same can't be said for the Netherworld Haunted House co-owner and creator Ben Armstrong -- he surrounds himself in hair-raising creatures and supernatural spirits every day of the year.
The warehouse is open to the public for about a month and half, yet it takes 365 days for Armstrong and his team of designers to formulate the ideas, construct sets and sketch designs.
"The general concept of Netherworld is a gateway which opens to a land of graves, the world of the dead, where monsters dwell and these monsters come into our world causing problems with the local populous," Armstrong said while talking about creating ideas year to year. "Every year is a different story of how the Netherworld gate has been opened. It's like a movie that every year we want to present something that is very much like what we have presented before, but like a sequel that has to be different."
Almost immediately after the spine-chilling season ends, he and his six to 12 full-time employees work together brainstorming ideas, concepts and names for terrifying plots for the next house. When everything is decided, the group goes to the drawing board to build blue prints for the new haunted house.
"Anything that involves carpentry, I try to wrap my brain around it," said Sam Ronic, set designer who has worked with Armstrong for three years. "I also see how we're going to build the structure and get it to look like what Ben wants, but also safe and feasible."
Then the designers get to work. The entrance and ending of the house is changed every year, so both are demolished and rebuilt for the new concept.
This year's themes are "The Nightmares," which is located in the large house upstairs and "Raw Meat," tucked away in the basement. Both shows have hundreds of lighting effects, animatronic monsters and robotic creatures to spook self-guided crowds.
Numerous props and costumes are hand-crafted on site to top the scary scale. The house also gets some of its decorations from movie sets that have finished production.
Armstrong acquired a gargantuan puppet named Mega-mouth from the set of "Zombieland," which filmed a few scenes in the house. Another film donation is several large fish tanks that came from the movie "The Collections." They are used to hold human skeletons and fish in "Raw Meat."
Netherworld is known for having some very demonic creatures throughout the warehouse. Many of them are specifically made for the fright fest, but they are all given finishing touches backstage. Teeth are added, blood is splattered and appendages are attached, all in the name of terror and screams.
"We do whatever we can to get the best creatures we can find," Armstrong said. "A lot of our big giant monsters may have started as one thing, but our crew has changed them a great deal. They rework the animatronics, skins, etcetera."
Another monstrous puppet named Pug received a face lift and obtained more teeth this year, all the better "to bite people with."
The work doesn't stop when the doors open. The team has to keep the monsters functioning until the beginning of November. A lot can break with 300 staff members and more than 50,000 thrill seekers walking through the maze, touching props and pushing their way to the end.
"Some of our monsters have a tendency to need some dental work, they need tentacles replaced ... those are some of the things that need to be fixed," Ronic said.
This year, the team is wrapping up a storyline that began a couple years ago. In 2009, it was "Blood Night," last year was "Gargoyles," and now "The Nightmares." It takes attendees though every scary dream you can image: voodoo, vampires and venomous snakes, plus many mythological creatures, eerie environments and creepy, crawly critters.
"Upstairs is more traditional, more Gothic, more monster oriented," he said. "Downstairs is the more industrial, scarier, more savage show."
"Raw Meat" has more gore and blood as patrons walk through the county's Water Management System. When you navigate through the underground world, you will learn why bones have been found in the water pipes, while trying not to get eaten by the resident alligators.
"Our monsters are really looking forward to scaring everybody that comes through -- giving them a good show, making them laugh and getting a reaction," Armstrong said.