For someone who scares people professionally, Matt Herm is disarmingly charitable. The youthful Park Manager of the Niles Haunted House Scream Park in Michigan is in it for the community. “This is one big family,” he said of the 500 volunteers who make the nonprofit’s annual fright show possible. “We’ve given back so much to the community, and we receive so much in return. That’s why I’m here.”
A spooky stone gate adorned with snarling gargoyles and skeletons holding lamps at the park's entrance. The park is one of the nation’s largest Halloween attractions.
Inside, an army of volunteers prepared for opening day, putting the finishing touches on graveyard sets and ghoulish costumes. “Halloween seems like it’s right around the corner, all year—even in November,” Matt said. “With 44 acres, we cram a lot into every year.”
Frightening for a Cause
The Scream Park is a community institution. “This is our 42nd year,” said Matt. “We started as a small Jaycees fundraiser and migrated all over, but we’ve finally found our home.” Over 65 local community organizations have helped out with the production, providing the volunteer actors, craftsmen, and ticket-sellers that keep the haunted house screaming. “Our people are so passionate,” Matt said. “They come out every weekend from mid-September to early November, 10 weeks in a row. That’s such a big commitment. I’m really here for all of them.”
In return, the Scream Park donates its proceeds to the community. Ticket sales generated $132,000 for local and national charities in 2014, and the park also underwrites scholarships for students from the local high schools that supply many of its volunteers.
Despite its rural location outside a small southwestern Michigan town, the Scream Park draws thrill seekers from across Michigan and Indiana. “Niles isn’t a big market—we only have 15,000 people living in our town, but we’ll have 40,000 guests this year,” Matt said. “That tells you just how popular this thing is.”
Putting together the park’s five themed tours, haunted hayride, and escape room is a challenge. “Coordinating all the volunteers, sponsors, and advertising is tough. Just getting the supplies together can be difficult,” Matt said. “We’re constantly running out of stuff, or having new ideas we want to try out.”
Matt takes pride in creating an original experience from the ground up. “You get to create a completely new universe every year,” he says. “It’s really fun to get people to step into your mind.”
Making the attraction safe and scary requires tremendous attention to detail. “Every single room we do, you have to think about so many things,” he said, while waling down a dark hallway in the Haunted House. He pointed at a panel of skeletons embedded in the wall. “For example, if these scare guests into this area,” he said while he gestured at a railing, “They might get hurt, so we have to add padding, or position some of the moving props so guests can’t accidentally touch them.”
Matt walked through a mad scientist’s lab and into the haunted house’s backstage, where Virgil and Jaimie Taylor were applying makeup to a young actress. “These are our main makeup artists,” Matt said. “We do it all ourselves--we don’t spend a lot of money. Because we’re a nonprofit, we don’t have the budget of some of the bigger players.” The actress smiled as she inspected Virgil’s work in the mirror—the left side of her face had been transformed into a bright crimson flesh wound.
The actress popped up from the chair, gave us her best zombie scowl, and headed for the door. Showtime.