Published in The Midweek: Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT
DeKALB – Alex Nerad became the executive director of the Egyptian Theatre in 2006. But even before he took charge of the theater, he was working at the theater, helping out with technical aspects.
Nerad has been planning since January for Amenti, the Egyptian Theatre’s haunted house, and he met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss this year’s haunted theater attraction.
Milton: What do you do at Amenti?
Nerad: I’m involved with pretty much every aspect of running the haunted house, from planning to marketing to lining up volunteers. I make sure all the actors are ready to go, I monitor the lines to make sure everyone is safe, and I help promote and advertise the event. …This event would not be possible without the volunteers that help build it and run it.
Milton: How did the haunted theater start?
Nerad: In 2004 and 2005, the Kishwaukee Kiwanis used the theater for their haunted house. They held it in Hopkins Park for many, many years, but the park shelter was under construction. They moved their haunted house here for two years, and a lot of us were involved with that. In 2006, when they moved back to the park shelter, we really saw an opportunity to grow and explore what more we could do to have a haunted house inside the Egyptian Theatre.
Milton: Is the attraction family-friendly?
Nerad: We definitely recommend 13 and older. We have a pretty scary haunted attraction for people to go through.
Milton: Does the haunted house go through the entire theater?
Nerad: It goes into every nook and cranny. It utilizes the entire lobby, mezzanine, balcony, main floor, and stage. We have over 20 different rooms over six different levels. We actually constructed platforms over the tops of the seating area to create more rooms.
Milton: What can people expect to see?
Nerad: We have a chainsaw guy, mummies, hillbillies, clowns, insane patients, and more. Visitors can see a wide variety of characters as they go through. …We have a lot of animated props that are triggered as people walk through. Some are props that jump out at people, some are noises or lights that go off. We try to have a combination of startle effects and scares.
A couple of years ago, we also introduced scents, so a number of rooms smell differently. The scents add to the scene. For instance, a carnival area smells like cotton candy and a hillbilly house smells like a burning campfire. It’s just another way we try to immerse people as they go through. We try to attack all the different senses, from what people are hearing and seeing to their sense of smell.
Everybody scares differently. I think that what we attempt to do is try to provide as many different types of scares and startles as people go through. Our ultimate goal is for everybody to be entertained as they go through. We hope to scare everybody, but at the end of the day, we hope that they are entertained. and that they have a lot of fun going through. …Some of the characters, whether it’s a clown or an insane patient, are humorous and entertaining. We don’t want to be a haunted house where people just jump out and say, “Boo.” We work with our actors to try to develop characters and to have them interact with guests.
Milton: How does the haunted house change each year?
Nerad: We have certainly tried to raise the bar every year in all aspects. We change things up each year. We do have a lot of people who return each year, and we want to make sure that they are equally as surprised and caught off guard as those people that are going through for the first time. …This is our ninth year, and the reason we have accomplished so much in nine years is due to the people who are involved.
Milton: Where does “Amenti” come from?
Nerad: Amenti is the Egyptian goddess of the underworld. When we first started this in 2006, we were looking for a name that had some sort of tie to the theater’s name. It was instantly a perfect fit. It obviously had a strong Egyptian connection, but it was appropriate for a haunted attraction. …The first couple of rooms in the haunted house are Egyptian themed, but then the themes change.
Milton: Are the actors paid?
Nerad: Everyone is a volunteer. Many of the volunteers are familiar with the theater industry, so they are used to lots of cleaning up and quick load-ins and load-outs for a show. …This event is the largest annual fundraising event for the Egyptian Theatre. We use volunteers for all aspects, from the committee that designs and builds the haunted house to the people who help construct it, to the actors. On an average night, we’ll have about 30 actors and an additional 10 volunteers helping with hair, makeup, costumes, security, and ticket-taking.
Milton: What makes Amenti different from other haunted houses?
Nerad: One of the things that makes our haunted houses so unique is that we are one of, if not the only, haunted house that takes place inside of an historic theater that is still open and operating. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were over 50 Egyptian theaters built across the country. Now, there are only six left in the United States, and we are the only one east of the Rocky Mountains. …On top of all of that, there have been a few long-standing reports of ghosts inside the theater. I think that it’s pretty unique to have a haunted house inside of a haunted theater. …A lot of haunted houses are held in old warehouses or abandoned storefronts. A lot of the attraction of what brings people here is that we are such a unique venue.
Milton: Have there been ghost sightings in the theater?
Nerad: We have certainly had people over the years see things that weren’t part of the haunted house. We jokingly tell people that you never know what you might see when you go through. …I’ve been here for a long time, and there have been plenty of things that are hard to explain. There has been nothing really negative, but a lot of unexplainable things that have happened here, including noises, seeing things, and things moving.
Milton: When do you start planning for Amenti?
Nerad: We start planning each year in January and meet every month. It’s a long planning process. Due to the busy theater schedule here, we end up with only about 13 days to construct everything. And that’s probably the scariest part for us. Most haunted houses on this scale are put together in two to six months, but we do it in 13 days.
Milton: How many people visit Amenti each year?
Nerad: We typically have well over 3,000 people that go through each year. We certainly hope each year that there will be some growth, and that we will continue to be successful. We have grown each year, in scale and in attendance.
Milton: What are your plans for the future?
Nerad: Every year, we try to plan what’s next and try to be bigger and better. Next year is our 10th anniversary, and we have to have some big and exciting things new next year. We set the bar pretty high, but we will certainly up the ante. We have a lot of ideas and discussion, but nothing is set yet for next year.
This is the first year that we had an official review from HauntedIllinois.com, which is one of the leading haunted house listing websites in the state of Illinois. …It was very exciting for all of us, to put in so much time and effort and to have a fantastic review and feedback from them.
Milton: How long will it take for you to take down the haunted house?
Nerad: We take everything down and clean up in about a week. It’s pretty strenuous, but due to the continuous busy schedule of the theater, we are always on a tight time frame. …We have two semi trailers that we store the over 600 panels in. All of the props and costumes go into storage areas. We have over two miles of cables and wiring to make everything work.