Deep Within Literally, a Haunted House at Culbertson Mansion
By Noah Wullkotte
City Blood had the pleasure of interviewing Holly Crisler, organizer of Literally, a Haunted House at Culbertson Mansion. She puts her blood, sweat and tears into this annual haunted attraction that’s been around since 1985. We discuss the history of the haunted attraction and cover many aspects of this Indiana favorite.
This is our Culbertson Mansion interview, enjoy!
What’s involved in organizing Literally, a Haunted House every year?
A lot! We start planning in February, we attend the Transworld Halloween & Haunt Trade Show in March, we tear down in April and start building in May. We have a design team that supervises the themes, ideas and planning during construction. Then that same team handles make-up, costuming, coaching, training and actor placement once the season officially starts.
How do you find your volunteer actors and what do you look for in an actor?
We take volunteers of all ages. We have them as young as 5 and as old as 50 and up. Most of our volunteers hear about us through their friends. Some have even been customers in the past. And we give everyone a chance. No matter how shy or how aggressive a person is, we will find the spot for them that matches their potential.
What’s the planning process in coming up with a different theme each year?
We’ve got some very creative people in our group that come up with some amazing storylines and ideas. We have a dinner meeting in February where we get together, chow down on some home made lasagna and toss around ideas. Sometimes the theme is an elaborate history but a few times it’s been based solely on a single prop or idea.
What’s your favorite haunt besides Literally, a Haunted House?
I got the chance to visit three local haunts this season and I gotta say I really like what The Devil’s Attic is doing. They have a great facility, sets that make me jealous and some seriously good actors. Several years ago I was lucky enough to visit The House of Shock in New Orleans. THAT was an amazing haunt!
What renovations have been made to Culbertson Mansion using the profits from the haunt?
Ha, what HASN’T been done?! Our raised funds have paid for hand-woven carpeting, storm windows, plaster repair and especially the hand-painted ceilings. The murals on the original ceilings were very detailed, vibrant and elaborate. The restored paintings are just gorgeous. The main floor is almost done, the 2nd floor is about halfway done and the third floor hasn’t been touched since before the 1900s, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. So that means many more years of Haunted House work.
Are you guys planning for next year’s haunt and what are some things people can expect?
Some ideas have been tossed around, but nothing definite yet. But everyone can expect something different. We like to keep it fresh and original and we replace nearly every room every year.
Have you ever had paranormal groups investigate the mansion and what have their results been?
We have not, and I know that disappoints a lot of people, but there’s a lot of legal stuff that prevents us from having any paranormal organizations from doing any kind of field work in the Mansion. Mostly it’s insurance reasons. The Mansion is a state-owned museum and holds hundreds of priceless artifacts. We can’t let people wander around in the dark and duct tape wires and electronic equipment to the window sills and furniture.
How did you come up with the idea of using a coffin ride inside the haunt?
That idea was around long before I joined the Haunt. I decided to bring it back several years ago after hearing stories of how much fun it was and how freaked out it made our visitors. It’s become a local legend now, so it’s here to stay.
How did you come up with the idea of using the spinning box inside the haunt?
That was another prop that existed way back in the early 90s. When I heard the same stories about the Spin Box I knew we had to get it back. And this new one is much better than the old one, so I’ve been told.
Tell us a little about the ghostly happenings events that are held during the Halloween season.
We have a lot more going on during the fall besides Literally, a Haunted House. For our smaller, younger visitors that find the Haunt too intense, we have Spooky Storytelling three times a night, Friday and Saturday nights starting October 19. For people more interested in the history of the Mansion and its former inhabitants, we have our Ghostly Happenings Tours on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:30. And for anyone brave enough, we have our Ghostly Undertaking Sleepover coming up on November 3rd. This event goes all night with a candle light dinner, a Ghostly Happenings Tour, scavenger hunt, Tarot card readings, classic horror movies and the opportunity for visitors to do their own ‘ghost hunting’.
Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever had any scary experiences at the carriage house or Culbertson Mansion?
I’ve had some very strange, unexplainable experiences in other locations, but never in the Mansion unfortunately. Everybody else has seen or heard something strange in there but me. I keep hoping, though. The Carriage House can get kind of creepy when I’m there by myself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone come in and stomp up the stairs, only to holler for them, search for them and find nothing.
How do you compete in a market market that is saturated with haunts around every corner?
It’s tough but we have such a great local following. Being around for nearly 30 years has its advantages. So many people came here when they we young, and now those same people have grown up and had kids of their own, and now THOSE kids are coming through. We’re a tradition they all look forward to.
How do you work with other haunts in the Kentuckiana area?
My crew and I know dozens of people who work at the other local Haunts. We see each other all the time, especially at the Haunt Trade Show and at HauntCon when it came to Louisville a couple of years ago. When we get together we talk shop and share stories. And this year we started doing a ‘coupon swap’ with a couple of the other Haunts. We have some of their coupons at our Ticket Booth, and they have some of our coupons at their ticket window. It promotes good business all around and keeps the haunted house fans busy.
What is your best selling item at your concession stand and why do you think that is?
Ha! Probably popcorn (because you can’t escape the smell) or hot cocoa (because it’s perfect in cooler weather).
What is your busiest weekend of the season and why is that?
New Albany has a major annual event called Harvest Homecoming that occurs the second weekend in October. This even draws people from all over the state of Indiana and some from across the river in Louisville. The folks coming over from Harvest Homecoming will keep us busy way into the early morning hours!
Tell us a little about some of the people who are instrumental in the success of Literally, a Haunted House?
Well, first we couldn’t pull any of this off without the help and cooperation of the Mansion Staff. They put in a lot of extra hours every Friday and Saturday. Not only are they taking care of the Mansion during the day, they’re selling tickets, novelties and concessions at night, not to mention doing food preparation for all the nightly volunteer creepies. Since we aren’t paid to be here, the Staff shows their appreciation by feeding us every night. And this year one lovely volunteer has been providing home cooked meals!
I also have some fantastic people as my directors and fellow designers that are essential to getting the haunt up and running every night. My long-time friend Gary helps with construction, directing and make-up. My other director, Dustin, plans the outside set design and handles our cast list and nightly role assignments. Plus all the design team folks who’ve put in extra time (and sometimes their own money) to create their own scenes and costumes.
If there’s one thing you could change about Literally, a Haunted House, what would that be?
I wish we had a bigger facility. Being on State property we’re very limited in space and what we can do. Our restrictions are much tighter than those of other Haunts that own their own property. But every year we figure out a way to make it a little bigger and a little longer, and still keep Indiana happy.
Who’s idea was it to calculate how many people have peed their pants, blacked out etc?
Ha! Oh, man, the Incident Board! One of our past volunteers and I came up with that and it has been a hit ever since. All of the non-costumed people have radios so we are in constant communication, not to mention the dozens of actors we have all over the place. We all we’re getting such a kick out of some of the extreme reactions that we thought it would be a hoot to have this posted where everybody could see it.
Where do you see the future of Literally, a Haunted House?
Continuing to grow, even in our small location. Other Haunts have come and gone but we’re still here. Since 1985 we’ve been doing this. We’ve had Staff changes over the years, and some of our volunteers grow up, go to college, join the military, get married and have kids. But we add new volunteer every year so our number is constantly growing. My ‘guys’ and I have been here a while… we plan on being here for a while longer.
For more information on the haunted attraction, please visit www.hauntedculbertson.org.