“Welcome to the funeral home,” says the somber greeter. “Enter if you dare!”
You step forward bravely into the spectral dusk of a winding hallway. Soon, your courage starts to fade. It’s very dark. Strange, grisly noises float past you. A brush of air near your left shoulder nearly makes you jump out of your skin. Somewhere, someone is wailing in pain or terror, or both. And then, a scream bursts from your own throat! A hideous, deformed face flashes at you only inches from where you stand! The dead residents of the funeral home have risen to walk the earth in search of prey – and you have marched right into their hunting grounds!
It may seem like a scene out of a horror movie, but this scary story plays out every night at New Ulm Nightmares, a haunted house that has been organized by brother-sister duo Doug and Rose Hughes. Since 2014, the Hughes have been serving up thrills and chills every Halloween, and this year promises to be no different.
Scaring is caring
For Doug, the things that go bump in the night started with the things that go bump on a gymnastics mat.
It was 2014 and Doug was coaching the New Ulm Turner Hall Gymnastics program for youth. Along with teaching back flips and aerials, it was also Doug’s responsibility to brainstorm methods of raising money to help defray his students’ expenses. Doug wanted to put the fun in fundraiser, so he brainstormed events that he personally found exciting.
Creative thinking led him straight to his favorite holiday.
“I’ve just loved Halloween ever since I was a kid,” Doug said.
Haunted houses are always a fun way for people to get scared. It’s basically like live theater. You’re part of the play.Doug Hughes
He decided to create a no-holds-barred haunted house right at Turner Hall. The building’s old-fashioned atmosphere made it an ideal setting for spooky tours.
Doug realized right away that he had hit upon a winning idea. His gymnastics troupe and some of their parents pitched in to create the props, and they enjoyed volunteering as spooks as much as the visitors enjoyed being spooked.
“Haunted houses are always a fun way for people to get scared,” Doug said. “It’s basically like live theater. You’re part of the play.”
The first event was so successful that Doug committed to orchestrating another haunted house fundraiser the next Halloween. Fast-forward six years to 2020: New Ulm Nightmares has tripled in size, outgrowing Turner Hall and attracting visitors from all over Minnesota and even some from Iowa. Doug now holds the haunted house in a rented warehouse to accommodate the larger scope.
Planning for the next haunted house begins right after the current year’s event ends. Doug and his sister Rose Hughes spearhead the planning and coordinate volunteers. By August, they’ve chosen a theme and are ready to begin construction. Doug and his volunteers set up temporary walls to create a one-way, maze-like corridor with different haunted “rooms” interspersed throughout.
“Everything is built new,” he said.
Rose said that having a themed event allows the New Ulm Nightmares team to get creative when making props. Themes from previous years have included a sinister sanatorium, a haunted orphanage and “Full Moon Manor” full of werewolves.
“We had a gypsy room that was really nice last year,” Rose said. “That was the entrance. It was really detailed.”
At the end, they’re laughing because it’s fun to be so scared.Doug Hughes
In the past, visitors have toured the haunted house two or even three times just to marvel at the thoroughness of the decorations.
Doug and Rose have two criteria for a successful event: Screams in the beginning and laughter at the end.
“We’ve had several people wet themselves,” Doug said.
He and Rose know from experience that haunted houses are one of the best ways to be frightened. Visitors seem to enjoy the sensation of being terrified while knowing that everything they see is an illusion.
“At the end, they’re laughing because it’s fun to be so scared,” Doug said.
Rose said she likes chatting with the visitors as they enter, because they always seem so enthusiastic.
“They’re just a ball of nerves,” she said.
Each year, the Hughes’ goal is to serve up an experience more powerfully petrifying than their previous events. This year’s theme is the Olson Family Funeral Home, and the brother and sister duo said that they are confident in their ability to create thrills and chills despite corona-virus restrictions.
“Due to COVID, everybody needs to wear masks, which is perfect for Halloween,” Doug said.
The biggest challenge was building distance into each fright.
“Normally I’m right in your face, but now I have either plexiglass between us or the scares are farther away,” he explained.
Haunted house visitors can expect a safely spooky environment. Every year prior to opening, the fire department inspects the construction to make sure that it is up to code.
This year, Rose, who enjoys being the greeter, will stand at the entrance to welcome guests as the official “funeral director” and send them through only in the groups in which they came.
[Blackout nights] are the best nights. You can only see a foot or two in front of you. I might be a foot away from you and you wouldn’t know I’m there.Doug Hughes
Another change in operations is how long the haunted house will be open. Under normal circumstances, New Ulm Nightmares runs for four or five days on the two weekends right before Halloween, as well as Halloween itself. Because of COVID-19, the Hughes decided to open only on Oct. 30 and 31.
They still plan to hold “blackout hours,” which are their most popular visiting times. On Halloween night only from 10-11 p.m., the New Ulm Nightmares crew will turn off all lights in the warehouse, plunging their haunted funeral home into darkness. Courageous souls willing to brave the blackout will be given one glow stick per group to light their way.
“Those are the best nights,” Doug said of previous blackouts. “You can only see a foot or two in front of you. I might be a foot away from you and you wouldn’t know I’m there.”
A group effort
Because of the detail that goes into each year’s haunted house, the Hughes said they are grateful for all of the family, friends, and volunteers that help them create each labor-intensive display. Rose said that she is really impressed by the gymnasts’ commitment to making a frightfully immersive experience.
“They really take their positions seriously,” Rose said. “Even if their best friends go by, they don’t acknowledge them, and they love that. They’re like, ‘I just saw a boy I go to school with, and he didn’t know who I was!’”
[The gymnasts] really take their positions seriously. Even if their best friends go by, they don’t acknowledge them, and they love that.Rose Hughes
Although he is no longer with Turner Hall Gymnastics, Hughes said he plans to continue creating fresh nightmares every year for as long as possible. He still donates a portion of the proceeds to the team and invests the rest in next year’s spooky spectacle.
“Hopefully people are excited to come have a scare and be part of Halloween, especially this year,” Doug said. “I hope it gives people entertainment.”