Sunday, October 9
The thrill of the
Fright aficionado Adam Drendel
combs the state for the scariest haunted houses--so you don't have
By Mary Ann Fergus
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 9, 2005
Drendel stands before another haunted house, anxious to see what
thrills lurk inside.
The 34-year-old engineer sets his
stopwatch, turns on his digital recorder and steps into the
Drendel, founder and lone staff member of a Web
site that reviews haunted houses across the state, enters a faux
elevator and whispers brief observations into the recorder: two
flickering light bulbs, dingy padded walls, shorted-out Muzak and
"You're going down," taunts a black-cloaked
figure as the elevator shakes and bounces, reeking of burnt
This is Dream Reapers Haunted House in Melrose Park
and Drendel's fourth stop this year, his sixth season as the
unofficial expert on Illinois' best haunted productions.
Halloween, Drendel expects he'll check out at least two dozen
houses--from small Jaycee operations to large, private ventures--and
then pick his top 10 favorites. The reviews are posted within a week
of his visits. Fans of his site--it attracted about 450,000 visitors
last year--also submit comments.
From his home in western
Genoa, Drendel logged 3,000 miles on his 1995 Monte Carlo last
October as he traveled across the state visiting
Spook house operators, walking corpses, psycho clowns
and mangled patients in these parts know Drendel by sight now. Less
than five minutes into this house, a white-faced character lunges
toward him and shouts, "Hello, Adaaaaam!"
Drendel half smiles
in acknowledgment but remains focused on absorbing the show. He
usually wears his own expressionless mask while on the
The fright factor wore off years ago, said Drendel, who
by day works as an engineer for Motorola in Libertyville. He might
get startled but never scared.
"A haunted house doesn't
necessarily have to be scary to be worthwhile," he explains. "I
think it's more of an enjoyment factor over all. Everyone wants to
Drendel's site, experts say, buoys a
changing haunted house industry and informs consumers.
cities and villages have become more vigilant about upholding
building and fire codes that can lead to costly upgrades such as
sprinkler systems. Many non-profit community organizations have
found the costs of running a house prohibitive, and private
companies have stepped in with more elaborate productions, each
spending between $150,000 and $180,000 in the Chicago area, local
High operation costs lead to $15 to $25 ticket
prices--and more demanding consumers, said Larry Kirchner, owner of
five haunted houses in Missouri and president of the International
Association of Haunted Attractions.
"People are now willing
to drive farther away to see a haunted house, but they want to see
the best one," Kirchner said. "That [Web site] helps identify which
ones are worth it and which ones are not."
room sets and credible acting make for successful haunted houses,
His passion for great haunts is similar, he
said, to someone who visits amusement parks looking for the best
roller coaster ride.
"It's the adrenaline rush, a kind of
escape," Drendel said. "You don't know what's ahead."
Melrose Park house, Drendel moves through about a dozen rooms, from
a destitute farmhouse kitchen with piped-in banjo music and an angry
man demanding that visitors cook him dinner to a clown room where
one red-nosed character blasts away with a machine gun.
the exit, Drendel gets caught in a pitch-black maze. Ghouls tell him
he's gone the wrong way until finally someone opens a door leading
to a spinning vortex tunnel.
"I love these," Drendel says as
he stumbles a few steps before arriving at a cemetery, then a forest
where the dead and dying jump out, scream and moan.
over, and Drendel is under bright lights in the haunted house gift
shop, where he reports to the owners that his journey took 14
minutes and was great, making note of the two-tiered clown room.
Just to make sure he's captured everything, he takes a second
This effort, he said, is as much about offering a
public service as it is having fun.
"Someone else will do the
heart walk," Drendel said of his hobby. "I'll write a review of
His hunt for the best haunts started off
small, as these quests often do. As a child, he and his parents and
older brother visited nearby attractions in Genoa and DeKalb every
year. Already a fan of traditional horror movies such as
"Frankenstein," he loved the houses.
By his teens, Drendel
began venturing as far as Rockford and St. Charles. Each year, he
added more miles and houses.
In 1999, he created his Web
to share his findings with other fans. Offering another perspective
is Hauntedhousechicago.com, a Web site that employs a team of seven
reviewers to critique about 60 sites spread across the Great Lakes
Wes Pierce, 25, of Elgin has relied on Haunted Illinois
for several Halloween seasons to visit 12 to 16 haunted houses with
a group of friends.
"I consider [Drendel's] reviews extremely
informative," Pierce said. He noted that the reviews never give away
the element of surprise.
Initially, Drendel surprised and
annoyed a few haunted house owners who complained that he didn't
understand their challenges or that he arrived too early in the
season, to which Drendel responded: "If you're not ready, don't
"A couple years ago, there was one [review] I wasn't
happy about," said Jim Upchurch, president of Eleventh Hour Haunted
House in Downers Grove. But Upchurch said that Drendel's reviews are
more informed now and that the site is a boon for business. Drendel
is "a huge part of our marketing and advertising, and I wouldn't
want to lose it," Upchurch said.
He concedes that as he's
immersed himself in the industry, going to trade shows and other
gatherings, his reviews have become increasingly positive.
single man who remains in his hometown despite a 90-minute commute
to and from work, Drendel said he believes that haunted houses, like
trick-or-treating, need to be preserved, even promoted. He sees
haunts as good family fun, another way for a community to get
Drendel's top picks are often the bigger budget
houses, but two smaller houses, one in Downstate Clinton and another
offered by the Jaycees in Brookfield, made his top ten list last
year. "There's a part of me that really enjoys the smaller ones,
just because of the creativity," Drendel said.
after three years of rating Dream Reapers as his top pick, Drendel
selected Bloomington's Creatures Crypt as his favorite haunt for its
detailed rooms and strong acting.
On this Saturday night,
Drendel leaves Dream Reapers and makes a 20-minute trip to Downers
Grove to see Eleventh Hour--part of an itinerary he has mapped out
on a spreadsheet in order to be efficient with his weekend
A free-standing attraction made from trailers,
Eleventh Hour offers a different kind of show, one that tells a
story through actors and sets. The show ends with a maze that took
some patrons a half-hour to navigate. Drendel finishes within three
"So what do you think?" Upchurch
"Excellent," Drendel says. "I really didn't see it as
trailers when I was walking through."
As he drives past dark
cornfields toward home after midnight, Drendel vows to continue
reviewing haunts until it stops being fun or until something else
vies for his free time, perhaps a family someday. But on this
October night, his haunted journey has just
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