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Sunday, October 9  

The thrill of the haunt - 
Fright aficionado Adam Drendel combs the state for the scariest haunted houses--so you don't have to

By Mary Ann Fergus
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 9, 2005

Adam 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 darkness.

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 grinding gears.

"You're going down," taunts a black-cloaked figure as the elevator shakes and bounces, reeking of burnt wires.

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.

By 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 haunts.

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 job.

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 be entertained."

Drendel's site, experts say, buoys a changing haunted house industry and informs consumers.

Local 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 owners said.

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."

Creative, detailed room sets and credible acting make for successful haunted houses, Drendel said.

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."

In the 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.

Near 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.

Then it's 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 trip.

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 haunted houses."

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 site,, to share his findings with other fans. Offering another perspective is, a Web site that employs a team of seven reviewers to critique about 60 sites spread across the Great Lakes area.

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 open."

"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.

A 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 together.

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.

Last year, 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 tours.

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 minutes.

"So what do you think?" Upchurch asks.

"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 begun.


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune



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