Nether region 

Netherworld strikes fear in suburban hearts

Before I visited Netherworld, I never considered the similarities between nubile strippers and nightmarish monsters. But on a dark, cloudless Saturday night, I learned that the 8-year-old haunted house features strict instructions for its costumed creatures that differ only slightly from lap dancers.

At the entrance to one of Netherworld's three haunted "houses," a goth chick in widow's weeds instructed us in fear-victim etiquette: "Do not touch the monsters," she said. "We don't touch you, you don't touch us." For the fearsome attraction's young, high-hormone clientele, a tour of the scare floor no doubt provides a titillating, pulse-racing form of foreplay.

Unearthly ticket-takers include a bosomy evil harlequin and a hot-chick red devil with horns and leather, but otherwise, Netherworld is a place to get freaked out, not to get your freak on. Apart from the masochism of paying good money to bestial strangers to frighten the bejesus out of you, modern-day chambers of horrors exhume different kinds of feelings.

I approached Netherworld more afraid of being disappointed than being terrorized. Would its gruesome production values compensate for the chintzy carnival rides and thrill-free, P.T.A.-sponsored spook houses that let me down as I grew up? Would it work as a specialized kind of live theater? The sign reading "Wholesale Carpet Mart" atop the Netherworld building didn't exactly strike fear into my heart. With my friend Chris backing me up, I first stepped into "Oblivion," the closest attraction to the ticket booth.

Playing on trendy techno-industrial style, "Oblivion" evoked a Trent Reznor music video, or possibly a rave during an asylum breakout. Amid jarring mechanical sound effects, visitors creep past exhibits of grisly medical tortures and demonic escapades. Most memorably, a masked, straitjacketed figure thrashes in a strobe light, with crackling sounds suggesting too much electroshock.

With lots of chain and chain-link, "Oblivion" evokes the tension of groping through an old-school maze, with updated flourishes like winged demons, madmen shooting off overhead sparks and a chainsaw-wielding freak at the end. Several times I pushed through straps of long, rubbery fabric and once, slid between spinning, floor-to-ceiling rollers with wicked spikes. Perhaps "Oblivion" preys on the phobia of being an automobile in a car wash. A strange, exhilarating feeling accompanied the final escape -- I was especially relieved that I never wandered backstage by mistake.

"Spirits of the Dead," Netherworld's main attraction, suggests "Tales of the Crypt" staged by a hostile takeover of Disneyworld's Haunted Mansion. Videotaped backstory describes the "Whyshburg burial ground" and the ruins of the "Old Bostwick house," which at first just looks like the digs of a too-serious Alice Cooper fan.

But "Spirits'" art direction, from faux-castle battlements to creaky clapboard walls, effectively immerses the spectator into a supernatural haunt. The massive animatronic creatures inspire awe -- one monstrosity the size and disposition of The Fellowship of the Rings' cave troll lunges at the audience. Mummified pygmies blow air-compressor blowguns at passers-by, misshapen critters claw at rickety doors.

Netherworld's ensemble of costumed actors, called the "Netherspawn," proved well trained in the art of the startle. Basically, they just pop out of hidden passages or from around corners while emitting sharp cries. It works every time. Some hide in plain sight, keeping motionless in, say, suits of armor. One ivy-covered figure stays invisibly camouflaged before a garden wall until you least expect it.

They even know when the audience starts to get wise. At one point, you go past an open closet, wary of a figure moving on the other side of the hanging clothes. Only after you're clear does a ghoul jump right out in your face, saying, "I thought there was someone in there, too!" After a while, so many jolts leave your nerves totally shot, but "Spirits of the Dead" makes up for every ride that ever left you yawning.

The "Spirits" exit leads to the "Very Scary Tales in 3-D" entrance, the least chilling of Netherworld's options. Visitors wear movie-style 3-D glasses and gawk at corridors of mildly frightful illustrations in garish luminescent paint. Imagine dropping acid and feeling like you're stuck in a hippie-era underground comic book.

In keeping with the fairy-tale-gone-wrong motif, giant gingerbread men menace the visitors, and a menacing, costumed pig-man punctuates the gruesome fate of the Big Bad Wolf. Marauding clowns and deranged Raggedy Anns also surprise the audience, but "Very Scary Tales" offered fewer neat-o effects. It did feature a fun-house style catwalk through a tunnel that took such a disorienting spin, the world seemed to lurch to the side, perhaps representing America's terrifying change in political direction.

My glasses wouldn't stay on my head, which may have soured me on "Very Scary Tales," the only "house" that left me with that familiar, slightly swindled, I-spent-how-many-tickets-on-this feeling from the state fair. Best think of it as an optional, sherbet-colored dessert to Netherworld's eerie entrees.

Whatever you might call the opposite of that childlike sense of wonder, Netherworld mostly succeeds at capturing it, and offers a harmlessly horrifying respite from real-life anxieties. If Netherworld really wanted to scare people, it would construct vaults of terror like the "Vortex of the Health Insurance Bills," the "Unthinkable Policies of President Ashcroft," the "Unstoppable Entity from the Escrow Account" or the "Journey through the Bowels of the DMV." Next to the likes of those, the Netherspawn are kind of comforting.


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