CHAMBERSBURG – Deep in the heart of the Franklin County Historical Society (175 East King St.), is a nondescript space called the Minehart Room. On a normal day, it is a pleasant-enough venue for hosting small exhibits and board meetings.
Today, however, folding tables are set up as if planning for triage. Tarps have been taped to the floor to catch the splatter. It’s the calm before the storm, and Tina Houpt is making sure her crew is prepared in case all hell breaks loose.
This is the third day (of four) of the Franklin County Historical Society’s Haunted Jail 2022 fundraiser during which the historic Old Jail is converted into a massive haunted house.
Over the next two hours, volunteers will enter the Minehart Room as normal people, but they will leave as monsters.
Meanwhile, a line of people paying good money to be scared out of their minds will begin to form out front.
Tina Houpt is the owner of Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio (127 S. Main St.), which specializes in makeup for life’s special occasions. Today, her team is responsible for applying the makeup that will bring the Haunted Jail to life.
Yes, it’s a bit of a departure for them, but it is also a labor of love.
“These girls are so used to doing the formal proms and formal makeovers and the formal weddings, and this is kind of their release, and they have absolutely just taken it and run with it,” says Houpt of her makeup artists. “They love it. They love these four nights of doing this because it’s so out of character from what they do on a daily basis.”
“Of course, we don’t use the makeup that we use in the studio,” she clarifies. “We did have to get Halloween makeup and the blood and all of that stuff.”
Over the next few hours, they will convert 20-30 people into monsters and ghouls.
One of her makeup artists has called out tonight, but Houpt remains optimistic. Her team is experienced at working onsite for weddings, and most of them have helped with this event before.
“They know us now,” says Houpt of the performers who will be getting their makeup done. “They’ll come in and say, ‘I want what you did to him last year.’ They know what we can do now.”
A haunted house is a form of interactive theater, so the makeup has to look real up close. It also has to withstand a night of crawling, lurching and jumping out at guests. But it also has to come off at the end of the night.
When asked about the goriest costumes she’s seen, Houpt says, “This year a girl has what looks like a saw blade in her mouth. That one, and the one we did last week with the pins in the lips with all of the blood. Some of those are the goriest we’ve done.”
She adds: “They do come up with some really far out things.”
Upstairs, Neil Rensch explains that the Haunted Jail was launched in the 60s or 70s, but it was discontinued after the building was damaged by some outside groups (not affiliated with the Historical Society) who were brought in to help.
He was inspired to revive it after reading about it in newspapers held in the society’s own archives.
“It was a success right from the start, and each year it seems to be getting better and better,” he says.
The Haunted Jail event happens to be the largest fundraiser for Franklin County Historical Society. All of the proceeds go to keep the building open. It’s not cheap to heat a building that is more than 200 years old, and sometimes the roof leaks.
The money also allows them to conduct tours, maintain local artifacts, and keep the genealogy library open, which draws visitors from all over the country.
In order to protect the building during the event preparations, participants are advised as to what they can and can’t hang on the walls. No screws, no nails. The historical society has also accumulated lots of wood and large panels, much of which had been donated by Lowes.
“Of course, all that wood, today, is probably worth a pretty penny,” said Rensch.
One volunteer has decorated his portion of the Haunted Jail with straw, which Rensch only allowed on the condition that he takes every bit of it with him when they’re done.
Rensch tried to impose a central theme on the event, but it expanded as more people got involved.
“People like to be zombies, some like to be clowns, some like to be ghosts, and so on,” he says. “As long as it scares.”
And it does scare. Haunted houses, it turns out, are judged based on how effectively they cause guests to lose control of their bodily functions.
“Last week, I think we had two people that had to bail out,” he says with some pride. “They couldn’t go through. One girl on the third floor threw up.”
They confirmed that it wasn’t due to any form of illness. It was just her first time in a haunted house.
TIMOTHY AND MARY
Back down in the Minehart Room, volunteers Timothy Thomas and Mary Nice are getting into costume. Thomas had so much fun doing it last year that he decided right then and there that he would be back again this year. This is Nice’s first year.
Thomas’s character wears a mask, so he doesn’t need makeup, but Nice will have an oozing gash in her throat that stretches from ear to ear.
The pair is engaged, and they constructed and decorated their room together. Their shared cell is on the top floor (where the girl threw up) and has been outfitted with four strobe lights and a foundation of straw (presumably the straw Rensch mentioned).
“This year we wanted to do our own theme,” says Nice. “A ‘Jeepers Creepers,’ scary scarecrow-type theme is what we’re going for.”
Thomas says that the hardest part is controlling his breathing so people aren’t sure if there’s a real person in the costume or not.
“When he’s standing there, and he jumps out at you, or you’re walking through the room, and you see him – it’s a freaky thing,” says Nice.
Autumn Smith is currently taking her turn in the makeup chair, and she is having a circular saw blade pushed through her face by Merle Norman’s Mackenzie Jones.
It’s still unsettling to look at even after they’ve shown you how the trick is done.
This is Smith’s third year participating in the event. Her costumes have always been dictated by the theme of her cell, which is sponsored by Chambersburg Dental Associates. For her first year, she was Nancy in a Freddy Krueger maze that had been constructed right here in the Minehart Room. Last year her cell had a “butcher shop” theme, and she played a person with no eyes.
“The butcher cut them out,” she explains as Jones continues to add blood.
“Yeah, I remember that,” says Thomas. “She was the one that was screaming.”
“Yeah,” says Smith. “All night.”
This year she doesn’t have to worry about screaming because of the saw blade tearing through the corners of her mouth.
“I just whimper and cry,” she says, “but I still get a lot of people.
This year’s theme is – wait for it – the “Saw” movie franchise.
Makeup artist Mackenzie Jones, back for her second year, explains that the makeup process typically revolves around a common formula.
“Latex, cotton balls, and then just different forms of fake blood,” says Jones. “Your everyday household items.”
There is a huge difference – both in materials used and how success is determined – between her work at Merle Norman and the bloodbath in the Minehart Room.
“When we do weddings, we compliment the brides, ‘You look gorgeous, beautiful, and you look wonderful on your day,’” she says. “When we compliment someone who sits in our chair for these events, we go, ‘That looks disgusting. You look awful.’ And it’s a huge compliment.”
That’s not to say that the two worlds couldn’t collide someday.
“I would 100 percent be okay with doing a themed wedding like this,” she says. “I would 100 percent be down with combining both aspects.”
This is Kara Shindle’s first year in the event, and she is playing several characters. Their names read like the call sheet of a B-movie film studio.
“I started out as the Next Victim Off of the Street, which incidentally was a disheveled prostitute from the 1850s,” she says. “And I’ve moved into a Zombie, a Dead Sister – that was also the victim of the werewolf, a Werewolf Handler, the Wife of Bill Reed, who is buried in the courtyard, and then I was Creepy Dancing Lady in the same courtyard area.”
Switching up the characters throughout the night helps to keep it interesting for both the guests and the performers. After all, how many times can the performers shriek the same phrase before it loses its potency? It also gives the performers a chance to rest.
“The first night, I only did the Next Victim [Off Of the Street], and it got hard to scream and cry the whole time – especially considering how long we’re in there,” says Shindle.
Will she do it again next year?
“I really hope so,” she says. “I’m having so much fun.”