The entryway of the 19th-century home is cramped, musty-smelling, and dark. A thunderstorm rolls appropriately in the background. Bloodstains spatter the wallpaper, and the portrait of a resigned-looking woman hangs on the wall.
“This—” Wayne Sealy bangs the head of his ax next to the portrait “—is Greta Hall. Murdered here by her loving husband—” bang! “—William.”
Wayne, the owner of Mystery Manor, warms to his performance in Downtown Omaha’s permanent haunted house at 18th and Burt streets. He spins the house’s official yarn about William Hall, who was later murdered by Greta’s brother. “To this day, William still walks these halls with his ax, looking for a pretty gal to join him in his garden party. FOR WHICH YOU QUALIFY,” Wayne booms impressively. “Please enter through this door right here.”
The first three rooms of Mystery Manor detail the story of William and Greta Hall, until “William” confronts guests in the flickering light of a parlor. “Dead as dreams, a new nightmare began,” the murderer intones. “Go! Behind you! Enter my nightmare.”
Nine scenes take guests through William’s torment, up and down three stories and across 6,000 square feet. Over the course of about 25 minutes, more than 30 volunteers make it their mission to deliver a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare.
A veteran actor himself, Wayne explains that a good scare consists of three stages. First is the set-up, the actor setting the scene for how guests will encounter him. Second is the approach. “Guests either approach you, or you approach them,” he says (don’t worry, actors never intentionally touch guests at Mystery Manor). The third part is, in his opinion, the most critical element of the scare and one that an inexperienced actor may neglect: the disengagement.
“Once you do what you do, it can go to crap in a second because now you’re just a man in a costume. You have to get out of Dodge,” Wayne explains. “As soon as you turn around to leave, you become eye candy.” The guest’s focus is now on the departing actor, “and now they’re all set for the next guy to come around and nail ’em.” As soon as a second actor has the attention, the first one can double-back for another scare.
But it’s not just actors in place to bring the fright. Animatronics, projections, monitors, careful lighting, and themed soundtracks round out the experience. For example, an animatronic dog jumps out to within six inches of a tight hallway in a Deliverance-themed zone. His name is Fluffy.
“We try to treat it like a rollercoaster,” says Mark Sealy, Wayne’s son and manager of Mystery Manor. “You need to have peaks and valleys.” He describes a scene with a gypsy fortuneteller. “She calms you down, she takes your hand, and she does a little fortune read. So you’re cresting the rollercoaster before plunging down again.”
“Give credit to the public,” Wayne points out. “If they’re not interacting, we’ve got nothing.” What actors can do, he says, is try to hit phobias, and the house is arrayed to touch on them all. Guests should avert their eyes in the zombie apocalypse room or suffer the consequences. A possessed circus includes a tunnel here and a back door there, enabling clowns and fortune tellers to slink around unseen until the last moment. A 60-foot slide spits guests out into a slaughterhouse. The child’s room is slowly burning. “It’s…pretty creepy,” Mark admits. “We did buy some new props this year for this room.”
Other less commercial elements add to the creepiness of the house, though the paying public may never notice them. “The building has stuff happen all the time,” Mark says as he walks down a behind-the-scenes staircase. “Every once in a while, we’ll find the teddy bears from the child’s room lined up here on the stairs. They just get put here. We think the ghost uses this almost as the house’s lost and found. If someone loses a baseball hat the night before, we’ll find it here.”
Mark shakes his head emphatically. “I’ve been here alone, and…that’s not it.”
And the ghost? Who is it? Because William and Greta Hall are fake, right?
Mark shares that in the late 1800s, No. 716 was actually a house of ill repute. “We do know, we have it documented, that one of the women who worked here was murdered along with her kid,” he says. “We don’t normally tell that story because it’s not very family-friendly. So that’s not the story we go off of.”
So. Say hello to “Greta” the next time you visit Mystery Manor.
Mystery Manor opens for the season on Fri., Sept. 13. For more information, visit mysterymanoromaha.org.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
- Mystery Manor has been running for 30 years.
- Over 100 volunteers act in the house per season.
- Some actors have been volunteering for as long as 29 years.
- The flow of the house hasn’t changed in 27 years.
- Staff, including volunteers, can empty the house in less than 53 seconds for a fire drill.
- It takes two hours a night to get all actors in makeup, including
- prosthetics, latex, special effects makeup, and airbrushing.
- It takes volunteers a month of bi-weekly training sessions to learn to
- navigate the house.
- Each of the house’s nine zones has its own exit. Only nine groups are
- allowed in the building at a time, enabling each group to have its own exit.
- Each group consists of no more than six people.
- Engineers check the house annually for structural soundness. (Still, leave the heels at home. Uneven surfaces abound.)
- In the Pharaoh’s tomb scene, hieroglyphics actually spell out insults about Mystery Manor actors.