Tag Archives: Mystery Manor

Omaha’s Urban Legends

January 8, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Every place has its urban legends, some quite famous. The Tower of London, as an example, has a group of ravens, and an urban legend to accompany them: If they ever leave, the story goes, the crown of Britain will fall.

Omaha has its share of unusual tales—perhaps more than its share. There doesn’t seem to be an old house or a building in Omaha without its own haunting. Everybody has an ancestor, it would seem, who was connected with a notorious crime in some way.

It’s understandable. Omaha was a frontier town, one in which vice was a major industry and a gambler ran the city as a crime boss for three decades. This memory lingers, and encourages tall tales, but some of the city’s most noted urban legends are outside the realm of the underworld.

Take the stories of Hummel Park north of the city, which is such a locus of fanciful speculation that it is the subject of a new book, The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, by Jeremy Morong. The entry to the park, we are told, has trees that bend inward, a reminder of an era when lynchings were common in the park.

There is, however, no credible evidence that anyone was ever lynched there. Neither is there evidence of Satanic ritual murder, another popular Hummel legend. One of the oddest stories about the park is the presence of an “albino farm.” This one has been kicked around since at least 1966, according to Omaha World-Herald clippings. The idea of a band of feral albinos living in the park is likely an Ozark legend that migrated north as there are also stories of an albino farm in Springfield, Missouri.

The park was long used by Boy Scouts and was the site of a day camp, and it’s likely that this is where many of the legends came from. There is one story, however, that has some credibility. Hummel Park was a former Indian burial ground. Native remains have been found in the area, including a skull that was used as decoration for a totem pole by the Boy Scouts in 1945.

Here are some other Omaha legends, and the truth behind them:

The White House Apartments

This imposing structure on 10th street is widely reported to have been a military hospital during a past war, and now haunted by those who died there. The building has no military provenance, but it was used as a retirement home for a while.

Omaha’s Tunnels

There are a lot of tunnels under houses in Omaha, but it is unlikely many, if any, were used for transporting bootleg liquor, which everybody claims. Omaha was an open town during Prohibition, and booze could easily be transported by truck. Some home brewing probably took place in tunnels, but most date to pre-Prohibition days, and were more likely used as fruit cellars and other legal uses.

The Murder at Mystery Manor

Mystery Manor, one of the city’s popular Halloween attractions, likes to tell a story of a brutal murder that took place in the building in 1929. Owner William Hall, it is said, took a hatchet to his wife. The story is a marvelous marketing device, but nothing else. In 1929, the house was occupied by Lillian Baum, who sold terrier pups.


Joe Giles

October 31, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He’s just come back from a walk, palm trees in the background, with a 3-pound Chihuahua named Minnie Mouse. Joe Giles is no longer a Nebraska kid following an Air Force dad around the Midwest. The 30-year-old has been settled in Los Angeles for the last 10 years, working as a makeup artist for K.N.B. EFX Group, Inc. on projects like AMC’s The Walking Dead.

“I just finished working on some Walking Dead webisodes,” Giles says, “you know, those in-between-season shorts they put online.” Specifically, he works in K.N.B.’s molding department, lifecasting actors in custom makeups for that rotted look so popular for today’s zombie. He’s contributed his special-effects makeup expertise on all three completed seasons of the show, even helping to establish the original movements 
of the walkers.

“I actually did early camera tests,” he says. “They used me for some of the makeup tests, and they use some of that footage to teach the actors how to walk on camera.”

Giles considers himself rather fortunate so far in his plans to continue both acting and doing lab work. “I keep getting both sprinkled randomly as I go,” he says, mentioning his appearance as a zombie in the “Thriller” scene of the 2009 Michael Jackson film This Is It (“I was lying in this grave thinking, oh wow, I am really doing this”). And how he got to do all the hair work for the Michael Myers masks in Rob Zombie’s 2009 Halloween II. And when he got to play a demonic surgeon in Zombie’s 2012 The Lords of Salem. “It’s not every day one of your music idols is directing you,” Giles says, still obviously impressed. And of course, he’s continuing work on the fourth season of The Walking Dead that premiered this October.

He says that Howard Berger, co-founder of K.N.B., jokes that Giles is their resident ghoul. “I don’t mind being typecast though,” he says, “I love all that.”

He admits that, during his middle-school and high-school years in Omaha, “Halloween was pretty much what I lived for all year. It’s my true passion.” Annual trips to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch in Gretna, Neb., were a given. At 15, Giles began volunteering at Mystery Manor, a permanent haunted house in Downtown Omaha. “That place definitely helped shape my creative life,” he says, recalling his earliest experiences with special-effects makeup and the challenges of getting the movements of a new character just right. “Wayne [Sealy, owner of Mystery Manor] pretty much gave us free rein. Doing makeup for haunted houses and acting…it teaches you to be fast on your feet, to think quickly.”

After two years of studio art at University of Nebraska-Omaha, graduating from Westmore Makeup Academy in California, plus his years of experience in the film industry, it’s just possible that Giles has refined his approach to the perfect spooky look. “You gotta find a mid-ground between just gore and something that’s interesting. For instance, last year, I was a zombie, but I kept it more forensic and skeletal,” he says.

Oh? Was this for a party?

“Well, I still go trick-or-treating. I mean, you know, I’ll hit a few houses.”

Clearly, Halloween is still his thing. In fact, that seems to be a huge reason he tries to come back to Omaha whenever the leaves change. “I miss that Midwest fall,” he says. “You don’t get that out here. I’ll even set out fall-scented air fresheners to get that feel in  L.A.” He even shows up at Mystery Manor to volunteer whenever schedules permit. “I pretty much just say, ‘Hey, Wayne, I’m here to work!’”

Of course, cool weather, autumn colors, and haunted houses aren’t the only draws to come home. He and his twin sister, Brandi Lusk, celebrated their 30th birthday together last April.

They spent a cozy night with their family at the Villisca Axe Murder House in Villisca, Iowa.

Welcome to William’s Nightmare

September 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Mystery Manor

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.”


Kind-hearted volunteers?

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.