It takes a lot to scare a scarester.
But John Eslich admitted he had the jitters as the clock ticked down last Friday night on official opening night of Akron’s Haunted Schoolhouse and Laboratory.
This fall marks the first time since the attraction’s humble beginnings in 1974, when the late Don Johns and his wife, Cindy, purchased the former Thomastown Elementary School on Triplett Boulevard and opened a haunted house, that someone else has been in charge of the eclectic collection of props and scenes from cemeteries to crackling laboratories.
Taking over a beloved attraction — an estimated 2.75 million visitors have screamed their way through the dark passageways over the ensuing years — can be scarier than a room full of zombies looking for their next dinner.
Expectations are high, Eslich said, so you don’t want to screw up a beloved Halloween tradition for generations of families in Northeast Ohio that claims to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continually operating haunted houses in the world without missing a single season.
As if this weren’t enough pressure, the Akron haunts have topped numerous lists over the years that rank the best Halloween haunted houses in the country.
But fear not: The new caretaker is no stranger to the odd underworld.
Eslich owns the Factory of Terror in Canton that is in a sprawling 160,000-square-foot abandoned aluminum foundry and has earned the Guinness World Record of largest indoor haunted house.
The challenge in Akron, Eslich said, was to keep some of the sentimental favorites — like Frankenstein’s lab — but change things up a bit with new scares, more animatronic characters and creatures and special effects.
He wants to breathe new life into a place that makes its scratch by looking rundown and full of death.
“It will feel different in a good way,” he said. “The bottom line is I want to deliver a good product.
“If they come out scared or laughing, that’s a good thing and we’ve done our job.”
Things do look different already from the outside looking in.
There’s a new midway with cool old-school Edison-like light bulbs dangling overhead, creating a courtyard linking the schoolhouse with the laboratory next door. Picnic tables have been added along with visiting food trucks on weekends.
The throwback Haunted Schoolhouse bus is parked there for guests to take selfies in front of. Eslich even added tents to host parties and group outings.
Costumed actors mill about, including an easily agitated zombie custodian looking to keep the place clean and free of litter and the living.
Eslich said particular care was taken to draw attention to what he considers an architectural gem in the former Guggenheim Airship Institute that has been home to the haunted lab since 1981.
Built in 1932, it was designed by Akron architect M.M. Konarski who used an art-deco scheme for the structure. It was once home to scores of workers and scientists who toiled in a maze of laboratories, offices, classrooms and libraries with a lofty goal to perfect lighter-than-air travel and conduct weather experiments.
But many of the brick walls, soaring ceilings, industrial trappings and tall windows were covered over the years to make the building artificially dark and scary.
Eslich said he wants visitors to enjoy the original spooky beauty, so his workers toiled over the summer to sandblast layers of black paint from the brick interior walls and remove many of the fake walls that covered the windows.
They even removed trees and shrubs that shrouded a huge stone relief sculpture of a goddess cradling an airship. She now basks in light at night for guests to gaze upon.
And many of the scares inside are not so random anymore.
Eslich said the entire top floor of the building is full of animals and related spooky stuff, paying homage to the critters that once lived there in cages and were subjects of experiments when it was a working lab.
He said it is rare in the scare business to have such an authentic building and a rich history to work with.
“That building is phenomenal,” Eslich said.
Time will tell whether the Haunted Schoolhouse and Laboratory will be around for another four decades. But last week’s opening night did ease Eslich’s fears some.
By the time they applied the last bloody scab on the face of the final deceased scarer and cranked up the creepy music and sound effects, some 500 customers were already in line with tickets clutched in their hands.
The first person in line was from Steubenville, and he had been waiting a good three hours.
“That was nice to see,” he said. “People grow up with these haunts and I’m here to carry on that tradition.”
Craig Webb, who is still lost in a pitch-black maze in the bottom floor of the Haunted Laboratory, can be reached (once he finds his way out) at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3547.
Akron’s beloved Haunted Schoolhouse and Laboratory scares on under new ownership
It takes a lot to scare a scarester.