{This story first appeared in Duluth Superior Magazine.}

Every October, the William A. Irvin is invaded. The billboards on I-35 would like you to believe that the creeping hoards swarming the decks with their grunts and moans are the undead, come back to drag your soul down to the frosty deeps. But I know the truth. Those shuffling, groaning shadows in the dark aren’t ghosts; they are high school students. And, let’s be honest, that’s a whole lot scarier.

Aye Aye, Captain

Ten years ago, the team presenting the Haunted Irvin decided to put me in charge of the show. As stage manager, I would be responsible for assembling the cast each night, staffing the rooms for maximum terror, making sure everyone got into costume and make-up on time, and darting about the ship to put out the dozens of metaphorical fires that pop up each night you send 2,000 people through a dark ore ship where pimple-faced kids with raging hormones wait in the dark to scare you without touching you.

In case you can’t detect sarcasm, it was not a good job. It was a very difficult job. Aside from the joys of sprinting through a dark, cramped and freezing maze in the ship’s hold in order to reach an actor and pull him from the ship before he could tell another woman that he’d “like to scare the pants right off of you,” I also had to keep the actors hydrated, stop the college-age actors from having sex with each other in the crew bunks (Yes, really. Blood and pale skin is sexy to some. How else do you explain Twilight?), and make sure the hot chocolate station in the break room stayed full and flowing.

That last job became particularly difficult whenever a cast member I’ll call “Sarah” was on board. She worked a few nights during the three-week haunting and each time she worked she would show up at the last second, throw on a potato sack, smear some fake blood on her face, and check the callboard to see where she was stationed that night. Then, she would head over to the ship, walk right past her assigned spot, and plant herself in the break room, where she would proceed to methodically drink all of the hot chocolate.

I found her one night, her back turned to me as she tugged at the spigot on the hot chocolate carafe, rocking the canister back and forth to get every last dribble and drip.

“Hey, Sarah, what are you doing?” I asked.

She spun around then, and what I saw scared me more than anything else I saw during my entire time on the ship.

Her face was COVERED in chocolate. The sugar coursing through her body was making her eyes bulge and dart in their sockets. A wide smile was plastered on her face. And it was twitching at the corners.

“I drank it all!” she giggled before marching past me, off the ship, and into the night.

Tour 2.0

This terrifying chocolate-smeared vision was still fresh in my mind when I headed back on-board the William A. Irvin this past October. I was there to meet Chani Ninneman, the current leader of the band of ghouls haunting the old ore boat.

Chani is a local theater actor, director and producer. She’s also a rabid fan of Disney World, and that passion for richly detailed entertainment experiences – plus a soft spot for blood and guts – makes her the perfect person to lead the terror tours on the Irvin.

As she led me around the dark, empty ship one Friday morning before the haunting began that night, I saw quickly that some things had changed in 10 years, but some things remained ever the same.

The tour had been reversed, for one thing. The crowds used to enter the ship via the cavernous, frigid hold and then make their way up and into the staterooms. That order had been swapped, which lends a nice, slow build of screams to the festivities. The hold was – and still is – the scariest part of the tour, since it’s a large, empty space and the only spot on the tour where the designers and builders are allowed off the leash. There’s only so much you can do to make a stateroom (where you’re not allowed to put anything even semi-permanent) scary. But in the empty canvas that is the hold, all best are off. And saving it for last is an inspired idea.

Chani and her team of devilish designers have also upped the technological ante. They take an annu

al pilgrimage to HAuNTcon (the annual Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention) and discover all the latest and greatest tricks of the terror trade. LED lights and pneumatic cannons now fill the cavernous hold. Walls and ceilings crack and break around you when you reach motion sensors. 10 years ago, you knew you could catch your breath when you entered a space free of actors. Now, you might find that the empty passage in front of you holds the most terrifying scare of the whole tour.

I was walking the tour with a guide who had built it, in full fluorescent light without any of the smoke, lights or actors in place. And even in those banal circumstances I found my heart beating a little bit quicker. I like to think I don’t scare easily, but I couldn’t imagine taking this tour in the dark, where things waited in shadows to leap out at me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was lurking just ahead. Something that would shake me to my core. 

And as we rounded the final corner and climbed our way out of the hold, I saw it. There, hunched in corner was the stainless-steel hot chocolate carafe.

It was all I could do to keep from screaming.