Monday, September 25, 2023

SpookyWorld – New Documentary ‘SPOOKTACULAR!’ Explores the Original Horror Scream Park [Interview]

As a monster movie loving kid growing up in New England in the 1990s, October was the Holy month. During that time my viewing diet and that of my neighborhood pals consisted of all things spooky, culminating on October 31 with the big celebration.

For me, part of the magic and excitement of that era and time of year were the seemingly countless local car dealerships, restaurants, and retail stores hocking deals via their Halloween-themed commercials – “Come on down for some SPOOKY DISCOUNTS!” The commercials and radio spots peppered our local Providence-area channels and airwaves throughout the entire month of October. In retrospect, they seem fairly hokey but they still possess a local flare that I find charming.

Along with these local industries getting in on the creepy fun, we also witnessed a major surge in regional haunted houses and frightful hayrides. These experiences ranged from the more legitimate haunted houses with some degree of staffing and infrastructure, to the homespun haunted houses mostly assembled for Halloween night in your neighbors garage or breezeway. In fact, my aunt and uncle – who lived one street over from us in Pawtucket, RI – had a wild and wacky neighbor who extended his garage all the way down the driveway to the sidewalk and adorned the black curtain entrance with a “DO NOT ENTER” sign. For years his makeshift haunted house was a Halloween highlight for us kids. And as cool and creative as these types of “haunted” attractions were, they were only capturing the essence of something much bigger that had just been born in 1991 only a few miles north of us in Berlin, MA: SpookyWorld.

As explained on their website, SpookyWorld was the “original horror scream park” and featured “haunted houses, sideshow attractions, celebrities and a notorious haunted hayride. The park was soon after deemed New England’s largest and most terrifying horror scream park, becoming a household name.” I was aware of SpookyWorld as a kid and had long wanted to go, but sadly our family was never able to make the trek. Years later while producing a short documentary titled, Snapper: The Man-Eating Turtle Movie That Never Got Made, I had the opportunity to finally visit SpookyWorld, albeit only through some fantastic archival footage. During that project I was reminded of just how special and unique SpookyWorld was at the time.

So, one can imagine my delight when I learned that a documentary film was in the works about SpookyWorld, the people behind it, and the mark it left on those who did get to experience it firsthand. That documentary, SPOOKTACULAR! is now in the can and starting its festival run around the United States. Recently, I caught up with the creator of SpookyWorld and Executive Producer on the doc, David Bertolino, the documentary’s Director, Quinn Monahan, and Producer Anthony Landry, to get the full scoop on how this wonderful documentary came to be and what viewers can expect from them going forward.

The below interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

John Campopiano: For those not yet familiar, what was SpookyWorld?

David Bertolino: SpookyWorld began as an idea for a hayride that had over-the-top skits played out by actors on a hayride trail. It later became known as “America’s Horror Theme Park.” SpookyWorld holds a special place in the hearts of many. To a marginalized group of first time actors, it was home with an accepting community. To the celebrities, it gave a new found relevance for their works of yesterday. As many of them have said in our documentary, “I felt special at SpookyWorld.”

Quinn Monohan: To my mind, SpookyWorld started it all. There would never have been anything like it had David Bertolino not recognized the potential for a dedicated, one-month-a-year Halloween theme park. David realized that there was a country full of Halloween enthusiasts who had no place to go unless they lived near a huge amusement park like Knott’s Berry Farm. SpookyWorld was a dream come true for all those fans who wanted a place to let their fright flag fly when it came to THEIR favorite holiday. As Anthony Landry says in our film, it was “the Disneyland of Halloween for a kid like me.”

It was that way for horror fans and for families alike. There was something for everyone and that was the genius of David Bertolino. He saw what others had yet to see and he seized upon that idea with the ferocity of a pitbull. His instincts were proven correct by the opening weekend of SpookyWorld. They got ten times more visitors than they had planned for. By the end of the first season, David had paid back a $150,000 loan. The park was so successful – he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. By the following Halloween season, there were many copycats who tried building their own Halloween attraction, giving birth to a gold rush of startups. Most failed within a few years, but the race was on. SpookyWorld changed it all and that’s where Halloween came of age.

Anthony Landry: It revolutionized the way the haunt industry conducted business and what they created really propelled big haunts into pop culture and to where they are today. Located in a rural region of Massachusetts in a small farming community, the park attracted millions of customers between 1991-1998 and essentially launched the modern haunt industry.

JC: How did this documentary project get started and tell us about what viewers can expect to see in the film?

QM: David and I were neighbors and became fast friends. He was producing a play, here in Hollywood and since I had my roots in theater, I was very simpatico with his effort to move into legitimate stage productions and I helped him when I could. During this period, he shared stories of his glory days at SpookyWorld. I am a filmmaker, so I immediately saw the potential for a documentary. I urged him for years to get started on the project with me and, finally, he agreed to do it.

What people can expect to see in the film is a rollicking account of the eight years in which SpookyWorld thrived in Berlin, MA – the place of its origin. There was something about that location and those people that made it magical. They were “like a big family” as so many told us. They had all run away to join the circus, in a manner of speaking. They left behind their humdrum daily routine, for one month a year, and had a blast doing it. Some told of losing their marriages to elicit affairs, while others met their future spouses, working at the park. In fact, there are people walking the earth today who might never have been born had it not been for SpookyWorld. It was an ecosystem to itself with its own, natural fog machine, rolling in as if on cue; a Camelot, if you will. For one brief shining moment, all was right with the world. If one man could create all this and make his dreams come true then anything was possible.

AL: I became friends with David in 2017. It started off with me trying to find a keepsake from my time at SpookyWorld back in the day. My late uncle took me there for my first few experiences and he bought me a button and a hat. I still have the hat but couldn’t find the button. I think it was lost in one of my moves over the years. I vividly remember some of the roaming haunters that would entertain everyone in the MASSIVE line for the hayride. They were called “Dead Elvis & The Colonel.” They were zombified versions of 1978 Elvis and his infamous manager from back in the day. This Bubba Ho-Tep style of Elvis. Walker and everything. They were hysterical. So, I ended up getting a “I think I saw Elvis at SpookyWorld” button. After I couldn’t locate it many years later, I went where everyone goes to find items from their childhood: eBay. One quick search of “SpookyWorld” and I found one. But that wasn’t all. I found nearly every item that was ever sold there and even more. Way more. Old media packets, blueprints for the park, awards from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and even the flagship sign that hung on the barn! I found out they were all belonging to the same person: SpookyDave1031.

After that, Davd Bertolino and I connected. When my travels took me out to Los Angeles, David would take me out to lunch with his wife, Cindy, and take me over to their home to discuss the good old days of SpookyWorld and Boston.

We stayed in touch and in the fall of 2019 he called and said, “You remember I told you that my friend wanted to direct a movie about SpookyWorld and my life? Well, we’re doing it.”

So, on Columbus Day weekend of 2019, David and Director Quinn Monahan came by my home to interview me. That was when I first met Quinn. We instantly connected. They were leaving the following day back to California and realized a majority of the production was here in Massachusetts. By the time the interview ended, they asked me to come on board as a Producer to help run the Massachusetts end of production.

From there, a friend let me borrow her film equipment and we were off to the races. I filmed a lot of B-roll in Berlin and around the old park, and then onto the Rock and Shock Convention in Worcester the following weekend. David connected me with Kane Hodder, Adam Green and Kevin Barbare. I also saw YOU there, John. Thanks to the incredible local filmmakers in Massachusetts who helped me out that weekend (Bill Fulkerson & Kyle Kuchta: “Survival of the Film Freaks,” and Andrea Wolanin “Penta”) we were able to hear some incredible testimonials that really moved me and brought back some incredible memories for all that SpookyWorld touched.

From there, we all know how challenging 2020 was, we had to pivot quickly. We did some of our interviews on Zoom and it helped launch our companion podcast “Spooky 101.” It gave us longform, mini-doc style interviews, but we were also able to have unique soundbites specific to the film. We also have to thank our other MVPs: Bill Tartaglia and Aaron Meadows who allowed us to film safely and distanced in the local studios. We had Quinn and David present via Zoom.

If you can film during that period you can do anything.

JC: Before SpookyWorld, what was the state of the Haunt industry at the time? Are there other early examples, or was SpookyWorld the first?

DB: SpookyWorld was the first of its kind. There was no instruction book. We strived to deliver an incredible Halloween experience to New Englanders which resulted in an audience that traveled worldwide to this mecca of Halloween entertainment! SpookyWorld took the industry to a new level each year.

AL: There was nothing like SpookyWorld in this region. It was unheard of. The park broke the fourth wall when it came to entertainment. Immersive entertainment. Some of the most talented of haunters who are still working and teaching the new generations to this day. Nearly all of today’s massive haunted attractions have pieces of SpookyWorld Berlin, MA, in them and to see that in 2023 reinforces how special it truly was and continues to create new fans of haunts to this day. To say it was special would be an understatement. It was lightning in a bottle.

JC: As someone who makes documentaries about local New Englanders and their involvement in regional films as well as bigger Hollywood productions, I’m always interested in hearing from locals. Does your documentary peel back their stories or does it mainly focus on the Hollywood talent side of SpookyWorld?

DB: Here’s the unique part of director Quinn Monahan’s genius: the film captures all aspects of this amazing theme park, from the stories by the guests, the cast and the celebrities that the park embraced. It explores the challenges, highs & lows along with some startling never-before-told surprises.

QM: Yes! Most of our story is told by the people who were there: the local farmers and ordinary folks who lived in the area and worked at the park year after year. The story is told by them and by David. The celebrities who visited are in our film and they have their perspective, but this is a “local man makes good” tale. We interviewed over a hundred people for the making of this doc. It was an embarrassment of riches! At first, we thought, “We have to make this a docu-series, because we simply have too many great memories to fit into a single film.” But that was not going to happen until we proved our story was worth telling. We could not have done it without the amazing efforts of our writer/researcher, Gail Jorden. She found the path to telling the SpookyWorld saga through the words of all those people who were kind enough to share their memories. Everyone we interviewed who was involved with SpookyWorld said it was the most fun they ever had.

AL: Both! Very much both. That was what made SpookyWorld Berlin so special. David made sure to hire locals and become a part of the community. Generational names of Berlin’s history helped make it what it was. From the haunters, to the people who carved the trails, to the carpenters: all local. David wouldn’t have it any other way. He even had the locals married at SpookyWorld! Which we cover as well.

To the Hollywood component, we absolutely dive into all of the celebrities who arrived at this town with a population of less than 2,000. Robert Englund to Butch Patrick all the way to when The Tonight Show with Jay Leno broadcast LIVE from SpookyWorld to show Tiny Tim’s second wedding! To truly tell the story you have to tell all aspects of what made it special.

In this documentary you are going to see the story of David Bertolino: from working in his family’s joke shop in downtown Boston, to becoming one of the biggest Halloween costume salesperson’s in the world. To his vision and creation of SpookyWorld and the birth of the modern haunt industry and convention scene. You are going to see a story with many layers. It’s the “It’s a Wonderful Life” of Halloween. All of the highs and lows. Family, community and small town politics.

JC: How did Spencer Charnas of Ice Nine Kills get involved and become a Producer?

DB: Here’s the unique part of director Quinn Monahan’s genius: the film captures all aspects of this amazing theme park, from the stories by the guests, the cast and the celebrities that the park embraced. It explores the challenges, highs & lows along with some startling never-before-told surprises.

QM: Spencer reached out to us because he was a HUGE fan of SpookyWorld back in the day. He credits the park and David for inspiring his career in many ways. Personally, I think SpookyWorld made horror approachable for young kids who would not be allowed to watch the slasher films of the time but who nevertheless became fans of Kane Hodder and Robert Englund, etc., because they were THERE and friendly. But the park was creepy and spooky and dramatic. Adults were dressed up in costume and having the time of their lives! I think this was irresistible to an eight year-old kid like Spencer Charnas. I think his experience was similar to mine when I saw my dad get shot on stage with blood dripping from his hands in, “The Petrified Forest.” I was old enough to know it was play acting and I wanted in on the fun. I think Spencer probably had the same reaction to what he saw at SpookyWorld.

AL: One of my favorite days ever and that’s not limited to speaking about the film. I was checking the SPOOKTACULAR! email and I immediately noticed the sender’s email address. The long and short of the email was how SpookyWorld influenced Spencer so much as a child it helped push him in the direction where his career has taken him. Spencer’s love for horror and entertainment is rooted in his childhood experiences at SpookyWorld. He has been one of the biggest champions of the film and has become a Producer that you would dream of working with. Speaking personally, Spencer isn’t just a Producer, he’s a friend. A dear friend. This also isn’t the last you will see of him in the SPOOKTACULAR! franchise. I’ll leave it at that for now.

JC: You’ve just had the World Premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin and we’ve just heard the announcement for Beyond Fest. Tell us about what’s in store there and who is joining you.

QM: The film festival experience is entirely new to me. I really have no idea what to expect. I know that several celebrities have agreed to join us there. David knows so many horror celebrities from his SW days and many have reached out to help with the effort. I just hope people like the film and are entertained by all that our team has worked for over the last four years of bringing the story to the big screen. We have also been invited to the Sitges Film Festival in Spain which is amazing because it’s probably the most prestigious festival of its kind in Europe.

AL: Beyond Fest is shaping up to be quite the reunion and will also be a bridge from the 90’s to now. To know that we will have Linda Blair and Kane Hodder on our panel, two icons who helped make SpookyWorld the success that it was, is incredible. And to have one of the foremost musicians/entertainers of 2023 in Spencer Charnas, whose star is on the rise, joining the people who helped influence and shape his career, is magical. September 28th is going to be a SPOOKTACULAR! night in Los Angeles.

JC: In the past your team has referred to the SpookyWorld doc project as the start of a franchise. What can you tell us about what viewers can expect in the months to come?

DB: We have been approached by a TV producer who is interested in a scripted series about a Halloween theme park.

QM: I think that really depends on the success of our film. If it catches on with the public, Hollywood will come calling. I’ve grown up in this town. I was born in Hollywood to an itinerant actor and an artist mother. My dad went on to direct theater. So, I grew up on the stage. I’ve worked my entire life in the film and television industry – in every capacity from extra to director and every crew position you can think of. What I have learned is what most people out here already know: nobody knows anything. It’s all a gamble on some level. So, we do it for love and hope the money follows.

AL: Last year, we started talking about the scripted series. We realized this would be a compelling story we could have come out annually around Halloween. It was further validated last summer when we spoke with one of the true kings of horror television. He even offered to produce it! We know we have an evergreen property and we’re looking forward to where this takes us. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with David, Quinn, Spencer and the rest of our crew: our SPOOKTACULAR! Family.

A theme park in Berlin, Massachusetts that had its last scare 25 years ago is creating a new fan base. It’s an amazing thing to see and I’m honored to be a part of it. Once the audience sees what he has put together, they will be craving more.

The post SpookyWorld – New Documentary ‘SPOOKTACULAR!’ Explores the Original Horror Scream Park [Interview] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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