[Update: Since publication, there has been a change in venue location. “Chapel of Horrors” will debut this fall in the Bottleworks facility — formerly the Coca-Cola building — located in the Soda Pop District.]
WILMINGTON – Though the summer is still heating up, a group of film industry vets are already thinking ahead to cooler days and darker nights.
In just over two months, “Chapel of Horrors” — an immersive haunted house attraction — will come to life at a century-old church on Market Street in midtown. It’s a collaboration between a special effects makeup and props team, Bearded Skulls MUFX Group (“Scream 5,” “Black Phone”), and local entrepreneur and actor Justin Smith, who work in the film industry.
The idea transpired when the group, Port City Fear Factory, recently came together on an independent movie, “Confessions.” A conversation about the writers’ strike and the threat of losing more jobs had the team’s wheels turning on creative ways to fill the financial gap.
“It’s gonna get worse before it gets better,” Smith said on a phone call Wednesday, referring to the industry’s slowdown.
And he was right.
By midnight, the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union went on strike, two months after the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike began in May. It’s the first time in 60 years the unions are striking simultaneously, picketing on both coasts.
Unions are negotiating for compensation structure and fairer residual payouts with major production companies and streamers. They also want safeguards in place when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) rights.
It has left those who work in the industry — from set designers to locations managers, construction crews to wardrobe — searching for new, diverse opportunities to make a living.
“The idea of a haunted house was brought up by members of our team in the makeup tent and Justin perked up,” Bearded Skulls’ team member Matt Barrett said.
Aside from running three restaurants and acting, Smith is also the artistic director of Opera House Theater Company and works with actors. He will help put actors in place — both paid and volunteer positions. They’re looking for about 30 to 50.
Bearded Skulls — which comprises a team of five makeup and special effects artists, Rick Pour, Jason Willis, Jeff Goodwin, Tony Rosen and Matt Barrett — are designing and conceptualizing “Chapel of Horrors.” It will offer those who dare a chance to feel like they’re in a scary movie by engaging in a carefully crafted backstory.
“Imagine there’s a church with a history of tragedy getting worse by the day, shadowed by an evil group with corrupt ownership,” Barrett described.
He is writing the script, with details — and mysteries — to be divulged via Instagram in weekly chapters, peeling back layers and sneak peeks for attendees to look forward to in anticipation.
It all revolves around a church built in 1923 that has a “touch of darkness,” with every person that helped construct the sanctuary falling ill. When the church eventually opened, it already had a graveyard in place.
The team found the location with the help of Smith, though Port City Fear Factory isn’t announcing where it’s located quite yet as members continue working through permitting. However, the church caught fire sometime during its lifespan.
“It still has scores from the fire,” Barrett said. “As soon as we walked in, it had the vibe, ‘This place is spooky already.’ It automatically had a creepy energy and touch of history to it.”
While the type of monsters and props have not been revealed either, Bearded Skulls members said to expect a lot of blood and gore.
The group’s studio is a playground of horror-filled props: a bag of styrofoam heads here, a severed hand and brain molds there, fleshed out with a spattering of bald caps, fish guts, bruised legs and fragments of bone.
“It’s a Lovecraftian interdimensional mindf**k,” Bearded Skulls’ president Rick Pour said of the attraction.
The veteran film crew are approaching “Chapel of Horrors” the same way they do a production: breaking down the story, creating concept art for the creatures, and crafting visions into reality. The intended vibe is for visitors to feel as immersed in the plot as if they’re in a horror movie, watching it transpire.
“This is a chance for us to expand on our current work, and still operate under our creative itch with monsters and creatures,” Barrett said.
The goal is to host three uniquely themed horror events, penned by Bearded Skulls, to take place seasonally throughout the year.
The first installment, “Chapel of Horrors,” will open weekends starting Sept. 29 through Oct. 31, with two, four-day festival weekends planned. Ticket sales open on July 28 here.
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