By JOSHUA “PROMETHEUS” SCAFIDI
If you grew up a horror fan in the New England area in the early to mid-1990s, chances are you made a trip (or several) to America’s very first horror theme park, the original Spooky World in Berlin, Massachusetts! If you’re too young to remember, not from the area, or just unfamiliar with the glory that was Spooky World back in the day, let me paint you a picture…
First, let me take you back to a time when the horror culture as we know it didn’t exist. You see, this was before horror cons really caught on. Sure, some existed, but unless you lived in or close to a major city, you were lucky to have even heard of them. This was before the internet was everywhere, and information didn’t get around all that quickly.
Then, something happened. In Berlin, Massachusetts. A little haunted hayride opened up, and it changed the horror community forever. Created by David Bertolino, with the help of special FX god Tom Savini, Spooky World grew every year, giving us thriving young horror geeks somewhere to converge and meet our favorite celebs, such as Kane Hodder, Linda Blair, and Elvira! I still remember walking up, and hearing the “Monster Mash” playing for the first time.
As a 9-year-old kid, the concept blew my mind, and it’s not a stretch to say the horror con community we know and love today was largely created with love at Spooky World. It’s where Kane Hodder signed his first autograph, and I don’t think he’s stopped since. The community lives on, but the original Spooky World closed in 1998 and moved to a new location. Why?
That’s a great question that the upcoming documentary SPOOKTACULAR! seeks to answer. Along with executive producer Tom Savini, David Bertolino has teamed up with a great crew to bring us the story of America’s first horror theme park. His theme park.
We recently had the pleasure of meeting Bertolino, director Quinn Monahan and producer Anthony Landry, and they were kind enough to chat with RUE MORGUE about what to expect and the process of making the film.
Alright guys, SPOOKTACULAR! Let’s talk about it!
DAVID BERTOLINO: Well, as you may be aware, I started the Halloween theme park industry, so turning the clock way forward, this is now memory lane of my many years – actually, 55 years in the Halloween industry – that this documentary brings you through, [from] growing up in my dad’s joke and magic shop, having Halloween merch all year, to the distribution of Halloween to being the sales manager of Rubie’s Costume Company to being an expert witness in the federal court system for litigation on infringement of Halloween products, then on to founding America’s first horror theme park! So, this is my 55th year, and as the result of a neighbor of mine when I moved to California, Quinn Monahan, who is an accomplished director, we decided to start filming my recollections. Now, with hundreds of hours of contributions of various videos from the ’90s and even current interviews with the celebrities that we had at Spooky World, we feel we have, no pun intended, a spooktacular documentary! That’s the “in-a-nutshell” view of it.
Spooky World started a whole trend!
QUINN MONAHAN: It certainly did, and I would like to jump in and talk just a little bit about what to expect in the film. As David mentioned, he founded America’s first horror theme park in 1991 in Berlin, Massachusetts. It basically started as a little Halloween hayride, and they didn’t expect to have more than 200 people a night. The opening weekend, they had 2,000 people a night. David had promoted this thing within an inch of its life, and he’ll be the first to admit that he may have oversold the sizzle instead of the steak. Is that the saying, David? [Laughs]
DB: Exactly. There was a lot of hype and a lot of promotion, but not a lot of substance in year one. I over-promoted. I admit it.
QM: Back to the film. We talk about David’s backstory in the costume business, and then we jump ahead to him being promoted and learning a lot about the Halloween industry. He found out that farmers were putting on little haunted hayrides to make some extra money. David decided to do it for real. So he and his wife bought a farm and put together their own haunted hayride but with a little bit of style, real makeup and trained actors. They rushed into production, bought a farm on six acres and the first year, it was a hayride and three celebrities plus a retail space that grew each year.
They had done well, but now, it was do-or-die time. The park was a huge success, and Tom Savini, who was a guest, signing autographs the first year, decided to stick around and help make it even bigger the following year. That’s when they decided on the name Spooky World. The first year, it was known as Spooky Hayrides. They decided to build a Tom Savini haunted house, and Tom designed and built it. Talk about Spooky World some more, David.
DB: It was just a phenomenal situation. We opened hoping it would be 20 to 40 people on a hayride a night. We ended up paying back a $150,000 loan that we paid back in three weeks. Then, there was the dirty side of it. My wife and I were cleaning 20 porta-potties, which became 40 by the second week alone. By the time we moved locations, we were doing 10 to 12,000 people a night, and I credit quite a bit of this to Tom Savini.
Tom, as you know, was an accomplished special FX artist, and he wanted us to change the name. He came out early in the summer and built a haunted house. At one point, we had six to eight different ones and a museum packed with actual props from horror movies. We didn’t have dead spots in the lines. We had a stage set up halfway down the hayride line and Bobby “Boris” Picket singing his hit “The Monster Mash,” the Halloween national anthem. We had street performers to scare you in line, too! This was in 1991! It was a wonderful run, and people have asked me what the secret sauce was, and it was a lot of different things. Kane Hodder and Linda Blair never did autograph sessions before Spooky World. It was their first time, and they did very well. Now, the horror cons are all populated by big fan bases, but we were the front-runner of all of it. It’s awesome to revisit the footage Quinn was able to acquire.
You could almost say the modern horror culture was born at Spooky World.
QM: There was Fangoria’s horror con before Spooky World, and David had visited to get some stuff for the farm. That’s where he met up with Tom Savini. The thing was, those cons only existed in the big cities. David knew if he brought these horror actors out, [who] were already drawing crowds in the cities, it would work, and boy, did it! None of the horror teens would be caught dead at a hayride. They all came for Tom Savini and Linda Blair… So, this was the genius of David Bertolino, serving the two markets. The Halloween family crowd and the horror geeks who wanted to meet their icons. The moving of locations is a very small part of the film. Most of it focuses on the Berlin, Massachusetts location from 1991 to 1998.
How did the documentary come together?
QM: Well, as David mentioned earlier, he and I were neighbors and friends, and as he began to tell me about Spooky World, I saw it in my head, and it sounded like it would be amazing on film. All the lights at night, all the kids and scare actors, the fun on the hayride trails between wagons, the midway – all of it. I was just imagining what it would look like, and I said we should make a documentary. David was hesitant, and we talked about it over the years. Then, David got very ill. When he started to recover, which took him about a year, I said we weren’t getting any younger. We took a drive out to Las Vegas and I put a mic on him, going there and back –about five hours – and when got back, we said, “Yeah, let’s do this movie.”
DB: We got back from Vegas, and we started a very slow journey of communicating with ex-employees. Some of them did very well. Mike Marino was 17 years old when Tom Savini taught him how to do makeup in our prop room. Last year, he was up for best makeup artist [for] the film “Batman.” We launched a lot of ships. It was a slow start doing the interviews. During COVID, nobody wanted to do one on one. One night I was watching Seth Myers, and John Krasinski was talking about his new film, and Seth asked him about his favorite Halloween memory. He said year after year he would go to Spooky World, and I was like, “Wow!” I don’t want to give away too much. The rest of the story is in the film. [Laughs] It was very motivating, though, and I understood this was a national story, not just a local thing.
ANTHONY LANDRY: Now during the beginning phases here, that’s when I joined the team. I met David, online I believe, in 2017. I took my first trip to Spooky World in the ’90s when I was 14. My uncle took me. I was very impressed by Dead Elvis and the Colonel, an act that would walk the park. I had no idea where Belin, Massachusettes, even was. There was no MapQuest or Google Maps. We had to use a road atlas. I got a pin there that said, “I think I saw Elvis at Spooky World.” Somehow, I lost it. So, like any normal human being, I went on eBay and ended up finding it. I did a general Google search for “Spooky World.” This was in 2016 or 2017, and found a ton of original merchandise, all from a “Spooky Dave,” who happens to be part of this interview. [Laughs]
We ended up connecting and staying in touch. Then, David got ill. That’s when production started on the film. I got a call from David [on] Columbus Day 2019, and he told me they’re in Marlborough, Massachusetts, doing interviews for the movie. They wanted to come out and meet Quinn. By this time, I had ended up getting a lot of the original artifacts, including the sign that hung over the barn. I called David and offered to do the interview at my house, so we could use the memorabilia.
QM: David and I showed up at Anthony’s house to interview him as a super fan. He told a great story and gave us a tour. He showed us all his Spooky World stuff. I saw some camera equipment in the corner, so I asked if he was a filmmaker, and he said yeah. When walked out, I told David I wanted him on the team. We knocked back on the door and asked him to join us as our producer here in Boston.
AL: And we were off to the races the very next day! [Laughs] You’re going to see people – horror icons – speak lovingly about the place that you would never expect. No spoilers, but they miss it.
DB: At the close of the film, you get to see people and [hear] their heartfelt expressions of their memories – not just old staff, but guests who visited over the years. Joshua, tell me… you were living in New England at that time? Did you visit Spooky World?
Oh yeah, of course, man! Almost every season!
DB: So what was your impression, back then?
When I was a kid – 9 maybe 8 – I fell in love with horror. Then, I found out about Spooky World through a radio commercial and immediately went, “Wait, what?” I couldn’t believe there was a place to go meet Jason (Kane Hodder) and Elvira. Are you kidding me? It was huge! Ran right to my mother, begging her to take me. I missed the first year, so when I went when Spooky World was in full swing, and there’s never been anything else like it! So many great memories!
DB: I do have something to announce, and you are the conduit … We are in Beyond Fest! The gag order is lifted, and we will be there, in L.A. on September 29! We will screen the film, and after, Kane Hodder, Linda Blair and Spencer Charnas will be on the panel, as well as the three of us, to talk about all those memories!
That is awesome! Spooky World was such a huge part of the early horror culture! I can’t wait to see the documentary and feel all the feels! I appreciate the time, guys, really! Thanks so much!
Keep an eye out for SPOOKTACULAR, the story of America’s first haunted theme park, Spooky World!