Fantastic Fest Review: Spooktacular!
Rise and fun-fulfilled legacy of America's first haunted attraction
By Richard Whittaker,
2:37PM, Sun. Sep. 24, 2023
As Austin broils in a 100 degree September, it can be hard to remember that Halloween is just around the corner. Fortunately, the charming and playful Spooktacular!, the tale of legendary haunted attraction Spooky World, ushers in the scary season with a giggle and a scream.
Spooky World may have claimed that it was the first major haunted attraction, and, well, the Knott's Scary Farm special event at Knott's Berry Farm may have a few bones to pick about that. But the shriekfest in the tiny Massachusetts town of Berlin was the first major purpose-built haunt with multiple houses and attractions. Over 14 years, it added to its original haunted hay ride and museum, summoning extra scares, a mine attraction, and an ill-fated wax museum that may have been the cause of its downfall.
But what it did have that no other Halloween haunt had was David Bertollino, the big-dreaming son of a joke shop owner who was clearly never meant for a regular day job. Director Quinn Monahan presents him as a jovial, giddy, Vincent Price-obsessed entrepreneur with ambitions for a big buck and a fun time (preferably at the same time). He definitely didn't invent the haunted house, as Monahan notes, but he definitely professionalized the tradition of amateur haunts, and expanded the vision and ambition. Bringing in FX legend Tom Savini to ramp up the look, booking horror actors for public appearances, and hiring far more haunters per scare than any other hay ride, are core components in the development of the modern haunt, and its expansion to become a $10 billion a year industry.
He also grasped that power of publicity, explaining the vast amount of local TV news footage that Monahan weaves in with talking head interviews and cleverly manipulated archival footage. But there's also a darker side: no "real scares among the manufactured frights" type, but Bertollino is the kind of entrepreneur whose optimism blurs into obliviousness.
It's a trait that leads to some bruised emotions (Bertollino verges on sideshow villain with how he treated poor Tiny Tim, America's sweetest heart), but it's also what puts him and his haunt in the crosshairs of the community. The remoteness and economic need that made Berlin the perfect location comes with the kind of small-town thinking and suspicious politicking that finally sealed Spooky World's fate and closed its gates forever.
(Well, not quite forever, as it lived on in larger but lesser versions for years after it was run out of town. But those magical Berlin years are what Monahan and a host of celebrity fans remember and mourn, wistfully.)
Eerily, a clash with questionably motivated fire marshals is exactly what lead to the closure of legendary Austin haunted house the Nightmare Factory in 2007, and that's just one of the ways that will summon a shudder of recognition in anyone who has spent time around a haunt. Much like FF 2017 documentary Haunters: The Art of the Scare and New Zealand haunt doc Spookers, there are endless tales from former scarers of the chaotic energy and antics that make haunts just so much fun for all concerned. A perfect reminder of the joys of slipping on a mask and screaming "Boo!"
Fantastic Fest Screenings
Wed., Sept. 27, 11:10am