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Pieces from our past

McLean county Jaycees architects of haunted house concept

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October conjures imagery of Halloween: jack-o’-lanterns, witches on broomsticks, friendly ghosts and some not-so-friendly creepy creatures. On Halloween, kids dress in creative costumes and walk from house to house to collect treats or delivering (sometimes even after receiving) tricks. For those too old to trick-or-treat, Spooky Halloween aspirations can be fulfilled at haunted houses. McLean County residents should be no stranger to the spooky fun the attractions promise because the modern design of haunted houses was established by locals.

Trick-or-treaters visit David Davis Mansion in Bloomington.

The local tradition began when the Jaycees and WJBC turned a condemned house on the Illinois State University campus near the corner of Main and Osage streets in Normal into a house of horrors. They saw great success as residents flocked to the house and paid a small admissions fee to be frightened.

Haunted house

In this file photo likely dating to 1992, Nicole Schenk of Bloomington is behind bars and Gregg Ripley of Normal plays a mad sheriff in the Jaycees haunted house at what was then the McLean County Fairgrounds on Empire Street in bloomington.

For years to follow, the Jaycees would scout condemned buildings and would ask their owners if they would donate the structures for their Halloween attraction.

Following the initial success in 1975, two local men, Tom Hilligoss and Jim Gould, decided to write a book that discussed the creation and implementation of haunted houses. At the national Jaycees convention, they presented their book with a miniature model haunted house. They conjured a great interest, and Hilligoss and Gould sold nearly 20,000 copies of their book at the convention.

This achievement prompted Hilligoss to venture deeper into the haunted house scene. He toured across the country, and at the time, the Jaycees had chapters in almost every town in America. During each visit, he promised chapter members that he could teach them how to create a popular and successful haunted house with just a $1 admission charge that could earn their chapter at least $60,000 in the month of October alone.

The Pantagraph in 1976 commented on Hilligoss’s work, “Like a Johnny Appleseed gone bad, Thomas Hilligoss hopes to spread terror across the land.” And in a way, he did.

Hilligoss taught chapters nationally how to hire locals to staff the houses, how “monsters” should prepare themselves for each visitor, and even if on a low budget, how the darkness could prove the greatest asset to a haunted house.

At his height, Hilligoss had reached over 700 Jaycee chapters and was determined to meet with more.

He even upgraded his miniature model haunted house into a 36-by-48-foot house. Inside the new model, he placed recognizable monsters such as Dracula, giant spiders, and a giant shark that would leap from the water in order to jolt spectators.

It should be noted that Hilligoss did not create the entire concept of a recreational haunted house, but he certainly did help draw the blueprint and help solidify the attraction as a seasonal must-have.

Hilligoss conducted research at the most famous haunted attraction: the haunted mansion at Disney World. Following his 1976 visit he said, “I was impressed by the fact they spent $3.5 million and didn’t scare anybody.”

Eventually, he founded the Haunted House Co., which ventured further into the Halloween market by even creating a line of custom-made monster masks.

Back home in October 1980, Bloomington-Normal residents were gearing up for what was referred to as the “biggest local Halloween entertainment.” Breaking from previous tradition of finding condemned houses for their spooky event, the Jaycees were able to use the old St. Joseph’s Hospital nurse’s dormitory on the corner of West Oakland and Morris avenues in Bloomington.

The Jaycees spent roughly $2,400 and a year repairing the structure in order to make the building safe for visitors. The efforts paid off as more than 10,000 people visited the haunted dorm, each paying admission so they could be led through a series of eight terrifying rooms.

In 1992 the tradition still proved to be a popular and expected event. During this year, the Jaycees held their haunted house at the McLean County Fairgrounds in the dairy barn. Students from ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University were the majority of actors and set builders, and together they created a chilling swamp in the barn. The swamp, complete with fog-laced floors, ghouls and hockey-masked murderers, proved successful enough to raise funds for the Christmas parade and what was then Camp Heffernan at Lake Bloomington.

But all good things come to an end. The local Bloomington-Normal Jaycees have retired their haunted house festivities and Hilligoss left the Halloween industry to pursue a career in corporate licensing and founding art galleries. Yet, the model he helped designed stands until this day and Jaycee chapters nationwide continue the longstanding tradition.

Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column by the McLean County Museum of History. Kate Bass is director of adult education for the museum. 

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