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Haunted Ship returns in Duluth with '95% new' scares

Over the past three decades, Halloween has become a starring season for the William A. Irvin. Last year's Haunted Ship returned from hiatus to hordes of fright seekers, and it's been almost completely transformed for what may be the attraction's scariest year yet.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
Body bags hang in the engine room of the William A. Irvin Haunted Ship attraction in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — On any given sunny summer day in Duluth, curious tourists will walk across the deck of the William A. Irvin, gazing up the hill toward Enger Tower with no idea that below their feet, in the dark depths of the vessel's cavernous hold, hands are already at work building a maze of Halloween horrors.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
Jeff Crowe, of Duluth, talks about creating features for the Haunted Ship on the William A. Irvin.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"You've got to be a little committed to the art," said Jeff Crowe, one of three haunt designers standing in the hold as construction continued last week.

"There's some days I have to pick and choose," said Davan Scott about deciding how to spend his summertime. "Usually I choose the ship."

Their commitment shows in the finished product: an elaborate series of environments designed to transport visitors from the familiar decks of a Great Lakes freighter to a warren of tombs and gloom.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A hallway in the Haunted Ship.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"I want people to come on the boat and forget they're on a boat," Crowe said. "I want you to be immersed in the world that we are designing for you, and we want to control and manipulate you in our world."

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Horror is hot

Surrendering your body and, perhaps, soul to the tender mercies of people who spend three seasons of each year in an empty ore hold may not sound too appealing — but the numbers say otherwise.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A lighted staircase leads visitors into the Haunted Ship.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"Last year was our biggest year to date," Scott said.

"We beat the record" for visitors in one night, Crowe added, "and then we beat that, and then we beat that again."

Attendance at live events generally surged last year as COVID-19 vaccines permitted a return to in-person entertainment, but there's more to the growing appeal of the Haunted Ship.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A skeleton glows with red light on the William A. Irvin.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"Horror is big business," Crowe said. He's not wrong. For decades, horror films accounted for about 5% of movie tickets sold. The genre started surging in 2017, the year of Jordan Peele's game-changing "Get Out." By the 2020s, horror had doubled its market share to over 12%.

At the same time, "haunts" have progressed far beyond peeled grapes and jump scares. You can still find your basic chainsaw-in-a-cornfield attractions, but the Haunted Ship is among a growing number of haunts that raise the stakes via sophisticated storytelling and sensory immersion.

"The haunt community is a very tight-knit group that all likes to share, because most haunts don't have competition," Crowe said. "We all want to see each other succeed."

The Haunted Ship creators do extensive research on YouTube to keep up with the state of the art, "but the general public sees that, too," Crowe noted. "They're like, 'Oh, I know what you did there.' So we've got to be a little more creative and stay one step ahead of them."

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Making the haunt happen

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A clock counts down to opening day of the Haunted Ship in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The 85-year-old William A. Irvin has pros and cons as a haunt venue, Scott said. "This ship was designed to carry 14,000 tons of cargo, so that's a lot of cubic feet of real estate that we have to work with." The designers build what Scott calls "modules" within the hold, each decorated to create a particular effect.

On the downside, Scott continued: "It's on a ship, so there's things you can't really drill holes in. You have to be cognizant of electrical. There's certain things, due to historical properties, we can't change."

Nor is the ship climate-controlled. "You don't have air conditioning," said Addison Severs, another haunt designer. "You don't have heating down here. It's just whatever it is outside."

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A haunted bathroom seen during the Haunted Ship tour.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

That's why ordinary ship tours end for the season when the Irvin turns haunted, not resuming until the spring. After Halloween, the Haunted Ship staff perform a quick cleanup but leave most of the haunt to chill in the hold until spring, when they begin modifications for the coming spooky season.

When work on this year's haunt began in April, Severs was at Disney World. The University of Minnesota Duluth student participated in the Disney College Program, learning how the theme park operates. A graphic design major, Severs hopes to one day join Disney's famed "Imagineering" staff and work full-time designing unforgettable attractions.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
Addison Severs, of Duluth, talks about creating features for the Haunted Ship.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

His Disney experience reinforced the importance of attention to detail. "I dive deep, deep into the details," he said. Even if a visitor doesn't consciously register all of the details in the haunt, he said, "subconsciously, you would notice that they're not there if you walked in the room without them."

Once visitors start making their way through the Haunted Ship's hold, they'll encounter a range of environments that include subterranean catacombs and misty jungles. They'll need to steel themselves to walk into a burning house, and then into its walls — where the creatures hiding away are much bigger than mice. According to Scott, 90%-95% of this year's haunt material is new.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A vertigo-inducing walkway is a part of the Haunted Ship tour.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

On a typical night at the Haunted Ship, staff include about a dozen security personnel, 20-30 techs working behind the scenes to operate the haunt, and 30-50 actors embodying the ghouls that confront visitors.

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On a busy night, over 5,000 guests may walk through the attraction, which is run by the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. With a couple interruptions (repairs, pandemic), the Irvin has been a haunt attraction for the past three decades. Before gaining its more straightforward name, the Haunted Ship was known as the "Ship of Ghouls."

Advances in animatronics mean this year's haunt has plenty of moving parts even before the actors arrive: a walk-through last week revealed several nasty surprises triggered by motion detectors. The haunt is so scary, even the people who designed it get spooked.

"Imagine doing this at night, by yourself, doing checks," said Scott.

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A child’s room filled with dolls seen during a tour of the Haunted Ship on Sept. 28.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"Before we open up for the haunt, we have to go through, turn everything on, and make sure everything's up and running," Severs explained. "A lot of time we go through ourselves and do that, so it's pretty creepy."

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
Davan Scott of Duluth holds a sign welcoming people to "Slayville," an area of the Haunted Ship.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

An attraction in 20,000 leagues of its own

Scott also works as a firefighter and a seaman; the latter job put him aboard the Irvin the last time the ship left its Minnesota Slip berth. In 2018, the Irvin was towed to Fraser Shipyards in Superior so both the ship and the slip could undergo repairs. The boat returned in 2019, towed into place since it can no longer move under its own power.

"At the time I was the commanding officer with Twin Ports Division U.S. Navy Cadets stationed here in Duluth," Scott explained, "so I was the officer in charge on board the ship during both the moves."

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
A doll on a tricycle is seen in one of the freezers during a tour of the William A. Irvin.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In what Scott calls "a choreographed symphony of stress," the Irvin had to be delicately moved through the open Minnesota Slip Bridge with only 7 inches to spare on either side. Despite the sailors' and contractors' efforts, the ship's arrival back at the slip had an eager audience.

"We maintain operational security, so we didn't divulge it with the public," Scott remembered. After boarding the ship on the designated evening, though, the crew "came on deck and took a look. There's a whole crowd of people just along the seawall here in lawnchairs. I'm like: 'Worst-kept secret in Duluth.'"

Haunted scene from Haunted Ship tour
Jeff Crowe, of Duluth, shows some of the props that the Haunted Ship build team created.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Plenty of people, including some of the Haunted Ship designers, believe the William A. Irvin is literally haunted. Whether or not the ship is home to actual ghosts, though, it has a superabundance of artificial ones. Even when the haunt is officially over, you can't count on making it through the ship without a scare.

"It always seems like a little kid or something on the regular tours," Scott observed, "finds something that was accidentally left over from the haunt."

Crowe agreed. "Like a severed head."

Haunted Ship tours run from Oct. 6 to 31. For details and reservations, see duluthhauntedship.com.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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