The safe-word is “purgatory.” You can scream, you can cry, you can yell “get me outta here,” but no pleas will help you prematurely escape the Gates of Hell other than that one word.
These are the lessons that Duke Mollner and his son JT are imparting upon the future cast of their Freakling Bros. haunted houses at Scare School. The class, an eager if not grizzled lot, sits on plastic lawn chairs in the outdoor courtyard formed by a circle of trailers that is the Circus of Horrors. The early October night is warm, and the breeze is light. It’s all very reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s creepy 1962 book Something Wicked This Way Comes. The glee of being outside and alive in autumn is put into relief by so many images of death.
Now in its 21st year, Freakling Bros. is as close to an institution as our transient city can offer. It originated in the ’70s as a haunted house for the neighborhood kids in Duke Mollner’s garage. Today, the family business is billed as The Trilogy of Terror, with three unique haunts in one location: Castle Vampyre, Circus of Horrors and Gates of Hell. The combined energy of three attractions creates a carnival atmosphere, where guests swap horror stories and demented clowns torment those waiting in line. On at least one night last October, a collection of hearses spent the evening parked there.
Both Castle Vampyre and Circus of Horrors are legitimately scary. But Freakling’s coup de grace, its dark crown jewel, is Gates of Hell. It’s an R-rated attraction, and guests must be at least 17 or accompanied by a parent in order to participate. This 3-year-old haunt requires written consent to be touched and cursed at without retaliation. Cardinal Sin—with his upside-down cross and simpering predilection for young male guests—makes all sign a waiver before entering.
“My filmmaking philosophy is very similar to my haunted house philosophy,” says JT, who spends the other 10 months of the year working in Hollywood. “I want to be honest, and I want to push the boundaries. When I make a movie I usually want it to be provocative, and I want it to upset some people. When you film something that’s realistic or reflective of reality it will upset people. Because reality isn’t PG. That’s why I wanted to do a rated-R haunted house. It’s a horror experience, so a horror experience should be grisly. There should be profane language. There should be realistic violent situations. That’s scary.”
Gates of Hell is a success, but the Mollners weren’t always certain it would be. JT led the charge on this adult-themed haunt, and it was the 35-year-old’s first real venture in haunted house creation. He was afraid that if it failed, his father would blame him. Duke had apprehensions of his own. He realized, perhaps too late, that they had dismantled a perfectly popular haunt, the Mortuary, for this wild risk. Duke went so far as to price the cost of rebuilding the Mortuary after it had been dismantled. Economics opened Hell’s gates.
This year, the Mollners are taking Hell’s graphic, violent realism and making it even more graphic and violent. With The Victim Experience, which is limited to five participants a night, JT promises that fans will be “psychologically, emotionally and physically abused.” The idea originated when the family noticed that fans were waiting to be in the night’s last group because the actors happened to make the final round a little more intense. So the Mollners upped the ante, made that last round a separate happening, and raised the price for Gates of Hell from $15 to $50 for The Victim’s Experience.
So what does that extra $35 get you? That’s kind of a secret. But here are some clues: 1.) The logo for The Victim Experience is a red-hued drawing of a girl being held by the throat with somebody’s hand over her mouth. Considering that touching is allowed, something similar might happen to you. 2.) Mention of one “high-voltage glove” was overheard in a backstage meeting. 3.) Russell Eaton, one of the first “survivors” of the Experience, posted this on the Freakling Bros.’ Facebook page: “The physical and emotional challenges will resonate within me for a very long time. The fear and pain combine with such intensity, it becomes a test of pure endurance. Survival instinct engages, and the will to survive and overcome what is being thrown at you collides with the cast’s pitch-perfect delivery of horrific scenes and physical torment. I reached a point of feeling completely helpless and vulnerable, and that is when the emotional intensity increased.”
For all its horror, Freakling Bros. is a true family business with lots of heart and a performing-arts pedigree. Mom, Ginnie, sells tickets. Duke was a singer and dancer at the Dunes in the 1960s. And the family’s performing past dates back to vaudeville. “This is a family business and one of my passions and my loves,” JT says. “I want to do it forever. Even if I’m as big as Martin Scorsese, I’d love to take two months off every year and come back. It’s not for the money, it’s for the love. Me and my dad have so much fun together during the season.”
It’s opening night backstage at Gates of Hell. The ghoulies, the ghosties, the bloodied bride, the hooded death-row inmates, the swamp thing, the 7-foot-tall demon goat, the shadow people and the military snipers circle up for an invigorating team chant. It’s led by straight-man JT, the only normal human in this menagerie.
“An evil word for opening night,” he suggests after the end of a monster pep talk, which included directions such as “use the profane language we talked about,” “be mean-spirited,” “always stay in character” and “never miss a scare.” Bloodied hands of all species pile up, and like they were on a sports team, the group yells “Six! Six! Six!” in tight unison. It’s followed by a “Hail Satan” by Cardinal Sin and the Succubus. Afterward, they disappear into the doors and crevices that surround them. A few straggling ghouls run for this thing or that. Then all are absorbed into the phantasmagoria.
It is quiet, but not quiet. A calliope repeats an evil tune in minor key. Crew members hustle past, discussing the need for more “fog juice.” There is a sporadic cacophony of nightmare noises, the sound of goose bumps.
“Ooopennnnnn the Gates of Hellllllll” sounds from the front, and so it begins.
Nine-year-old Devon Singleton sprints out of the Circus of Horrors, across the courtyard and does not stop until he crawls into the safety of his father’s car. He is being chased into the parking lot by Scorch the Clown, a.k.a. Warren Ross. When Devon finally dares to leave the car, he joins his family at the Cashman photo booth.
“[I thought] I was going to die,” says Devon, who wants to try the Gates of Hell as soon as he’s old enough.
“My dad was the most scared one,” Devon’s 13-year-old sister, Alenah, says. “He’s the biggest one here. How is he more scared than both of us? I had to take control. I had to be first. He was going too slow. He had his hood on like this the whole time.”
“I loved it. It was fun,” says Dad, Carlton. “I even got scared. As an adult. Can you believe that?”
Yes, in fact, we can.
Freakling Bros. The Trilogy of Terror
2321 N. Rainbow Blvd., 7-11 p.m. (open till midnight on Fri-Sat and Oct. 30-31) Oct. 10-13 and 17-31, $12-15 individual haunts, $30 Freak Pass, $50 for The Victim Experience, 362-3327, FreaklingBros.com.