The ghoulish underbelly of Fright at the Fort

Wed, 10/16/2013 - 1:30pm

PROSPECT — Every day is Halloween for Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, the group that transforms the fort each October into an elaborate haunted house tour. Seymour, who took the job 14 years ago, knew Fort Knox had the creepy potential to become more than just a tourist destination for war buffs. With its tight passageways and stony gloom, Fort Knox was the perfect setting for a scary thrill ride — it just needed someone with a twisted imagination to conceive of another marketable use.

“Here’s the story,” Seymour began. “When I was a kid, I loved Halloween. I’d work for months to get my costume ready, but, half of the Halloweens, I’d come down sick and couldn’t go out.”

For 14 years, he has been making up for lost time with Fright at the Fort, which last year shuffled 8,200 people through the tour over the course of two weekends, bringing in more than $72,000. Fright at the Fort proceeds support the ongoing mission of the Friends of Fort Knox to preserve and restore the fort and enhance its education, cultural and economic value to the people of Maine.

“It’s grown in complexity, year after year,” he said. “People come back every year, so you’ve got to show them something different and keep them excited.”

It’s just a few days before Fright at the Fort kicks off its 2013 season, Friday, Oct. 18. Seymour is like a little kid again leading a daylight tour of the fort, as staff and volunteers set up elaborate props and staging.

“Make sure that zombie baby is tied down,” he instructs one of his staff, pointing to a hideous creature that sits tucked in one of the narrow stone windows. “Or else somebody will walk off with it.”

He dreams up a different theme each year. This year’s theme is the Black Plague, circa 1347.

“The Penobscot Job Corps has been working with me to put it together this year,” he said. “We’re going to have stacked bodies, cots, straw bales strewn around. We’ve got a wooden cart with wooden wheels to bring out the dead. And a few surprises,” he says with a sinister chuckle. This is a guy who really gets into it.

“Nobody has done the Black Plague theme. You can’t just go to a Halloween store and buy plague props,” he said.

All year he has been making his own props, as well as buying big ticket items for the upcoming event, having them delivered by freight from out of state.

Just outside of the Spider Tunnel, a few men are standing on staging, working on the Fort’s masonry.

“They’re not part of the Fright crew,” Seymour explains. “They’re actually repairing the masonry. Many of the Fort’s repairs come out of the net proceeds we make each year from Fright at the Fort.”

Browsing the Fright at the Fort FAQs, an honest to God question people have asked is: “Will I be injured, dismembered or killed at your event?”

The answer, if you’re worried, is: No. In addition to their security staff, they also have at least one EMT and one police officer on staff.

But that’s the kind of thrilling unease that brings in people in droves from all over the state and country. No haunted house tour in the country can beat the Fright at the Fort experience. The Fort’s natural haunting, stone cold architecture is of course, a major factor. But Fright at the Fort’s 100 or so volunteers bring their A-game, from set decorators to live costumed “Haunters,” who make the most out of jumping out of dark, confined spaces. For 35 minutes, participants will wind through spooky corridors, in and out of buildings, experiencing fake blood, zombies, violence, gore, loud noises, gunfire, strobe lights, darkness, fog and chaos.

For Seymour, a fan of science fiction and most Halloween genres, he tests out each and every prop and chamber of the tour, going through it with a meticulous checklist.

“Look at these slaughtered pigs,” he says, tapping the hanging, swinging rubber pigs. “I love these. Did you know that if you fell into a pig pen, they have been known to attack a person and start eating them?”

He slapped the gruesome props with a big smile. “This is Christmas for me,” he said.

Fright at the Fort is not recommended for children younger than 13 or those who scare easily. The event runs Oct. 18 and 19, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., and again Oct. 25 and 26, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. To be able to make it through the fort, arrive no later than 8:30 p.m. Note, there are always long lines, but the occasional screaming and visits from ghouls makes the wait, well, part of the frightful fun. Tickets are $10 per person ($5 for 12 and under.) Express tickets may be purchase in advance by calling 469-6553 or dropping by the Friends of Fort Knox gift shop located in the Fort Visitor Center. To learn more visit: Fright at the Fort.

Kay Stephens can be reached at