Chemist Matt Mio has a laboratory that would do Dr. Frankenstein justice. Shiny beakers and test tubes crowd the countertops, and there's even a miniature Yoda watching over the place (Dr. Frankenstein never had the force on his side perhaps that's why things didn't work out). An avid Star Wars fan, Mio has a kickass Jedi costume too. But he doesn't break it out for Halloween anymore he's too busy mastering the art of scaring the shit out of people. For fun, you know.
An assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Detroit Mercy, Mio is founder of the Motor City Haunt Club, a collective of amateur and professional haunters. The members run the gamut from your friendly local neighbor who turns his front yard into a scene from Thriller every year, to dedicated haunted house employees who spend all year waiting for October to roll around.
Mio, 32, and his co-worker, storeroom manager Meghann Mouyianis, 29, beam ear-to-ear like jack-o-lanterns as they sit in Mio's office and talk about their club and its various activities. They've coordinated tours of fellow members' decorated houses, organized group outings to local haunted houses (last weekend the whole lot of them descended on Pontiac's Realm of Darkness) and hosted a Halloween garage sale peddling used Halloween decorations, including a $500 dummy mummy. Mio and Mouyianis are two of the unofficial haunters at Greenfield Village this year, using their chemistry expertise to spook up Thomas Edison's famed Menlo Park Laboratory.
"I guess you would describe all of our members as a tad bit geeky and eccentric," Mouyianis says with a laugh.
"But everybody does something different in their real life, and we draw on that," Mio adds. "Meghann and I did chemical demonstrations to show people things that they can do at their haunt that were chemistry-based."
Other members bring expertise in diverse skills that translate into new decorations and scare tactics. Several members who are robotics specialists by day have given a demonstration of simple sensors and switches that could be used in timing effects. And the club has dabbled in audio effects, even making homemade theremins the spooky, tremulous-sounding instruments played by manipulating a magnetic field between two antennas. Others specialize in latex creations, makeup trickery and elaborate prop construction.
Mio founded the club in the fall of 2004 along with his father and two friends. He got the idea from a similar club in Minnesota, the Twin Cities Haunt Club.
The elements of haunting creativity, ingenuity and good-natured mischief run in the Mio family. As a kid, Matt was inspired to re-create the decorations and effects of one of his neighbors. He'd share his concepts with his handy father a mechanic, electrician, carpenter and plumber who would take Mio's ideas as a challenge, and try to bring them to life.
They once transformed his little sister's toy chest into a coffin. Smoke frothed from a dry ice bath hidden inside, and the lid was rigged to creep open. It scared the heck out of her.
"She loved it," Mio says. "She used to hide in that box and scare me."
The club has 65 members of varying occupations and ages. Though they share a collective enthusiasm for Halloween and its gloriously commercial trappings, there are some diverging schools of thought for how to celebrate it.
"You've got your gore people, who prefer blood and guts," Mio says. "And then you have your classics people, who like tombstones and jack-o-lanterns." Mio likens the two camps to Trekkies who enthusiastically debate whether Captain Kirk or Captain Picard was the better leader of the Enterprise.
Members also differ on when to start decorating.
"One guy in Ann Arbor has his stuff up by Labor Day," Mio says. "But most of us are of the ilk that it's for the corridor around Halloween, and that's about it."
"A lot of people in the group only set up that night," Mouyianis adds.
Halloween is a distinctly American tradition, says Mio. In a place like southeastern Michigan, the close proximity of urban and rural areas coupled with a classic fall produce a dynamic environment that promotes Halloween traditions.
"Detroit has more haunted houses, apple orchards, hayrides, etc., than any other metropolitan area in the country," Mio claims. "Two of the best haunted houses in the country are in Pontiac: The Realm of Darkness and Erebus." The latter, a four-story monstrosity, made The Guinness Book of World Records in 2005 as "World's Largest Walk-Through Haunted Attraction."
But what's the appeal in scaring others, and yourself, silly? Why pay upward of $10, $15, sometimes $20 to be trapped in a confined space with people who are actively and aggressively trying to make you pee your pants?
"I always call it primal," Mio says. "For a split second you're scared, and then you realize that it's actually no threat. That releases something endorphin-style. That makes it fun."
Visit the club online at motorcityhauntclub.com.Christopher Scribner is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]