Is Michigan really the Halloween capital of the world?


Oct 19, 2016 at 1:00 am

Ed Terebus and his brother Jim started Fear Finder over 30 years ago. The Halloween-themed directory lists all — or nearly all — haunted attractions, hayrides, and corn mazes in Michigan, connecting thrillseekers with the often gruesome celebrations of the Halloween season.

Maybe a decade ago, Ed Terebus says, he started doing some research. First he went by city, then county, then state — he was counting the number of haunted attractions in each. From that research, he says he came up with facts and figures to support his original hypothesis.

"I made that claim to fame," Terebus says. "I called Michigan the Haunted Attraction Capital of the World."

At the time, Terebus wasn't quite sure he was right. He still can't say with 100 percent certainty that nowhere else in the world has more haunted houses than Michigan, but that hasn't stopped him from touting the title.

"I was waiting for someone to take me on, to challenge that claim," Terebus says. "But, no one ever did."

Terebus, who operates Erebus Haunted Attraction in Pontiac with his brother, says Michigan has between 60 and 90 haunts within a 50-mile radius. It's an astonishing number — especially compared to many Southern states, where you'd be hard-pressed to find a single haunted house during the month of October.

Terebus estimates those haunted houses pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy — money that's spent on blood, guts, and fake body parts, yes, but also on advertising. And a lot of those advertising dollars are spent in Fear Finder.

Terebus says Fear Finder is paramount to sustaining Michigan's haunted house industry, and probably the No. 1 reason why no one's ever contested his claim.

"Fear Finder allows the little guys to thrive," he says, explaining that in other states a large haunted house might crowd smaller, nonprofit-based attractions out of the market. But, he says, thanks to the directory, people are able to find the smaller haunts with ease. They might hit a big attraction first, then stop at some smaller haunts on the way home — thus both the big and the little guys win.

While Terebus is probably right in some sense — the directory is well-known in the area and heavily utilized by horror-loving hedonists — we suspected there's more to the story than just Fear Finder.

Leonard Pickel is the creator of HauntCon, a touring haunted attraction trade show that provides access to vendors as well as education, special effects makeup, and set design. He's called New Mexico (where he says there are no haunted houses), Texas, and Florida home, but has visited Michigan from time to time. He's toured many of the state's haunted houses, but his take on our collective obsession with blood, guts, and gore is that of an outsider.

"Detroit is a depressed market," Pickel says. "But, people still want to go out. They want to do something scary — something that's more scary that their actual lives."

Sure, Michigan has seen its share of economic ups and downs, but our love of the Halloween holiday started long before the 2008 housing market crash. Even Terebus says part of the holiday's popularity is purely geographical.

"A big part of it is being in the northeast part of the country, having four seasons," Terebus says. "Halloween doesn't start until there's that chill in the air. We go from boats and beaches to cider mills and haunted houses."

And while most haunted houses are known for using generous doses of fake blood, roaring chainsaws, and big scares, Terebus doesn't think Michiganders have an unhealthy obsession with the more macabre elements — namely blood, guts, torture, and death — these hell houses serve up.

"Halloween is a selfish holiday," Terebus says. "You don't have to buy anyone presents. You don't have to go to anyone's house for dinner. You get to dress up and be whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. You can be Superman and no one is going to make fun of you."

While Terebus' point rings true, in terms of where money is being spent, things just don't add up. According to the Michigan Retailers Association, there's no data that says Michiganders are spending more than other states on costumes or decorations.

While Pickel concedes that part of our obsession with Halloween is psychological, he's quick to direct the conversation back to Fear Finder, noting it's a huge asset to Michigan's haunted house scene.

"No other market has a publication with that kind of reach," he says. "No other market even has a publication like that."

Thus, Michigan's haunted house industry is booming and the country is taking notice. Or, at least those in the fright business are taking notice.

"Innovative things are going on in Detroit," Pickel says. "It's growing leaps and bounds. There are some gorgeous and unbelievably creative attractions there."

But some of us have a hard time equating scenes of murder, torture, and other such repugnant situations with words like "gorgeous" and "creative." There's no doubt tons of time, care, and sweat equity go into the construction of these attractions — but why are we lining up to tour them? Why are we so obsessed with these often morbid, lurid displays of horror? Furthermore, why are we bringing these displays home?

Robert "Nix" Nixon is a Halloween enthusiast. He keeps vintage Halloween decorations from the 1960s and '70s up in his Detroit home year round. He drives a hearse. His obsession with the holiday was born many years ago.

"I'm adopted, and my folks 'took delivery' of me on Halloween Day," Nixon says. "I was 2 or 3, I think. And from what they tell me, every trick or treater that came knocking, I thought they were all coming to see me in my new home."

His parents continued to make the holiday a big deal in their household, but they always kept things whimsical. His father grew giant pumpkins in their backyard, for instance. So, while Nixon loves Halloween, he isn't a huge fan of modern day haunted attractions.

"I love that Michigan has the most haunted attractions compared to anywhere in the world," Nixon says, giving credence to Terebus' claim. But, he says he's only really a fan in theory.

"I don't dig on cheap jump scares," he continues. "I'd rather simulated terror be created with ambiance and setting, not animatronic monster clowns and zombies with really bad makeup jobs."

So, if not everyone who loves Halloween isn't simultaneously taken by haunted attractions, what's the common denominator?

"It's the time of year that people seem to be much more accepting of 'weirdos,' he says. "Those people that love horror movies and the macabre love this time of year, just because it's 'the most wonderful time of the year.' The crisp air, the falling leaves. All that jazz."

Tour any suburban Michigan neighborhood and you'll find homes that have been outfitted with disemboweled corpses, blood-drenched zombies, and grim ghosts — some of whom cackle menacingly at passers-by. Of course, these glorifications of gore aren't ubiquitous. Most people stick to pumpkins and scarecrows, while some add twinkling purple, orange, and black lights, dried cornstalks, and bales of hay to their porches.

Whether the decorations are demented or whimsical, there's no doubt Americans are spending more money on them than any other holiday, save Christmas. That's a fact, according to Michigan Public Radio.

In 2013, MPR ran a spot about Michigan's Halloween history in which local historian Bill Loomis dissects the holiday's roots.

"It really came over with the Scottish and Irish immigrants," he says in the interview. "They started coming over in the 1840s. The first mention of Halloween in the papers was in the 1860s when it started to become more popular."

To those people, Loomis says, the holiday was a time to gather at the hearth, tell ghost stories, and play games. Back then those rudimentary celebrations tied into the church celebrations of All Souls Day and All Saints Day, a time when people believed spirits were among them.

These celebrations also predate the inclusion of blood and guts into the holiday accoutrement. Instead, early Michiganders focused on the paranormal and supernatural. Loomis says the state's residents were particularly obsessed with communicating with the dead during the years following the Civil War and World War I, which meant a rise in seances, mediums, Ouija boards, and other forms of metaphysical connection. Many residents had lost husbands, sons, brothers, and friends during the wars — and desperately wanted some closure.

"Death was more a part of life," Loomis says. "People died younger, so there was more of a need to communicate and sort of straighten out your life and how people left things unfinished."

Michiganders' love of the supernatural never quite ended, and John E.L. Tenney is something of an expert on that subject. He's a paranormal investigator, author, and the man behind Weird Lectures, and in 1988 he was pronounced dead — and then came back to life. It was that experience that led him to investigate all the "weirdness" in the world.

"First of all, Michigan is just about the strangest place," Tenney says when asked about our obsession with Halloween. "We're very internalized people, maybe because of the winter, and we're very introspective and reflective on ourselves."

As someone who's traveled the country looking for ghosts and goblins, he can say with a degree of authority that Michigan is something of an paranormal epicenter.

"We're one of the strangest states in the country," he says. "We have more boats and planes disappear in the Great Lakes than in the Bermuda Triangle. We have massive UFO sightings. We have tons of allegedly haunted places. We have Bigfoot sightings, we have lake monsters, we have everything, the whole gamut of strangeness here in Michigan.

"I think we hear about these little stories through our parents and grandparents, and we grow up with that basis in us."

Maybe Tenney has it right. Maybe Halloween is just in our blood — and guts.