FAIRBANKS — On the outside, it’s a little blue building at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds.
On the inside, the inmates have escaped and you’re at their mercy, what little they have. You’re likely to be taunted, tormented, maybe terrified, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll escape with a laugh once your heart rate returns to normal.
You’ve no doubt been touring Fairbanks Asylum, the only haunted house this Halloween season in the Interior. It’s the high-tech end result of a year of planning, building, creating and rehearsing, and it’s designed to give you the biggest fright you’ll live to tell your friends about.
“I love haunted houses. I always have,” said Robert Fisher, who with his wife, Debbie, are the driving force behind Fairbanks Asylum. “That’s how it all started.”
A haunt is born
The Fishers arrived at Fort Wainwright in September 2011, where they are both active-duty soldiers and nurses at Bassett Army Community Hospital. In October of that year, as they were driving home from visiting a now-defunct haunted house in Salcha, Robert thought to himself that he and his wife should create one in Fairbanks. The Fishers already were big fans of Halloween, and they knew they wanted to delve into a side business of some kind.
“We started researching it because it was a path neither of us had gone down,” Robert said. “We just jumped on board.”
After acquiring the appropriate business licenses and pouring tons of their own money into the project to buy lumber to build a facility, they realized a well-built building full of creepy decor wouldn’t cut it. It dawned on them that they would need makeup and effects.
Debbie, literally, typed “makeup artist” into an Internet search engine and up popped Brielle McKenna, a transplant to Fairbanks from California, where she had worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Debbie contacted McKenna, who at first thought the Fishers were putting on a haunted house in their home. After meeting with the couple and realizing they were putting on a haunted house of epic proportions, McKenna joined as lead makeup and special effects artist, becoming the third leg in their triad of terror.
“My initial reaction was this was really cool and better than just doing wedding pictures,” McKenna said. “I’ve done set work on films and movies but nothing in the haunted house realm. This is another side of makeup that I hadn’t gotten to do a lot of.”
From that winter in 2011 through the spring and summer of 2012, “the haunt,” as Robert calls it, was all the Fishers concentrated on in their spare time.
They settled on an asylum theme in which mental patients have escaped their cells in part because Robert works in a hospital and because of the horror movie “The House on Haunted Hill.” The movie is set in an abandoned insane asylum where the head of the facility performs gruesome experiments and medical procedures on his patients, resulting in their deaths and trapping their souls in the asylum. The remaining patients who survive the doctor’s experiments escape their cells and burn the facility, killing almost all the staff. Years later, an eccentric millionaire offers a group of people an exorbitant amount of money to spend the night in the now-haunted asylum, which the ghosts of the patients find none too pleasing.
“It was a natural fit,” Robert said.
As word spread via friends and Facebook during the summer, the Fishers debuted a taste of the haunt at the Tanana Valley State Fair in August, creating a small tease of an exhibit showcasing what would open this month at the fairgrounds.
“The fair in August was our biggest learning experience as far as building a structure. Every day, we were restructuring walls. The doctor had someone so scared they tried to run through a wall,” Robert said of one of the characters in the haunt.
While McKenna started churning out 600 to 700 silicone wounds to be used on performers, the Fishers rounded up a crew of about 30 people, many of them friends and coworkers from Fort Wainwright, to help construct a maze of horror complete with prisoners’ cells, surgical rooms, psychiatric wards and torture chambers.
“We did our best to retell a horror hospital type story,” Robert said. “Somehow, it just all flowed together.”
McKenna had connections in lighting and design from her work in the entertainment industry who offered tips to the Fishers on special lighting and sound effects. The work crew tried to give each room in the haunt — there are 11 — its own theme, each with music, lighting and effects unique to that room.
The next step was getting a cast of actors to play the ghouls, a venture that proved more challenging than they anticipated, Debbie said. “We had more people apply for security than to be actors,” she said.
Soon after their August debut at the state fair, and thanks to word of mouth and social media, actors filled the slots and McKenna went to work transforming them into deranged patients. The haunt had its soft opening on Oct. 4, which offered another learning experience for the asylum crew.
“That was critical for us, getting that feedback. We learned to make it darker, louder and more scary,” Fisher said. “Since then, the actors have been amping it up and feeding off each other’s energy. It’s gotten better each night.”
Now, with the high holy night of spookdom just days away and a TV commercial making the rounds on local broadcast and cable and channels, the haunt is seeing its best business yet, both in customers and the quality of the scares it produces.
“Every day is an improvement with the actors, rooms and costumes,” McKenna said.
• Haven’t seen the TV commercial? Check it out at on YouTube — just type “Fairbanks Asylum” in the search field.
If you go
What: Fairbanks Asylum
Where: 1800 College Road, at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds
Times: 6 p.m. to midnight every Friday and Saturday in October, plus the nights of Oct. 28, 30 and 31.
Tickets: $13; $11 with a military or student ID
Bonus: In the shop above Fairbanks Asylum you’ll find a Halloween costume shop with masks, costumes and spooky accessories.
Inside the haunt
Fairbanks Asylum has several rooms devoted to what scares you the most, but the creators have their favorites.
• Robert Fisher — The Butcher Room. “It was so much fun getting those props and bringing that to life.”
• Debbie Fisher — The Doll Room. “It’s not your typical room in a haunted house. We bought dolls and painted them different ways or stitched their eyes shut.”
• Brielle McKenna — The Claustrophobia Room. “You’re feeling all the people in front of you and around you.”
So what scares you?
Since Fairbanks: Asylum is inspired in part by the horror flick “The House on Haunted Hill,” we wanted to know what scary movie is the creators’ favorite.
• Robert Fisher — “Friday the 13th” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“The originals, not the remakes!”)
• Debbie Fisher — “Silent Hill”
• Brielle McKenna — None. “I don’t watch horror movies.”
The asylum in pop culture
The insane asylum isn’t a pretty place — after all, consider the inhabitants. Here’s our picks for some great flicks either set in or around insane asylums, in case you want to give yourself a crash course on the mentally unstable before your visit to Fairbanks Asylum.
• The Snake Pit (1948)
• One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
• Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
• Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
• Bad Dreams (1988)
• The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
• 12 Monkeys (1995)
• The House on Haunted Hill (1999)
• Session 9 (2001)
• Gothika (2003)
• The Jacket (2005)
• Shutter Island (2010)
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504.