NORTH WILDWOOD — Eric Princz is thinking of new ways to frighten you.
The 46-year-old animatronics engineer does it often, walking through the corridors of his recently opened Morbid Manor haunted house, looking for new ideas to solicit screams and even a few laughs.
For Princz, his love of haunted houses goes beyond the business of boo.
The Ocean City resident is a connoisseur of old-school haunts that once graced South Jersey’s shoreline.
That’s why visitors to his 3,700-square-foot Morbid Manor on Sportland Pier here may recognize some relics from shriek-inducers past.
Giant demons, gargoyles and even some sound effects were once pieces of the former Castle Dracula in Wildwood and the landmark Brigantine Castle in Brigantine.
Through history, Princz is trying to combine the retro feel of 1970s and 1980s haunted houses with high-tech devices and computer graphics.
Throw in some enthusiastic actors to raise the fear factor, and Princz has fulfilled a dream: He built his own haunted house.
“I wanted it to be really detailed. I didn’t want it to be like other haunts. I wanted the retro feel. I wanted it to feel like back then,” said Princz, 46, of Ocean City. “I didn’t want it be a typical haunted house with black walls and nothing in it. I didn’t want anything to be store bought, like Halloween decorations. That drives me nuts. I wanted everything to be custom; that’s why it took so long to build.”
The manor opened Memorial Day weekend, nearly a year after he undertook the project. The business is owned by Morbid Enterprises LLC, of which Princz is a principal. He estimated the value of the entire project at about $500,000.
For his day job, Princz is an animatronics engineer who has designed features for haunted houses and casinos for his company, Creative Design and Engineering, of Upper Township.
One of the unique items in the house is a two-way optical glass that looks like a mirror. And then it shatters. And then a computer graphic spirit appears to float through the opening as a gust of wind pumps out of the wall.
In Princz’s haunted house, one thing is intentionally missing — blood.
“Gore is just disgusting,” he said. “It’s not scary, and I didn’t want to do a gore fest. I wanted it to have more of a Disney slant in here. It’s kind of Disney with an edge. A lot of the stuff we’re doing here is experimental. We’re able to try out some new designs. We’re doing that with the computer graphic stuff, the shadow stuff.”
The manor employs a dozen actors who travel through special passageways to scare unwitting guests. One can pop his head through a picture frame, slam a window, or quietly sneak through a door to jump out of what looked like a wall.
Morbid Manor is the second walk-through haunted attraction to open on the Boardwalk in the Wildwoods in the past two years. Last year, Morey’s Piers launched its attraction, Ghost Ship, on Mariner’s Landing.
These types of haunted attractions have a long history in the Wildwoods, but had been fading before a recent resurgence, said Ralph Grassi, 47, of Wildwood Crest, a local historian and enthusiast of edgy amusements who runs the amusement website, www.funchase.com.
Early in the 20th Century, the “dark rides,” as they are known, were like tunnels of love, Grassi said. They were not built for fear.
One of the earlier walk-through haunted houses in Wildwood was the Witches Forest in the 1930s, where plywood cutouts were the preferred method of fright, he said.
“As time went on, they were more advanced and you started to get the pop-up stunts,” he said.
One of the most famous in Wildwood was Castle Dracula, which was open for nearly a quarter century. It was destroyed in January 2002 by an arson fire set by two teenagers and never reopened.
With its demise, the walk-through haunted houses appeared to decline.
“They did die off there for a while,” Grassi said “We didn’t see much of these types of attractions on the Boardwalk for a lot of years. They would close them down and wouldn’t reopen them. The walk-through attraction was becoming a rare thing. You got to love they’re starting to get back into that.”
Since Princz opened Morbid Manor, he has noticed people recognize some pieces of the old haunted houses. Parts of the deadly wine cellar are from Castle Dracula. And, surprisingly, some of the older generations remember the fence around the attraction; it was once used at the former Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood.
“People actually recognize the fence and get their picture taken at the fence. It’s really amazing what people remember,” he said.
Despite technological changes, there are still two kinds of customers who frequent haunts — the courageous and the not so courageous.
“Some people walk through, we know are going to be Mr. Brave and not going to get scared. Then there’s other people who go through who are just ridiculous: They fly into walls and scream the minute they come in the door,” he said.
You can’t scare everybody, said Pete Rondeau, 46, the manager of the haunted house.
“Generally what happens is a group goes through. Half the group is screaming, the other half is laughing at them for screaming,” said Rondeau, of Gettysburg, Pa. “So everybody comes out happy.”
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