Screams echo from inside an imposing building that sits alone in a dark field in Wading River. It's a scene that's occurred for the past quarter of a century at Darkside Haunted House, which has become a Halloween season tradition on Long Island.
“People come in here to escape the real world for a little bit,” says owner/creator Mike Meola. “Haunted houses have often been compared to roller coasters because you get that adrenaline rush even though you know you are safe. It’s the thrill of surviving it.”
Darkside has endured fads and changes to the local haunt scene for "25 years of fear" because of its unique recipe of detailed set design, freshly creative ideas and a dedicated crew of actors that share an extreme enthusiasm for Halloween.
“The key to a good show is to work with passionate people,” says Meola, 53. “I never set out to be the scariest haunted house. My goal was always to be the most entertaining.”
Growing up in Miller Place, Meola always had a love for Halloween and began building live-action haunts at age 10 in the basement of his parents’ house. “I’d create a walk-through and set up scenes with people jumping out of places,” he says. “I’d get my brothers and sisters to be my live actors. It was my own little creative outlet. After helping his friend’s wife start up her costume shop in Rocky Point in 1997, he got the idea to open his own haunted house.
“It began as a passion project,” says Meola. “I realized there was a market for this because there weren't many haunts on Long Island at the time.”
By 1998, Meola leased an old barn in Wading River and built a 10-room haunt featuring a dungeon, spider room, a jail, a coffin bride scene and a 10 by 12-foot falling wall.
“It was like nothing we heard about or experienced on this side of the Island,” says actor/manager Cathy Gillette, who worked during Darkside’s inaugural year. “We started off wearing a lot of black robes with makeup done on our faces. Each of us had our spots in the haunt and we’d look through a peephole in order to see people coming and manually operate a prop with a pulley to distract them. Then we’d appear through a secret door and get a scare out of them. All of us were learning the ropes together.”
Darkside was an instant success and by year two it nearly tripled in size adding an entire outdoor area known as The Village. However, Meola vowed to keep the attraction fresh every year.
“Darkside has never opened the same show in 25 years. Every year we change up the rooms. Some are ripped out and others are altered,” says Meola. “I try to design the best rooms I can. Then the next year’s goal is to top it. We are always tweaking the show. For us, it’s never good enough.”
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
One of the elements that Darkside is known for is its movie-quality sets.
“It’s extremely immersive,” says actor Sarah Manuello, 24, of Sound Beach, who portrays a possessed character that contorts their body. “There’s so much detail in each room like dust, grime and even specific scents. You really feel like you are in it.”
The staff likes to get deep into each character they are portraying.
“Once they are in costume, we put every actor in front of a mirror and say, ‘You need to leave yourself at the door. This is who you are now,’ ” says Gillette, who also dresses each actor. “You have to use all the tools — costume, makeup, props — to feel empowered.”
Norberto Sa portrays a Gothic butler and has operated Darkside’s legendary elevator for the past 21 years.
“The best part is interacting with people,” says Sa, 62, who is formerly of Wading River and now travels from Lititz, Pennsylvania, to work at Darkside on the weekends. “We make it fun for everyone going through. But, sometimes people end up in a fetal position in the corner of the elevator.”
Shane McGowin, 53, of Southampton handles the makeup at Darkside but also serves as an actor. He portrays a variety of ghoulish characters including a spooky priest.
“Some actors scream in your face, but I’m not about that. I find subtlety works much better,” says McGowin, who has been at Darkside for 19 seasons. “You put on your demon face then watch them fall down like dominoes.”
The Darkside crew, which is about 40 people, is a tight-knit group that has been together for many years.
“The cast feels like a family,” says actor/building manager Joe Sendra, 33, of East Setauket, who has 18 years under his belt. “It helps us put on a better show because it’s easier to bounce off each other when there’s that familiarity.”
This year, Meola has a secret scare in the haunt that has been in the works for years which he’s amped for his customers to experience.
“This scare has never been done anywhere. It’s hard to find something new but we did it,” says Meola. “I’m like a little kid when it comes to this stuff. After 25 years I’m still excited to put on a show.”
DARKSIDE HAUNTED HOUSE
WHEN | WHERE 7 to 11 p.m. Oct. 19, 25, 26, 30, 31, 7 p.m. to midnight Oct. 20 and 27, 6 p.m. to midnight Oct. 21 and 28, 6-10:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and 29; 5184 NY-25A, Wading River
COST $35-$40; kids under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
MORE INFO 631-369-7227, darksidehauntedhouse.com