By Katie V. Jones
Charlene Blankenship couldn’t hide her emotions when she saw the casino room nestled in the maze of hallways and rooms of her and her late husband Richard’s beloved business, Laurel’s House of Horror.
Complete with a slot machine, blackjack tables and two stationary ghouls overseeing everything, the scene is one that Richard would have loved, Blankenship said, as the couple enjoyed date nights at casinos and were married in Las Vegas.
“He was so lucky. He could not lose on our wedding day,” Blankenship said, as she looked around the dimly lit room. “He was so much fun.”
In December, RIchard Blankenship lost his battle with lung cancer. After eight years of running Laurel’s House of Horrors together, Blankenship is on her own this haunt season.
“It’s a very different ballpark I am in,” Blankenship said. “It’s a lot of work. I am doing what I can.”
A career firefighter in Howard County, Richard Blankenship loved creating haunted houses in his garage for his six children and their friends, she said. It was after doing a fire inspection of a popular haunted house in the area that he decided to take a gamble on his love for haunted houses.
“He said ‘I know how to do it,’” Blankenship recalled.”We then stumbled across this place.”
Empty for several years, the former six theater Laurel Twin Theaters in Laurel Shopping Center offered 28,0000 square feet of space.
“It was spooky,” Blankenship said. “The floors were unlevel where the seats had been, and it was enormous.”
With the help of family, friends and fellow firefighters, the couple was able to fill the space with both props and actors to open the haunt for its first season, in 2013. Nine years later, Blakenship is calling upon that support again.
“It is hard for the family to come in because it makes them sad,” Blankenship said. “A lot of my team have been here since the beginning or pretty close.”
“I have been coming here since it opened,” said Brianna Murphy, who now works for the haunt as the character Maw, a blood-soaked ghoul. “I absolutely love it. It’s a wonderful time.”
Actors are an important part of the haunt’s success, Blankenship said, as they do little skits and banter with guests.The 50 to 60 actors go through training and are encouraged to create characters.Two regular characters include a ghoul named Laurel, who can be found roaming the halls, and the butcher, whose storefront is named after Richard Blankenship’s uncle, Art Stauv, an avid haunt supporter who died in October 2014 while working at the haunt.
“They are artists who get to come play and show us what they are capable of,” Blankenship said. “It’s a win, win. It is a valuable partnership. They need what we have and we need what they have.”
The haunt, Blankenship said, has several themed areas including this season’s newest addition, the Carlisle Hotel, which includes the casino scene. While Blankenship oversees everything, Anthony Casalotti, the art designer, “has the ideas,” she said.
“We add every year. I am always thinking in advance,” said Casalotti, who has been with the haunt for eight years. ”Next year is our 10th year. Everything with Xs next year.”
Blankenship is proud of the detail work found throughout the haunt, noting that someone complained about what they thought was mold in an escape room.
“It does look really good,” Blankenship said. “You don’t want it to look too commercial or perfect. I had to learn how to make a nice doll seem all tattered and worn and weathered.”
People, according to Casalotti, like to be scared “for the adrenaline rush.” He and Chris Smith, CFO of Laurel’s House of Horror, said there are several types of scares possible including a creepy scare, a gorey scare and a terrified scare.
“A successful haunted house has the perfect combination,” Casalotti said.
During the haunt season, which started the last weekend in September and runs through the first weekend of November, food will be available for sale for those waiting in line outside. Various ghouls and goblins will also provide entertainment for those in line and drag queens are scheduled to perform on two Sundays.
Paranormal tours of the theater will be offered in October after the haunted house closes for the night. Hosted by Charm City Paranormal, tours will start at 11:30 p.m. and 1:45 a.m.
Three escape rooms — Jigsaw, Freakshow and Escape the Movies — are available throughout the year. These, and a fourth room that’s in the works, challenge participants to find and answer clues in a set time period.
“Everything changes,” Blankenship said. “Our presence is much more known than it was. I am carrying on and making it all come to fruition.”