A Visit to ARX MORTIS
Considering that ARX MORTIS in northwest Alabama is the largest haunted attraction in the state, and the most critically acclaimed, and given my rampant fanaticism for all things Horror, it’s surprising that I’d never gotten around to visiting it. (Octobers are insanely busy for me. That’s my only defense.) This past weekend, I decided to remedy that. I took a road trip to the small community of Killen, Alabama. (How’s that for perfect?) Located between the town of Athens and “the Shoals” (which should be well known to all music aficionados), ARX MORTIS is remote enough to achieve that false sense of isolation I find so important for an effective haunt. (I’ve written before how I much prefer the rural sites to those found in big cities such as Nashville and Atlanta for just that reason.) The attraction itself, however, is big enough that it could qualify as its own little town, if only it had a post office. How big is it? Some 50,000 square feet worth of big. The site used to be a flea market, and while there are still several acres currently unused, primed and ready for expansion, the ARX MORTIS (Latin, I am told, for “Fortress of the Dead”) is flippin’ HUGE.
Admission to the attraction will run you $20, but if you upgrade to tour “Ghost Hill” in addition to the main attraction for an extra $5–which I highly recommend–you’re going to spend close to an hour working your way through the venue. You get your money’s worth. They also offer “Ataxia” zombie laser tag–you can do both haunts and Ataxia for $33, which ain’t bad. And for a measly 3 bucks, there’s “The Attic,” a 3-minute escape room experience. You can expect a wait at ARX MORTIS, depending on when you go, but even if you choose not to engage in shooting zombies with lasers or to get locked-up in The Attic, there’s still plenty to do to keep yourself entertained while you wait for your “tour.” There’s a snack bar onsite, and the “Keeper’s Korner” gift shop does justice to such an enormous attraction, being pretty dang big in its own right. In addition to ARX MORTIS merchandise, they have more Horror-themed stuff than you can shake a bloody, gnarled stick at, and, unlike at most such places, where the prices are jacked way up, the prices are reasonable.
But you wanna know about the haunt itself, don’t you? We hear and we obey.
You start out in a cramped room with a séance table. It’s dark, but there’s nothing there to scare you. Then the strobe lights start. Wait, is that a snake? Where’d that snake come from?! (I don’t have ophidiophobia–in fact I love snakes–so I wanted to pet it, but not everyone in the group in which they’d placed me felt the same way.) Getting shooed out the door, you begin your hike through Ghost Hill, located in the woods behind ARX MORTIS. You wind your way along a narrow pathway, lit only by the occasional lantern dangling from the limb of a pine tree, to discover that they’ve constructed their own small, abandoned TOWN back there! You are cautioned before heading out to beware of “The Nine” entities that haunt the town, and you meet the first one when he leaps atop the abandoned, vintage police car to taunt you.
The other eight are waiting at various points along the trail. (My favorite part was a collapsed circus tent that put me in mind of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW.) ARX MORTIS is located across the street from a high school. They just happened to be holding their homecoming at the time, and the group could clearly hear them announcing the homecoming court over the PA system. I can’t speak for the others, but rather than distracting from my experience I found this actually heightened it. It somehow added to the sense of surrealism. Civilization is so close–help is close at hand–and yet it is so far away. I dunno. Maybe it was just me (although my lovely better half felt the same way, she said).
Leaving the woods, you enter “Covington Clinic,” an abandoned insane asylum where the former residents are now running the show.
The detail of the sets is truly remarkable. I was less impressed with the clinic, though, than “the swamp.” Yes, they have a REAL swamp, complete with fake rain, tons of fog, real growing cattails (transplanted from a nearby “natural” swamp, the owner told me), and of course a few swamp creatures to terrorize you.
Owner Vinny Grosso told me that the swamp actually came about as an accident. They had constructed a fake graveyard, but it flooded, so they decided to go with it. I’m glad they did, as the swamp was my favorite part of the attraction. (And it had the life-sized animatronic werewolves–including one that had been eaten down to the bone. Must’ve ticked off its fellow pack members.) There’s still a graveyard, though. A darn realistic one that will make you think you’ve somehow found your way into the backcountry of southern Louisiana.
Then you go down into a mine shaft. And then a cave. I’ve been to natural history museums where they had reconstructions of caves, and the one at ARX MORTIS is just as good, just as realistic. Of course the ones in museums don’t typically have monsters…
I was shown the make-up and costume room for the attraction, as well as the “control room” with its bank of security cameras and control panels for all the special effects that wouldn’t look out of place on the Starship Enterprise. ARX MORTIS is a well organized, choreographed machine, but it’s also a family affair. (I met Vinny’s brother-in-law, Mark, in the control room, and his wife Sheri was working the ticket booth.) They have a small group of paid employees, a lot of them family and close friends, but the majority of their 200+ haunters are volunteers. “Employees are just there for the money, but volunteers do it for the love,” Grosso said. True enough. Grosso himself sure loves the Horror genre, and it shows. He has built a true monument to it.
ARX MORTIS has been running for the past decade. Today they can handle a hundred people every 20 minutes, and expect some 17,000 total visitors this month. As soon as November 1st rolls around, it’s back to work, getting ready for next year. Or for February. They do a “Bloody Valentine’s” day at the Fortress, too. You see something new every time you visit ARX MORTIS, Grosso explained, as they are constantly making changes, trying to enhance the experience. “This year, half the attraction is all new stuff,” he told me.
Anyone living in the southeastern US who loves Horror and Halloween owes it to himself to make the drive to Killen, Alabama and check this place out. It’s flat-out amazing. For a Horror junkie like me, it’s paradise. Don’t miss this one.