By Merrell McGinness
I don’t do horror or haunted houses. The last scary movie I watched was Children of the Corn in sixth grade. So when I got the assignment to do Ruby Falls’ Haunted Cavern, I was nervous. Buzzfeed named it fourth in their list of “terrifying haunted houses to see before you die.” That's in the country, not just Chattanooga Haunted Houses!
There’s plenty of non-horrifying fun to be had at Ruby Falls. Fall is the perfect time to do their ZIPStream – a combination of zip line and ropes course – and the caves are open daily during their regular times.
But my job was to descend 26 stories into a haunted cave, that alone is scarier than any haunted house in Chattanooga. The 7-year-old girl I spotted in line made me feel slightly braver (and wonder about her parents). This is NOT advertised as a family attraction, but Ruby Falls doesn’t set a minimum age and leaves the decision up to the parents.
We begin the evening in the lobby, catching up with two of the haunt’s creators Tim Green and Todd Patton. The duo has been in the scare business virtually all their lives. Patton moved here to open a Halloween store several years ago and Green has been running haunted houses since 7th grade.
“I love the feeling of being scared and I love scaring others. It’s a miracle my mother is still alive,” jokes Green. About that time a car rolls through the parking lot with an “ISCAREU” Ohio license plate. People come from all over, and the line can be anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people long. Last year they scared the wits out of 20,000 people (and they’re only open for one month!).
The attraction opens at 8 but most arrive early to catch the “Freak Parade” at 7:30 p.m. when the actors walk by to take their positions. There are chainsaws, creepy men in leather masks and creatures called “sliders” who glide over the asphalt in what must be metal kneepads, causing a terrifying grinding noise and sparks.
The first part of the haunt takes place in a part of the cave not normally open to tourists. They keep the groups small (six people max) to intensify the experience. As we exit the elevator, the cave is narrow, low and very dark. At this point I’m extremely grateful for two things:
(1) I’m not claustrophobic
(2) I’m not going first.
I clutch my husband’s arm and don’t let go for the rest of the time we’re in the cave.
What sets the Haunted Cavern apart is the elaborate story line, which Green and Patton have been crafting since March. This year we’re in the cave to investigate The Flesh Farm: zombies! When we finally make our way out of the cave we board the “hellevator” which jostles us to the exit. When we see daylight we run to our waiting van as fast as our jelly legs can carry us.
We drive to the second part of the haunt in Ruby Falls’ parking lot – a maze of shipping containers and tents. Here they throw out all the stops including fire, blood and guts. They play with the temperature (and our heads). One room is hot and smelly; the other eerily cold. At one point I could’ve sworn the water dripping down my back was blood.
While there were plenty of people jumping out at us, Haunted Cavern goes beyond the typical “Boo!” tricks. It excels as a haunt that’s equal parts creepy, gory and terrifying; achieved with professional makeup, sets and actors.
In a world filled with horrifying things, I can almost see why people are drawn to something that can scare but never really hurt you. On the way out I ran into the 7-year-old and asked if she was afraid. “No, not really,” she replied matter of factly.