Here’s a frightening notion: Remember the haunted houses and ghost manors you gingerly navigated around as a kid? Those campy romps that were located beneath church undercrofts, behind the doors of junior high gyms and deep inside darkened YMCA basements — scare fairs that were often dominated by cheesy special effects, mushy eyeballs and good-humored funeral kitsch?
Today, many of those old-fashioned haunted houses have gone the way of the graveyard, tombstone relics that have been replaced by global corporate titans and theme park chains. Good-bye, “Cool Ghoul,” hello William Randolph Hearse.
Yep, cotton spider webs, corn mazes and horror hayrides just don’t seem to cut it anymore.
“Every year, it seems haunted houses get bigger and bigger in this area,” acknowledges Don Helbig, public relations manager for Kings Island, which — this month — opens what is the largest of the region’s horrible happenings, “Fearfest.” Approximately a quarter million people tramp through the theme park’s gates for this supernatural special event, a month-long carnival of spooky effects and petrifying illusions galore. Lightning strikes the Eiffel Tower, fog rolls in across the fountains, and malevolent zombies, mummies, apparitions and skeletons roam the amusement park. “We’re particularly excited about some major changes this year,” says Helbig, “especially with the new ‘Club Blood’, which will be located in the Action Zone.” (The theme: A colony of vampires has taken over a nightclub and is looking to repopulate the species.)
Cincinnatians love a good ghost story, confirms Dr. Don Walker of the Cincinnati Historical Society, who personally conducts an annual motorcoach tour of the Tristate’s spookiest sites and eeriest buildings each Halloween season. “We started the tour about 10 years ago,” says the Mad Doctor, a Kenwood resident and city history buff who’s also an M.D. “It’s a funny story. We had scheduled a regular Cincinnati Historical Society bus tour. It was in October, and people started making reservations. Somebody off the top of their head said, let’s go see all the haunted houses.” And so a grisly legend was born.

GHOULS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN
The scare affair industry — facing the triple threat of soaring rates for liability insurance, over-eager fire marshals who’ll close down an amateur haunted house at the drop of a guillotine and, frankly, an increasingly jaded audience is finally being forced to grow up. Your favorite street-corner and neighborhood haunts are, more likely than not, being replaced by slick, Disney-fied theatrical attractions, embellishing a blend of Hollywood professionalism with that certain esprit d’corpse.
Yes, some homespun Tristate traditions are still percolating along. The haunted mansion on Harrison Avenue in Dent continues to spread out some 35 freaky scenes inside a 19th century schoolhouse. The Dungeons of Delhi on Anderson Ferry Road and the Turpin Farms Haunted Maize along state Rt. 32 in Newtown are equally famous, or fiendish as the case may be. Others independent endeavors, meanwhile, such as the Starlite Drive-in’s Trail of Terror along Ohio Pike in Amelia, have faded to black.
But it’s the giant players, supported by deep pockets, which tend to dominate the scene. Certainly Kings Island’s “Fearfest,” which Helbig confirms has now grown into the Midwest’s largest gruesome attraction, is confidently backed by the theme park’s parent company, the publicly traded behemoth Cedar Fair, L.P. (Interestingly, Cedar Fair’s headquarters at Cedar Point in Sandusky hosts its own twisted variation each September and October, a “FearFaire on the Midway,” employing hundreds of volunteer and paid “Screamsters.”)
The amusement park industry as a whole has embraced gore and mayhem, and the numbers suggest they are making a killing: Some $300 million to $500 million annually. While Helbig says Kings Island doesn’t traditionally release specific numbers for its “Fearfest,” general park admission averages indicate 250,000 strolled through the gate last October.

OHIO: THE HAUNT OF IT ALL
Ironically, one of the region’s major haunted affairs, “Shocktober,” may not happen this year — and it’s all due to scurvy pirates (arrgh!). “I haven’t heard definite confirmation on that,” comments Rodger Pille, director of media relations for Cincinnati Museum Center. “But we might pause it for this year.” Pille explains that the traveling exhibit Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship — a 15,000-square-foot mega-exhibition covering 12 galleries — is occupying some of the space traditionally implemented for “Shocktober,” the edgy successor to the museum’s longtime (and more genteel) “BooFest.” “Pirates is consuming all our attention. It’s a matter of, if you’ll excuse the expression, all hands on deck.”
Even if “Shocktober” takes a break for this year, fans of haunted houses will have no shortage of blood-chilling antics to indulge in.
“Fearfest” draws the most victims, an estimated 250,000 annually, followed by the 73,000 who attend the Cincinnati Zoo’s “HALLZooWEEN,” the 18,000 who check out the Hamilton County Park District’s “Halloween Nights” at Winton Woods, and the 8,000 who head over to the headless horseman at Heritage Village’s “Haunted Village.” Other major institutions include Newport’s U.S.S. Nightmare, Loveland Castle’s “Scary Knights,” St. Rita’s Haunted House, The Beach Waterpark’s “Nightmare Estates” and the Newport Aquarium’s “Ghosts of Pirate’s Cove.”

THE DEVIL, YOU SAY
There must be something in the region’s water. On USA Today’s list of the “Top 13 Haunted Attractions in America” last year, Ohio and Kentucky came in with no less than four entries, dominating a stunning 25 percent of the list: “Horror Hotel” in Chatfield at No. 8, “Dead Acres” in Columbus at No. 9, “Seven Floors of Hell” in Berea at No. 11, and the U.S.S. Nightmare in Newport at No. 13.
The national $500-million haunted house industry has inspired no less than Haunted Attractions magazine, whose editor, Larry Kirchner, likes to refer to such catch-phrases as “gold mine” and “booming business.” Tickets to haunted houses average $17 across the country; here, the cost is a more affordable, but nonetheless impressive, average of $10.
Halloween, in fact, is the No. 3 spending season after Christmas and Easter, reports the National Retail Federation (just tally the costs of all those costumes, decorations, props and candy, on top of admission prices to all the haunted events). Pretty creepy, huh?
Why do consumers flock to the fiendish? Certainly there’s the lure of all things Potter and paranormal. Add to the mix the latest in pyrotechnics and special FX, and you’ve got a wicked winner of a witch’s brew.
The demographics fall across all ages, but patrons for the more extreme, and gory, venues do tend to start in their teens. That the average teenager is more tech savvy than his or her parents is hardly terrifying news. They’ve been raised on video horror games and cable atrocities (think “Buffy,” as in vampire slayer, not as in Mr. French).

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM …
At the other end of the spectrum are fans in their 40s, 50s and even 60s who’ve set up web sites to review Ohio and Kentucky horror hot spots. They’re creepy and they’re kooky, and all together ooky…
And while you wouldn’t expect the Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk, archbishop of Cincinnati’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, to be in the fright night business, he happens to preside over the governing board of perhaps the largest independent franchise left in the market. Pilarczyk sits on the board of the St. Rita School for the Deaf in Evendale and  — indirectly, at least — its venerable St. Rita Haunted House. Located on school grounds in the old boys dormitory, built circa 1900, the Haunted House boasts vampires in every fireplace and crazed “Demon Dan” clerics in the alcoves (well, we might be stretching a point on that last one).
Read on for a complete list of the Top 10 haunted attractions in the Tristate.
Just remember to bring your wallet. Or there’ll be hell to pay.