Talk about a ghost town: The houses on South Burlington’s Picard Circle, just minutes from the Burlington International Airport, sit deserted — and have for a while. Their proximity to the airport made the former residents eligible for a federally funded program that allows the airport to purchase homes within a 65-decibel-and-above noise zone, says Robert McEwing, the airport’s director of planning and development.
Owned by the airport for a couple of years now, the abodes are “marked for removal” that “probably won’t occur until spring,” says McEwing, because they need to be checked for asbestos and lead before deconstruction. So, the houses continue to sit empty.
But the palpable eeriness surrounding this small cul-de-sac isn’t due to its lack of residents. No, that can be attributed to the homes’ bloodstained interiors and the ghastly shrieks emerging from one garage. It all comes with being the new home base of Nightmare Vermont, an annual interactive haunted house that opens Thursday night.
NV founder and “Fight Master” Jana Beagley jumped at the chance to utilize the uninhabited houses as a chilling setting for scare tactics. Formed in 2004, NV is one of the few groups in the country that incorporates live stage combat and integrated storylines into its productions. It also has a history of jumping around; previous fright fests have taken place at Memorial Auditorium, the Champlain Valley Exposition and South Burlington’s formerly empty Olympiad building.
“You should’ve seen my face light up as we toured the homes,” says Beagley. She was already envisioning the space decked out with slime and gore. “We thought, Wouldn’t it be awesome if we actually made [the houses] benefit the community and we did something cool with them?”
McEwing liked the concept, too. “This makes perfect sense,” he recalls thinking. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.” But even after he granted NV permission to use four houses on Picard Circle and one on Airport Parkway, the project was a big undertaking.
For starters, the homes are cut off from the grid, so there’s no running water or electricity. Some of the houses had been vandalized, says Beagley. For fire considerations, the action is limited to the main floors of most of the homes. But “We’re a really ragtag, jerry-rigged, we-can-do-anything-if-you-just-give-us-some-time kind of crew,” explains Beagley. At a full dress rehearsal two days before opening night, their on-the-fly innovation shows.
A group of 20-plus actors lets out guttural howls in the garage as they run through a combat scene. The walls have been covered in colorful graffiti, and a massive papier-mâché monster head, splattered in blood, lurks creepily in the corner. Inside the same house, dozens of body bags hang from the living-room ceiling, forcing visitors to push their way through.
Around the corner on Airport Parkway is the “ScareShack,” a new addition to NV this year. A small bathroom has been enhanced with guts and a snake. Phrases like “Do your homework” adorn the walls in blood. Creepier still, stuffed animals dangle from the ceiling a few rooms down. “We actually got the idea for the ScareShack because we have so many individual homes [this year],” says Beagley. “People were actually looking ... for a much more intense experience.” The space was set up with a “We-dare-you-to-make-it-through” theme.
In all, the five houses appear perfectly normal on the outside but have been gorily transformed within. According to one member of the South Burlington Rotary, a NV sponsor, a former resident stopped by and was pretty surprised at the state of his childhood home. Our advice? Beware where you trick-or-treat this year, because this quiet neighborhood isn’t what it seems.
Thursday, October 21, through Saturday, October 23, 7-10:30 p.m., and Thursday, October 28, through Saturday, October 30, 7-10:30 p.m., at Picard Circle in South Burlington. $8-12. Info, 734-9687. www.nightmarevermont.org
photos by Jana Beagley and Carolyn Fox