Netherworld Haunted House 2019
Mysterious and spooky three decades on.
As a kid growing up in New York, Billy Messina was always into scary monsters. Halloween was by far his favorite holiday. The co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House tells Creative Loafing that “anything related to monsters like Godzilla movies or Planet of the Apes was a huge part of my youth.”
Messina would sit in front of the television waiting to see commercials for a popular haunted house in New Jersey “that I was too young to go to,” he remembers. “I grew up with a vision of that stuff, and I guess I’ve been carrying all that a long time.” His business partner at Netherworld, Ben Armstrong, had similar proclivities, “but was more into the fantasy end of things.”
The two men met while working for Silo X, a national chain of haunted houses. Prior to that, Armstrong had been in television, and for a time appeared as Dr. Speculo, a mad scientist he created for a series called “Tales From 6 Feet Under” on WCTV-Tallahassee, and that led to a number of live stage productions featuring the character. Armstrong was also a producer at Fox 5 in Atlanta.
Messina had been doing special makeup effects, customized props, and miniatures for various motion pictures and commercials. A horror movie in the early 1990s called Basket Case 3 brought him to Atlanta, where he soon settled. After that project, however, jobs became scarce. “There were years when only three features were shot here, and everyone was killing themselves to get on them. Every film needs grips and electricians, but not necessarily special makeup or custom props.”
Silo X presented itself at just the right time for both Armstrong and Messina, who were hired to set up new locations around the country. The company, however, pulled out of launching an Atlanta site of Silo X after the two men had spent an entire year trying to get it off the ground.
“We wanted this thing to happen and had put a lot of work into it,” Messina recalls. “Granted, we were compensated, but it was terribly disappointing.” At that point, they decided to create their own haunted house.
Now in its 23rd year, the highly successful Netherworld is considered one of the top haunted houses in the country, but its start in 1997 was precarious at best, with the two men cobbling together a makeshift show in a small space in Kennesaw, working with a short-term lease.
They built walls in Messina’s driveway and pretty much did everything themselves while storing the products of their labor in a loft on Memorial Drive. “Sounds cool now, doesn’t it?” he says. “No, it wasn’t. It was a crack-den.” The partners eventually wised up and hired a few special-effects personnel that were being “under-utilized” in local film productions, and for whom the new project would be a natural segue.
Working with Silo X had provided some insight on how to run an attraction as a business rather than a passion. “We learned that it’s not just a product — it’s an extension of us — and to be hands-on. So we put a proposal together, a very simple business plan, and reached out to family and friends and said, ‘Pretty please.’ We raised some money and our investors ended up making more than we did, but that’s alright.”
Their first show in Kennesaw did fairly well. “People showed up; we didn’t drown,” Messina acknowledges. “We just wanted to survive and see if there was a taste for what we wanted to do. We were optimistic.” As it turned out, there was enough demand and positive feedback to do it again, but it had to be bigger and better, so in 1998 Netherworld moved into its Norcross location, a rental spot on Dawson Boulevard it would occupy for the next 20 years.
“The owners liked us,” Messina says. “They saw we had some chutzpah, but they told us, ‘If you want to grow, you can’t be doing all this moving in and moving out.’ So we rented it year-round.”
Netherworld could now develop and expand. “From there, it was more layering and buying more stuff, more themes, kicking it up every year, and you have the benefit of doing that when you have your own location,” Messina recalls. “We laugh now about all the time, energy, and money we put into something back then we felt was important. We have learned how to do things more easily.” They also learned quickly that chainsaws are a vital component of any haunted house, after originally planning to eschew them. “Clowns, chainsaws, and our vortex tunnel are omnipresent and the most popular things we have, much to our chagrin sometimes. But you have to give people what they want.”
The partners wanted to have original content, as opposed to rehashing known entities such as Freddie Kruger, so they developed their own monsters. The most famous is arguably The Collector, who first appeared in 2004’s “Spirits of The Dead” show and, according to the Scare Factor website, is a “corpse-like revenant sent to collect lost souls in ancient graveyards at the behest of foul creatures from other planes of existence ... causing all sorts of mayhem.”
Over time, Netherworld took over more and more real estate inside the Norcross building, until in 2017 they ran out of any other space to annex. The two founders even gave up their offices for the cause, Messina says, remembering days when he “worked crouched in a corner with my iPad by the gumball machine in the gift shop.”
They “needed their own dirt” to be able to do more and have more freedom. “We had been there a long time, and wanted more space to do more things; we wanted escape rooms and to be open all year long for different events, and we just didn’t have that ability,” Messina says.
By the fall of 2018, Netherworld Haunted House had found yet another new home — a 9.5 acre complex in Stone Mountain on West Park Place Boulevard with plenty of room to expand. Messina and Armstrong have wasted no time. In August this year, a new escape room titled “Tiki Island: Attack of The Shark God” joined the three existing ones: “Sasquatch: Bigfoot’s Revenge,” “Nosferatu: Van Helsing’s Secret,” and “Haunted: Curse of The Night Hag.”
“We just opened a laser adventure arena outdoors, and the general consensus is good,” Messina says. “We have a new monster museum at this location with lots of movie props in there, things that we worked on — weird, strange oddities.”
“Night of the Gorgon” and “Cold Blooded” are this year’s themed haunts. “We decided to go a little off track,” says Messina. “People already know vampires and werewolves, so we went the Gorgon route. It’s a neat aesthetic, turning people to stone.”
Not bad for a couple of guys who’ve brought their wildest nightmares to life. -CL-