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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Scare tactics

Petersburg’s fright factory

The skeleton is for sale; the hearse is not.

Shawn McKinney says he's made grown men fall to their knees in terror. Once he even had a teenage girl lose control of her bladder.

He dismisses such shocking tales as commonplace events at Terror on the Square, his haunted house in a former funeral parlor in downtown Petersburg. People have been known to walk through with their eyes closed the whole time, missing all of the gags they had paid to see. McKinney says many of his hired hands are too spooked to enter the building alone. Customers have come all the way from Chicago and St. Louis, and McKinney says they swear he runs the best haunted house ever.

McKinney thinks of himself as a theater artist and set designer. He wants to elevate the haunted house to an art form. He's spent years perfecting "hologram-like" effects, inspired by Disney World's Haunted Mansion in Florida. Guests trip sensors that switch on an array of lights and noises. Still, his tricks mostly depend on old-fashioned stagecraft. McKinney's 40-member crew is well-rehearsed; everything is timed down to the second. And if McKinney overhears your conversation outside, he will try to exploit it. Whispering voices may sneak up behind you and call out your name.

"I like doing unique things no one else is doing, or putting a twist on something," says McKinney, who by day is a warehouse and inventory control manager at the U.S. Electric Company in Springfield.

He says traditional haunted houses try to take visitors by surprise, yet they all seem to rely on the same ploys: a monster jumps from a dark corner, a skeleton pops out of a coffin, a man with a chainsaw chases you.

"But really good scares depend on a variety of fears," he says. "People have a lot of fears--of ghosts, heights, snakes--not just of a monster jumping out of the dark ten times."

Terror on the Square, in other words, takes a more holistic approach--it aims to spook the complete person.

McKinney, 41, has been in the haunted house business since he was 9, when he turned his parents' home into one. (They eventually forced him out to the yard). For years he helped the local Jaycees with their haunted house and eventually served as the club's chairman. Then 11 years ago he ventured out on his own, renting the building on the west side of the square. It had been vacant for decades but was a funeral parlor until the 1940s. An embalming certificate from 1925 hangs on a wall. An archway leading to the old visitation room still bears an inscription: "Love never faileth." Several years ago McKinney had a dream about buying a hearse. He thought it was a good idea, so he went shopping. He found one about 21 miles north in Mason City. He later discovered paperwork in a compartment showing that the car had once been owned by the Petersburg funeral home.

McKinney doesn't use the first floor. There's a Terror on the Square gift shop on the second--shot glasses, T-shirts, fangs, Halloween lingerie, skeleton key rings. "I didn't want junky," McKinney says of his inventory. "I wanted class."

The haunted house mainly occupies the third floor, where it extends into buildings on either side. He figures he's invested at least $100,000 since opening day. To keep up with the latest in scare tactics, he subscribes to a trade publication, Haunted Attraction, and attends a haunted house convention held every March upstate in Rosemont. While he makes a profit, he says he plows most of it back into next year's show.

The whole enterprise is a creative outlet, McKinney says. "I have all these ideas. It's so hard to cut them off and only do this much. Every year I want it to be better than the last. There's no limits to Halloween." u

Terror on the Square is open 7 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays October 10 through November 1, and 7 to 10 p.m. Sunday, October 26, and Thursday, October 30. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for kids 12 and younger. Not recommended for children under six. Lines can be long, so expect to wait your turn. Advance tickets can also be purchased at White's Marathon gas station on Route 97 coming in to Petersburg from Springfield. For more info, visit www.terrorontheweb.com.

Halloween Happenings

Boo Crew, Rochester Lions Club Charity Haunted House, Old Firehouse, 125 Main Street, Rochester, October 24-November 1, 6:30-10 p.m. Closed Tuesday. www.boocrew.com

Clinton Haunted House, 513 E. Washington, Clinton (935-3364), October 16-18, 24-26, and 30-31, at 7 p.m.Young children's night, October 25, 5-6 p.m. $6.

Garden of the Goblins, Washington Park Botanical Garden, October 26, noon-3 p.m., for children 12 and under, 50 cents (753-6228).

Ghost Train and Haunted Boxcar, Monticello Railway Museum. Monticello (800-952-3396), October 18-19, 24-26. Trains depart on the half hour from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 7 to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Children's matinees 1 to 3 p.m. October 18 and 26.

Haints, Ghosts, & Suchlike Campfire Tales, Homestead Prairie Farm, Decatur (423-7708), October 25, 7-8 p.m.

Halloween Fun Fest, Rec Center, Lincoln Park District, Lincoln (732-8770), October 30, 6-8 p.m., children preschool through 6th grade.

Halloween Parade and Antique Farm Show, Litchfield (324-5443), October 26, noon-4 p.m., parade at 4.

Hall-zoo-Ween, Glen Oak Zoo, Peoria (309-681-0696), October 17-18, 5:30-8:30 p.m., for children 10 and under.

Haunted Zoo, Henson Robinson Zoo, Lake Springfield (753-6217), October 28-31, 6-8 p.m., tour of the zoo with a scary story, $1.50 adults, 75 cents children.

Terror on the Square, Petersburg(632-2731), October 10-11, 17-18, 24-26, and 30-31,7 -11 p.m., till 10 p.m. October 26 and 30. $7 adults, $5 children under 12. www.terrorontheweb.com

Trail of Terror, Whitley Creek Recreation Area, Lake Shelbyville, October 25 (774-3313), a walk through the haunted woods.

"Where Are the Wild Things?" Illinois State Armory (782-5993), October 26, noon-4 p.m., trick or treat safari for children 12 and under, $2.

Zoolie Ghoulie, Henson Robinson Zoo, Lake Springfield (753-6217), October 25-26, 2-6 p.m., trick or treat at the zoo, $2.

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