3:50 PM CDT, October 11, 2011
"Aren't you old for a haunted house?" asked one of the androgynous seasonal residents of a nondescript warehouse deep in Morton Grove. His/her job, clearly, was to taunt Saturday night visitors to the Halloween attraction Fear City, so that insult goes with the territory. Had this ghost of Riverview stopped there, I'd have been fine. But no. "I was feeling horny," he/she said, cackling for added effect, "until you walked in."
Well. Some of life's horrors, clearly, don't end on Oct. 31.
But Halloween will be the last day for a remarkable new walk-though attraction that goes far, far beyond the typical theme-park, chain-saw grottoes or the suburban warehouses full of fake fog and cliched gore. You may have seen scarier haunted houses than Fear City — although, on several occasions, I jumped halfway to the ceiling — but I very much doubt you seen a more artful or fully realized Halloween milieu.
Fear City, which was built from scratch by Charles Grendys (the owner of the movie-building shop, Big City Sets) and Jim Lichon (an Emmy-winning set decorator for Harpo Studios) is intended as a walk through Chicago, some time after the apocalypse. Both these men clearly raided their warehouses, and then some. The settings are spectacularly detailed. You start your journey on an "L "train — a moving, life-size "L" train complete with a full-on CTA station so unpleasant that it could give the real Clark and Division stop on the Red Line a run for its money in matters horrific — and from there you arrive at a truly dizzying succession of virtual, iconic Chicago locales, all deftly twisted for the season.
And there is wit. Much wit. At Wrigley Field, a hungry goat is snacking on the entrails of a Cubs player. At Midway Airport, you board a plane — a life-sized plane, motion, descending oxygen masks and all — with a flight attendant even less focused on customer service than you'll find at Southwest.
There is a mothballed City News stand, where the denizens are decrepit (which was strike two against this entire enterprise). There is a trip to the West Loop meatpacking district, and I ain't talking high-end restaurants with pretentious chefs, unless you're talking chefs appearing on their own menus. There is a visit to the kind of Cook County medical clinic that board president Toni Preckwinkle might want to publicize when she's next talking about the grave dangers of injudicious budget cuts.
And — this was my personal favorite — you pay a visit to the living room of a home somewhere in the bungalow belt when nothing has been thrown away in years and the television set is perennially tuned to QVC. The guy in the La-Z-Boy is a real charmer.
Those are merely the bones of a truly remarkable enterprise (not for pre-teens, by the way). It takes the best part of an hour to experience everything and everyone, all depending on how long it takes you to emerge from the several psychedelic mazes therein (I had to be rescued from one, after hitting many minutes of solid walls). On several occasions, Fear City departs from its basic movie-set-like theme and immerses its customers in a sea of laser-punctured white, or floats them in some weird dream or other. Thankfully, though, nobody human touches you. Can't speak for the live rat.
Since leaving Fear City, I've spent some quality, child-motivated time in several of those Halloween pop-up stores, where the aesthetic pallet is a tad, well, limited. Not so Fear City, where Halloween ranges far more widely. You'll likely have to range a bit to find this joint — if it were in the city, Fear City would clean up. Then again, I remember a Lincoln Park haunted house created by Collaboraction Theatre Company in 2003 (it was good, but not in the same realm as Fear City) that opened up for about one night before real city inspectors closed it down. In Morton Grove, the police were waving folks in. Revenge against Chicago was taken inside.
Open 7 p.m. daily through Oct. 31, 8240 N. Austin St., Morton Grove; tickets $25-$35 at fearcitychicago.com
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