RANTOUL — As he walked through the displays of skeletons, severed limbs, zombies and cannibals at the Transworld Haunter’s convention in 2012, Marc Dams felt like he belonged.
Dams was into horror as a kid. That love led him into the world of props and makeup, which led him away from blood and guts and into working with museum exhibits. But here, he was home.
“As soon as I hit the show floor, I was like, ‘These are my people,’” Dams said. “They lived horror year-round. They got to build the sets; they got to do the makeup; they got to scare the crap out of people.”
His boss at his day job at Taylor Studios, Betty Brennan, sent him to the convention to investigate turning part of her building, a former Walmart in Rantoul, into a haunted house. Brennan decided not to follow through, but Dams was hooked.
So using his own money and Brennan’s space, Dams decided to build a world of terror in that large retail building.
“I put my capital up, but it wasn’t a great deal of capital,” he said. “I basically had to buy what I could get — haunts going out of business, the haunt trading post and things where they’re selling used equipment.”
In one large purchase, he accumulated a bounty of old medical equipment. And that was how he formed the idea for Baldwin Asylum.
Over the past seven years, the basic story for Baldwin Asylum has stayed the same, but the details of the haunt have changed. The haunt takes patrons through an old haunted asylum with demented clowns, a church with demonic nuns, and a cabin with crazed, cannibalistic inhabitants.
Dams and his team have become part of the haunt community, and with that they’ve learned not only what causes people to scream, but what transports them from an old Walmart building into a different world.
“We try to go from our storyline from our asylum, where you walk inside a building to where you walk outside and walk into another facade,” said technical adviser Kyle Miller, who has acted in haunts since he was 10 years old. “Every time you walk into a new haunt, there’s a new facade or new face of a building to walk through.
“There’s very distinctive flow as you’re walking inside-outside, inside-outside to give a person a feeling of not being in a building, but being immersed into a scene. Try to take them outside of their comfort zone but have them totally involved in what they’re seeing in front of them.”
The reaction to Baldwin Asylum, Miller said, varies widely. Some people show their amazement, others cower in the corner. Urination and defecation are not uncommon.
A few dozen actors and workers man the building every night, including RJ Harding, who does everything from makeup to spot maintenance duty to acting as a crazed resident of the cabin with a chainsaw.
“When you scare somebody, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “We are the things that go bump in the night. ... This is the place you can come and release your inner demons and just let it all out. You don’t have to worry about somebody making fun of you or critiquing you or anything like that.
“A lot of people will show up wanting to do it, and they’re very timid at first, but as soon as you get that first scare, it kick-starts something. Your screams get higher. You get more energy.”
The Asylum has become a family affair. Harding had a proud moment when his daughter, Zoe, began acting in the haunt. She took right to it, and he was elated when a reviewer praised her for her cheery but demented demeanor.
Dams met his eventual wife, Melissa Smith, at the asylum one night when she brought her son to the show. Smith now heads up the haunt’s marketing duties.
The haunt has grown over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s making Dams rich. All things considered, he doesn’t really care.
“The biggest thing I learned was, this is not a cash cow,” Dams said. “That’s not why we do this. Sure, there’s crowds of people, and they all pay $15 to $20. But the amount of money to put on a show like this, it’s for the love of the game. ... I love everything about it.
“Once we open, the energy in here is through the roof. There’s people screaming from front to back, there’s actors just going nuts, just off the wall.”