Among the most memorable moments in the William A. Irvin’s almost annual haunted ship tour is a splattered family dinner table, host to a zombie feast of entrails.
“This is my room,” said Kiana Solem, a young actor claiming dibs on a space that later this week will likely reek of rotten food and boiled body parts. She talked about possible zombie looks: lips sewn shut, a torn and bloodied chef’s coat.
Solem is among a group of fright fans who are eager to return to the scene of the crime — a retired ore boat that has a history of getting a haunted makeover in the fall. Haunted Ship: Terror in the Twin Ports marks a return for the Great Lakes vessel, which hasn’t gone ghostly since 2017.
Four years ago, Solem found her niche among the zombies, where she was able to best scare tour-goers.
“That should be your permanent room,” she recalled her friends telling her.
In 2018, the ship was towed to Fraser Shipyard in Superior, where it was repaired and painted. After it returned to its home in the Minnesota Slip in Canal Park, COVID-19 meant the cancelation of the mostly indoor experience.
On a recent weekend afternoon, about 30 people — both newbies and veterans — gathered below deck to talk haunted ship-shop: don’t scream in people’s ears, don’t touch anyone, don’t take it personally if your schtick doesn’t always work. Disengage with your victim; try someone else.
Next stop: The Skin Room
Scares are not a seasonal thing for Steve Rankila, indoor operations director at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. When one Haunted Ship closes, preparations begin for the next. He and others in the crew attend national conferences for the latest on technology, props, scare tactics, and bottled smells — like blood and hot chainsaw. This crew aspires to attack all the senses and touch on all of the phobias.
“Our goal is to scare as many people as we can,” Rankila said.
There are torture devices, disembodied heads, a clown that seems to always be making eye contact. There are bumps upon bumps and fog and shadows. The floor isn’t always the floor and there are spots for scientists gone rogue, children with boundary issues, and a nod to Tim Burton.
Thrill seekers pass single file along thin, dark hallways and through themed rooms with referred to by those in the know as, for instance, “the torture room” or “the skin room.”
“The Catch-All Room” is dressed like a sociopath’s workshop on a police procedural television show: newspapers stapled to the wall, random blood, a litter box, appliances, torn clothing, a copy of a thin novel, “The Cheerleader,” on a shelf.
Wanted: One nylon pipe
On a recent Saturday, two dozen actors gathered in the ship’s lower level for pizza and a tutorial led by actor coordinator Dave Stafsholt. On a white board behind him, there was a list of items: a nylon pipe strap; 2-4 channel remote.
The veterans were recognizable by their Haunted Ship sweatshirts.
“Don’t scream in their ear, don’t scream at their head,” Stafsholt advised into a microphone. “In fact, don’t scream.”
In a side room, Jinx Dollens, the lead makeup artist with sharp pointed fingernails with green dipped tips, showed off actors modeling this season's looks. Dollens’ credo: “When in doubt, gore it out.”
There were red gaped wounds, coagulated blood, a mouth seemingly sewn shut, sunken faces and dark eyes.
“I’m a horror fanatic — and anything that goes bump in the night,” said Dollens, 24, who has worked the ship since their parents signed the original consent form more than a decade ago. “I never left.”
Nick Ackman said he met the woman he would eventually marry while they were both working on the haunted ship. This year, he brought along their children Kairi, 12, and Dorian, 14.
“We’ve all loved Halloween forever,” Ackman said.
While Stafsholt led a tour through through the maze of the ship — passing dolls, torture devices, and straight into the grips of claustrophobia, long-time horror fan Henry Batjes practiced ghoulish moans and groans. His key move: surprise — which it takes a lot to do to him.
“I saw that coming a mile away,” he said at one point.
'It's creepy as heck'
Props, circular saws and thick fog aside — the 83 year old William A. Irvin, which actively carried coal, iron ore and U.S. Steel’s guests to ports on the Great Lakes for more than 40 years, already has a certain reputation.
“It’s creepy as heck,” said Stafsholt.
The ship has drawn more than one group of paranormal investigators, which have spent the night.
Rankila has had his own experiences with things seen out of the corner of his eye and booms from above. One winter night, as he checked over the empty ship, he heard footsteps. He thought his coworkers were pranking him, but when he went up to the deck:
“Not a footprint in the snow,” he said.
Addison Severs is relatively new to the William A. Irvin squad and has already had that creepy feeling that he is not alone when he is, presumably, alone. Just recently, when the doors were locked, he heard the bumps of other beings aboard the ship.
He bought a device to detect the electromagnetic fields that show up in spaces that are believed to be haunted.
“It’s in my backpack,” he said.
What: Haunted Ship: Terror in the Twin Ports
When: 6:30-10 p.m. Oct. 7-8, Oct. 14-15, Oct. 20-22, Oct. 28-29; 4-10:30 p.m. Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23, Oct. 30-31
Where: William A. Irvin, 301 Harbor Drive
Tickets: Start at $15 at duluthhauntedship.com