Behind the scenes at Philly’s newest haunted house, the Hurricane Ida-inspired Lincoln Mill

Five makeup artists, 50+ actors, and the very real danger of another flood.

Masks ready to be applied to actors in the Lincoln Mill Haunted House

Masks ready to be applied to actors in the Lincoln Mill Haunted House

Asha Prihar / Billy Penn
ashaprihar-headshot

Anthony Giannetti is a scare actor at the Lincoln Mill Haunted House in Manayunk. Despite his job title, he doesn’t love scaring people. What truly brings him joy is scaring people ~ together ~.

“I love it when I see couples cling to one another,” Giannetti said. “I love it when I see a teenage boy jump into his mom’s arms even though he’s too cool to be scared. I love it when we scare this huge guy. If you came through and we got you, there’s something joyful, because you feel the tension and the fear. But then you realize you’re safe.”

For the next few weekends, Gianetti will be haunting the line outside Manayunk’s newest seasonal attraction: a haunted house in a former textile mill ravaged by Ida floods.

The first floor, formerly home to Mad River Bar & Grille, was swamped with 7 feet of water. Rebuilding, property owner Brian Corcodilos decided to pivot away from a restaurant or bar tenant on the first-floor, and now the site hosts the Lincoln Mill Haunted House.

Giannetti’s character is a post-Hurricane Ida construction worker “infected” by what he describes as “this weird, mucky, gross, frothy ugliness that reflects the thing that we see inside of ourselves.”

The site’s five makeup artists are key to the whole thing. For Giannetti, it’s how his character becomes a reality. “The moment the makeup comes on, I am different,” he said.

The flood-inspired haunted house’s co-owners have been planning since early this year, and started constructing the set in June. There’s a ton of moving pieces, dozens of scare actors, and a whole crew of creatives making it happen — all doing it at this spot for the very first time.

“Every other haunt I’ve gone to or worked at has been very well-established already,” said actor manager Carl Augustine, who’s been in the haunting biz for over a decade. “But these guys built something from scratch, from the ground floor.”

A roller coaster of scares with a hidden chamber

When Hurricane Ida and its aftermath swept through the northeastern U.S. in September 2021, the Schuylkill River flooded, causing major damage along Manayunk’s Main Street. Some businesses were closed for months afterward.

The threat of water damage hasn’t gone away.

“Our biggest fear obviously, is getting flooded out, or the potential hurricane,” said co-owner Jared Bilsak, an architect who led the design process for the haunted house. “So we use that biggest fear to our advantage.”

The story the attraction tells is grounded in reality: modern-day construction workers cleaning up the former site of a textile mill post-Ida. The narrative then veers into the fictional — featuring paranormal activity, possessed workers, and a murderous mill owner and his cronies — as they discover a hidden chamber revealed by the storm.

After studying the existing space, Bilsak used virtual model tools to figure out the right physical progression for telling the story. Then showrunners spent the summer prepping the space by putting up wall panels, painting, and adding in animatronics.

Inside Lincoln Mill, construction worker scares await

Inside Lincoln Mill, construction worker scares await

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

To bring the exhibit to life with actual actors, the haunted attraction hired between 50 and 60 people out of about 200 applicants, Bilsak said.

Part of developing the attraction also involved figuring out the ebb and flow of things to keep guests scared, but not too scared. To do this, the creators and crew had to figure out how to create “peaks and valleys,” Augustine, the actor manager, said — a term sometimes used in the haunting industry.

“When the customer goes through the haunt, you don’t want them to just be scared and up all the time,” he said. “You want them to get scared, get excited, and then kind of relax a little bit — that’s the valley. And then they come into another room, get scared again, they go up on the peak, and then they come down, scared again — down, up, down.”

Sunken eyes and ‘gooey’ skin for full effect

Stepping into the Lincoln Mill Haunted House, you’ll encounter dozens of scary figures: modern day construction crews infected by paranormal pollution by the old mill, spirits, ghosts, millworkers, mill owner Victor Kane, and Kane’s sidekicks, like Gretchen the textile designer and Edwin the nightwatchman.

The actors went through multiple sessions to get acclimated to their roles, per Augustine. They received some guidelines, but it’s mostly left up to them to flesh out exactly how they’re going to act.

Dress rehearsals had to involve people actually being present — not just actors performing to thin air — to understand the “mechanization of how people move through the attraction,” according to Giannetti, the actor playing a construction worker.

Lead makeup artist Skye McLaughlin has been doing special effects makeup for over a decade. She works with four other makeup artists (one of whom is also an actor) to transform the many actors into fright-inducing characters.

Face makeup concepts are sketched out in advance

Face makeup concepts are sketched out in advance

Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

McLaughlin sketched some things out on her iPad ahead of time, she said. But to create the right effect and ensure maximum creepiness, it’s important to focus on individuals’ facial features and skin type, and to test those looks out in the lighting conditions where they’ll be appearing.

“You want to take the features that a person already has and make them scary,” McLaughlin said.

That could mean “bearing out” a person’s bone structure by making it look sunken in, puffy, or gooey, they said. Texturing skin to make it look spooky is important too, like applying makeup with a sponge in a way that makes skin look aged, or using a toothbrush to flick water-based products onto skin for a flecking, splattery, or moldy effect.

Covering up eyebrows with makeup can have an “unsettling” effect, McLaughlin said, especially if the artist is also going for a sunken-eyes effect. Vaseline can make skin look wet or gooey, and small lines for wrinkles can contribute to the overall impact.

How each actor looks can vary from day to day. “The quality of makeup should remain the same, but they are going to always look different,” McLaughlin said. “It’s kind of like ephemeral art that way.”

Putting it all into frightening motion

Getting ready for performances at Lincoln Mills is, in the words of Giannetti, a “joyful scramble.”

During a dress rehearsal last weekend, people ran around the greenroom getting into costumes, getting their makeup done, and generally just getting ready, according to McLaughlin. There were probably around 20 people in the room at once at one point, she said.

Actor manager Augustine is in charge of going through the attraction and making sure all the animatronics are in working order ahead of visitors stepping in. If there are any technical issues, actors get repositioned to deliver scares where something automated was before.

The actual experience of performing at a haunted house, which Giannetti has been doing for five years, is something that’s left him absolutely “hooked.”

“Energetic, demanding, you lose your voice, you’re thirsty, you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re everything,” he said. “And yet, it’s kind of this sensation of being in the trenches with others, where you feel this sense of camaraderie, where you have a crew full of people who are like-minded people. We’re all kind of rejects in our own way.”

Giannetti encouraged folks to come to the haunted house to feel the sensation of fear, but in an environment that’s actually safe.

“We don’t give ourselves any opportunity to feel discomfort in our lives, right?” Giannetti said. “Our boss told us we made a mistake on an email — we feel fear. We try to avoid that fear. This isn’t that kind of fear. This is fun fear. Come experience fun fear. It’s a totally different story, I promise.”

Starting this weekend and lasting through Nov. 5, the Lincoln Mill Haunted House runs Thursdays through Saturdays from 6:45 p.m. through 11:45 p.m, and the space is hosting family-friendly scavenger hunts — plus other Halloween festivities, minus scare actors — on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $29 for the nighttime attraction and $20 for the Saturday daytime experience.

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