If you Google Skellington Manor, you might see images of a newlywed couple dancing at their wedding reception. Or you might see an insane asylum.
Eleven months out of the year, the Rock Island multi-functional event center is a place for murder mysteries, variety shows, parties and, as of this summer, escape room experiences. But for about 17 days in late September and October, it’s a space meticulously, and calculatedly, designed to “scare the yell out of people.”
Since opening Skellington Manor, the former Masonic Temple in Rock Island, in 2009, owners Penni and Michael Steen have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into their haunt, buying props in the spooky, eerie and gross variety. Some cost $8,000 each. They’ve invested in virtual reality systems, projectors, trick wires and motion-activated lights, and they attend annual Halloween conferences to keep up with trends. Each year, they hire about 100 Quad-Citians to join their “cast” of creepy characters.
So, for this Terror at Skellington Manor season, which kicks off Friday, you can be sure of this: There’s no way to know what’s around the corner.
A haunted empire
It was never planned to make scaring people their life’s work.
Penni and Michael, who are both 60, got married six months after their first date 21 years ago. She worked for Deere and Co., and he was a contractor. They began throwing Halloween parties with haunted mazes made out of cardboard boxes. In 1993, the year after 500 people attended their small party, they opened Terror in the Woods.
“Neither of us grew up watching scary movies or liking that stuff,” Michael said. “We just kind of caught the bug. It came out of nowhere for us.”
“You realize you bring people something when you scare them,” Penni said. “We got letters from people saying that going to Terror in the Woods brought their family together and they haven’t felt that good in five years. How do you just not keep it alive when you hear that from people?”
After the county shut down Terror in the Woods in 2007, the Steens didn’t want their props and sets and devices — their haunted empire — to go to waste. They bought the 28,000-square-foot property on 18th Street in Rock Island, built in 1913, and spent nearly a year restoring it. Now, Michael says Terror at Skellington Manor is in the top 10 percent of haunted houses around the country. And it’s always getting better; the escape room experience, a live adventure game where participants are locked in a room and solve a series of puzzles using elements in the room (think of real-life Clue), is one example of that.
“Now everyone is talking about escape rooms, and we want to make those with the cool factor,” Penni said. “There’s always something new on our minds.”
That also goes for wedding receptions — she books 30 to 40 per year.
“If you’re here to be scared, I want to it to be the perfect scare,” she said. “If it’s your wedding day, it’s going to be perfect, too.”
‘Let’s go to hell’
Going up the stairs at Skellington Manor, Michael talks about the boiler room, the crime scene room, the doll room, the moving wall, the graveyard. Then, bracing for one of his favorites, he says, “OK, let’s go to hell.”
“We’re all very tongue and cheek here,” Penni said. “You can say it’s all not real and nothing bad is going to happen … but it looks just the right way to make you wonder.”
Michael takes pride in scaring people to the point of running away, peeing their pants, screaming, crying while on the maze-like path that spans three floors.
“It’s a treasure for me to see kids crawling out of here because they’re scared and they say they’ll never come back,” he said. “It’s a badge of honor. You want people to get their money’s worth.”
And over the past five years, they’ve seen plenty of frightened customers return. What brings them back?
“It’s the thrill of not exactly knowing if you’re safe or not,” Penni said. “It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or in the door, what’s going to pop up. It’s this intense rush, almost like a runner’s high that you can’t get anywhere else.”
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‘An island of misfits’
“I don’t think we’re what most people expect when they think of Halloween people,” Penni said. “We have some dark stuff in there, but it’s really all about loving on people.”
Since they got into the haunted business, they’ve donated a portion of their proceeds to charity, including area food banks.
“We’ve been lucky in what God has given us,” Michael said. “We’ll talk to you all day about what we’ve built, but we also want to say this isn’t about us.”
If you ask what he’s most proud of, he won’t say Skellington Manor. He’ll say the deep-water well in Kenya he and Penni funded earlier this year. They paid $40,000 out of pocket for it. They’ve also started the Pay it Forward Foundation and Creeps that Care Inc. that they hope will fund more wells.
“When God speaks to you, you listen,” Michael said. “When you think of everything you’ve been able to do and see, you have to give back.”
They want to give back here, too.
“Skellington Manor as a place where everyone is welcome, no matter what,” Penni said. “We call ourselves the island of misfits, because we’re all a little out there, and we just accept it.”
Through their monthly events, such as Skellington Swerve, a showcase of local talent, the Steens aims to cheer on the local arts scene. And through the other events and escape rooms, they want to bring people together.
“We’re never going to get rich doing this,” Michael said. “This is our drop in the hat. This is our way to give people something to forget about how hard life can be — to let go.”