Creating a chamber of horror |

Creating a chamber of horror

Screamboat organizer has been haunting houses for 20 years

Margaret Hair

— In 10 years as organizer and creative director of Screamboat: Chamber of Horrors, Jimmy Westlake has learned a few lessons in troubleshooting.

Topping his list is the time a few years ago when he had decided to build a giant, mobile, manned spider, and send it down a ramp toward groups of Routt County locals waiting to be horrified.

“The second year we used it, the guy pushed off the wall, and the whole ramp we built for the spider just goes and falls forward,” Westlake said Thursday afternoon, standing in the middle of a room in Colorado Mountain College’s Monson Hall that, later that night, would be transformed into a ghoul-filled graveyard. “Our spider bit the dust, and we haven’t brought it back.”

For the most part, “Screamboat” happens each October without incident. Starting on Monson’s top floor, the haunted house sends its guests down a four-floor slide, through a dark tunnel and into a series of rooms that spook visitors with UFOs, vampires, mummies and just about every kind of ghost story Westlake can think up.

But an intentionally frightening operation like “Screamboat” leaves room for people’s imaginations to get the best of them, and for their better judgment to get away from them. When that happens, Westlake is there to deal with it.

“Sometimes, a little kid will run away with the deer head, and we’ll have to chase him down,” Westlake said, explaining the occasional loss of the main prop in a “Psycho”-inspired skit. The disappearing deer head is a problem, at least in part, because it’s not really a prop; as Westlake explained, “we only use real meat products in our haunted house.”

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It’s touches like that – the people at Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co. set aside hunting leftovers because they know Westlake will come in wanting body parts – that give “Screamboat” its creepy charm. Put on as a fundraiser for CMC’s astronomy-focused Sky Club, the event takes as many as 1,200 person hours to stage, requires close to 30 volunteer actors to pull off and draws upward of 300 people on its busiest nights. Westlake hopes to break the “Screamboat” 1,009-person season attendance record tonight.

The collaborative effort of putting each scary exhibit together and bringing it to life gives the haunted house its edge, said volunteer actor Cody Walker.

“When you get the right vibe going on, it’s almost like being on stage, and everyone feeds off each other,” Walker said, adding that groups who scream are the best for building atmosphere. Many of those screams come from the ghost- and monster-filled skits Westlake has dreamed up in two decades of staging haunted houses. Everything is engineered to leave as much to the imagination as possible.

“You don’t have to be gruesome or bloody or gory,” Westlake said. “There are only so many times you can jump out from behind the door and say, ‘Boo!’ and have it be scary. But if you get people crawling through a tunnel, you don’t have to do anything.”

If you go

What: Screamboat 10: Chamber of Horrors haunted house, a fundraiser for the SKY Club at Colorado Mountain College

When: 6 to 10 p.m. today

Where: Monson Hall, Colorado Mountain College

Cost: $5

Call: Jimmy Westlake at 870-4537