Horror Writers Association Blog

Halloween Haunts: Fort Fear–Writing the Origin Story for a Haunted Attraction by Adrian Ludens


“We want to build a haunted attraction and we’d like you to write a back story for it.”

An origin story for a spook house? What a novel idea! More of a short story idea, really, but still an inviting challenge. One I readily accepted.

Four summers ago, I sat in an Irish pub in Rapid City, SD with the creative team behind a new Halloween attraction. Fort Fear, as they called it, was to be set up inside a chuck wagon supper establishment that would conveniently be closed for the season.

“We want an Old West theme.”

“We have twelve thousand feet to work with!”

“We already named the main character.”

“But we don’t know why he’s there.”

“Maybe a curse?”

“We need a saloon of the damned.”

“And a portal to hell.”

“And rodeo clowns!”

“The people can be helped or tricked by the same character in different rooms.”

“But to get out at the end, the people will have to throw a lever and ‘hang’ the character who’s been helping them.”

Good grief.

I furiously scratched words onto the pages of my notebook. It was a jumbled mess of random thoughts. I heard ideas for themed rooms. I saw photographs of macabre masks. We tossed around character names.

I left the small group to their pints and drove home. My head swam. There was no way I could work all of their ideas into a cohesive back story. At home, I transcribed my notes into a series of bullet points. I typed out a rough outline. Then I vented to my wife.

“They’re asking me to do the impossible!” I stood in front of her in my best martyr’s pose.

“The main character should be an evil twin.”

I tried to wrap my head around her rather generic-sounding suggestion. “What, like Jekyll and Hyde? Or like Apollo and Dionysus?”

“No, the main character is the evil twin. His brother is the one who helps the people find the exit.”

I though it over. Character motivation suddenly came into focus. From there, everything fell into place. I wrote the first draft of the story in a white-hot rush that same night. After two revisions I emailed it to my contacts at Fort Fear. They read it and responded that they loved it.

In fact, they hired an illustrator and local stage theater actors to lend their voices to a three-minute abridgment of the story. Patrons watched the video on a loop as they stood in line prior to entering Fort Fear. I watched the video myself with a mixture of bemusement and awe.

The next year I wrote a sequel story. I felt pleased with the final product, but nothing could match the excitement of the first time. By the third year, I struggled to keep continuity and incorporate   new rooms they’d created (A disco inferno? Soldiers in gas masks?) After discussing room themes and story ideas for a potential fourth year, I received news that was both a disappointment and a relief: three -fourths of the creative team, along with the carpenter and graphic design person could not commit to the project.

Whether or not Fort Fear is simply on hiatus, or if it has passed on to Boot Hill for haunted attractions remains to be seen. When I last checked, their web site was still active, though still advertising last year’s scares. Readers curious about the original back story can track it down by searching online for “The Legend of Ornias Goodnight.” It’s still out there, I promise.

I feel fortunate to have been involved in this Halloween and horror-related endeavor. I hope they resurrect Fort Fear next year. As far as I’m concerned, scaring people should be a year-round endeavor!


ADRIAN LUDENS lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The history of the area often inspires his short fiction. He lives with his family in a four-level house that his youngest son has dubbed “The Slanted Mansion” thanks to the cracks in the walls. Adrian is one of only two South Dakotans who are members of the Horror Writers Association. Magazine appearances include Dark Moon Digest (upcoming), Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Big Pulp and Morpheus Tales. Anthology appearances include Blood Rites (upcoming), Blood Lite III: Aftertaste, Slices of Flesh, The Mothman Files and Zombie Kong. His debut short story collection, Bedtime Stories for Carrion Beetles, was released in October, 2012 and is currently available from Amazon and Kindle. He occasionally blogs at http://curioditiesadrianludens.blogspot.com/

TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Adrian Ludens is offering a signed copy of his new short story collection, Bedtime Stories for Carrion Beetles. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail memoutreach@horror.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.

An excerpt from Bedtime Stories For Carrion Beetles: “SOLITARY MAN”

Hello Tyler. It’s Dad. I’m sorry your mother isn’t with me. Seeing you in here like this is awful hard on her. You know how she got last time. Most mothers faced with this situation, you expect them to break down. Crying and carrying on. But screaming and blaming the paramedics, the other driver, and even God until she foamed at the mouth? I didn’t think she had it in her.

I thought it’d be best to leave her at home. You understand. Besides, it’ll give me a chance to visit with you about my work. You’ve shown an interest before but I’ve always kept what goes on in prison to myself. I never took the time to tell you about my job and now I wish I had. Despite your state, I can’t help but think that it’s not too late. That maybe something I tell you today will get through to you somehow.

I’ll tell you about the prisoners on death row another time. Ditto for the yard fights and some of the contraband we’ve found smuggled in. Believe me, I have a lot of stories I could tell. But tonight I want to tell you about the block. A few of the guys call it ‘the cooler’ and the official term for an area that I’m in charge of is ‘solitary confinement’. It’s a special form of imprisonment where the prisoner is denied contact with any of the other prisoner and doesn’t get any visitation. Most prisons do allow for minimal contact with staff; guards conduct room searches and somebody cleans every once in a while. But I run a tighter operation. The only contact the prisoners in the block have is with me. And I can be pretty tight-lipped when I want to be.

The prisoner holding the record for longest stay on the block under my watch is this guy who beheaded a Catholic priest in the late 1970s. He never gives me any trouble—he’s a model prisoner actually—but any time we tried to move him back into the general population, guys would try to kill him. Usually the Irish Catholics, but the Hispanics can be really religious too. So this guy stays in the kind of protective custody that only the block can supply.

There are other prisoners confined to the block. Crazy bastards who relish the chance to inflict suffering. Loose cannons with faulty wiring. But they’re not the ones I want to tell you about either.

I keep dancing around the subject and I don’t know why.

There’s one prisoner in particular that I want to tell someone about. I need to get it off my chest. Part of it is your old man wanting to clear his conscience. But another part of it is me needing to understand just what the hell is going on.

This prisoner, he’s quite famous. He’s a writer. Specializes in horror and mysteries. He’s cracked the bestseller list several times. Let me whisper his name…

Maybe you recognize him, maybe you don’t. I guess I have to admit I don’t know if you’re much of a reader or not. But this author, he’s always shunned the spotlight. He refuses interviews and he’s never done a single book signing. Hell, his publisher doesn’t even print his photo on the dust jackets because they don’t have one!

But he’s got a cult following like you wouldn’t believe. Awards, accolades, respectable sales…he still gets it all. You know why? Because nobody knows he’s in prison! His fans think he’s a recluse, like that guy who wrote ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Only a handful of people— his agent, his editor at the publisher, the previous warden here and me—knew that one of America’s most popular horror and mystery authors got himself incarcerated with no hope of parole. Think on that for a bit.

None of his fans know it, but this guy was convicted of premeditated first degree murder ten years ago. He was sentenced to life without parole but no one ever knew. Know why? Because money talks. His publisher spent a fortune keeping the whole thing a secret. I’m not saying the system is corrupt; if it was, he would have walked away a free man. I’m saying sometimes certain exceptions are made.

You know what he told me when he first arrived? Said he just needed to know that what he was writing was realistic. Can you imagine? Said he did it “for love of the craft”. Not the craft of murder, but writing. Told me now that he’d experienced it for himself, he could write for the rest of his career and never worry about the quality of his output. I just shook my head and told him he’d never get to write again.

Was I ever wrong!

His editor at the publisher made a deal with the old warden. It was all under the table and the powers-that-be were incredibly guarded when it came to who knew what. The public was—and still is—hungry for new books by this guy and I have a key part in making it happen. My cut over the last ten years has paid your college tuition—if you ever go.

I know by now you must be wondering what it is that I do for this author exactly. My only duty is to smuggle in paper each day and pens whenever he needs them.

A lot of the guards are on the take, either turning a blind eye to certain situations or bringing in contraband on their own to make some extra cash. I never got involved with any of that. But this was, and still is, a whole different set of circumstances. So one day this guy in a suit shows up in the parking lot and offers to buy me coffee. Turns out he’s the author’s agent. Flew all the way here just to visit me personally. He laid it all out that day: I get a package once a month; a ream of paper, a few pens, and stamped, addressed manila envelopes.

Whenever the prisoner completes a new story or a chapter in his latest novel, I slip it into one of the envelopes and drop it in the mail. His latest book got him a Stoker nomination. I read the first draft before anyone, including his agent and his editor.

Not that I’m gloating. I’m taking a serious risk doing what I’m doing. It’s gotten more dangerous now that there are fewer of us who know about the arrangement. The warden the publisher made the deal with passed away last winter and the new warden’s not in the loop. I’m the only guy they really need inside when you think about it. I’m the only person he has any contact with in the block. The author’s agent knows but the original editor died a few years ago and as far as his new editor and the staff at the publisher knows the author’s just a recluse. So I’m mostly responsible for keeping this guy’s work on the best seller lists.

It feels good to tell you all of this. There are worse things I could do, don’t get me wrong. But to finally confide in someone, well, it feels good like I said. I guess I’m a little selfish in telling you but part of me thought you might be interested in my famous—but secret—prisoner.

I also thought you might relate to him a little bit. I mean, he’s in there, locked up in solitary confinement. We don’t ever directly communicate. He is truly alone. Like you, Son. Locked away some place where it seems that no one can reach you.

How you even lived through the accident is nothing short of a miracle. It’s not too often a motorcycle rider survives a collision with an eighteen wheeler. The doctors say you might wake up tomorrow…or not at all. So I wanted to tell you the story about the man cut off from everyone and yet he still manages to thrill readers with his words all these years later. That’s really an amazing accomplishment. If you can hear me Tyler, I hope it helps you cope, even just a little. If you can hear me, know that your mother and I—and a lot of other folks out here—hope you can find your way back to us. We hope to be hearing from you again real soon.

Speaking of your mother, she’s probably got supper on the table and is wondering where I am and what’s keeping me. I just wanted to stop by after work to talk for a spell. One more thing, Tyler; this is the part that really has your old man completely confounded.

This famous author…he’s been on the block under my care for ten years now. But I haven’t actually entered his cell in quite some time. I don’t even look in there any more. I’m too afraid to. Every day I bring him his meals and his smuggled paper on a flat tray that I slide through this narrow horizontal slot in his cell door. And every day like clockwork I’m there to get the pages and the meal tray when the prisoner pushes them back out.

The pages are always full, front and back, with handwritten lines every time. But for the past four and a half years, the food on the trays gets returned untouched.

4 comments on “Halloween Haunts: Fort Fear–Writing the Origin Story for a Haunted Attraction by Adrian Ludens

  1. As a member of the Fort Fear crew; I would just like to say that the original story written by Adrian Ludens for Fort Fear was a road map for those of us involved with the design and construction of the haunted house, and was a major contributing factor to the success of Fort Fear!

  2. HH Contest Entry

    I’ve been to the Black Hills (Sturgis Bike Week) but once and loved it. Beautiful land, hope to revisit again. The excerpt was great.

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