15 years of haunts for South Philly’s Fright Factory

An abandoned warehouse, relic of a city’s former industrial prowess, stands awash in shadows brooding against the 21st century skyline. A throng of citizens numbering in the hundreds lines its gates. The history of the edifice is likely an interesting story — an old cotton mill? a steel manufacturer? — but that’s not what brings the people to 2200 Swanson Street.

They’ve come full of suspense, holding their dread at bay with nervous laughter. They’ve come to be scared at the only place in Philadelphia equipped to shake them down to their soles. It’s the Fright Factory, arguably the scariest attraction in the Delaware Valley, and this fortress of the macabre, the ghoulish and the insane is the brain child of Robert Dudzieck.

For 15 years, Dudzieck has held Philadelphia’s collective throat in his hand reaping screams from a legion of fans. The Fright Factory, a walking tour through four terrifying scenarios, from fictional iChem Industries to the Undercroft Cemetery, is the culmination of his life-long dedication to playing with people’s minds, warping their sense of reality, and delivering good times. It all started simply enough.

How did this all begin? Was it in Philadelphia?

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I’m a Jersey boy — South Jersey, born and fed. I saw “American Werewolf in London” when I was 6 years old. My parents were playing pinochle. I saw that movie with the werewolves and the transformations and I said, “Oh man, this is the sh–! I’ve gotta do that.” I went right home, found everything I could and started making monsters.

What was your first monster?

I don’t know what it was but it was toilet paper, hair gel, hair spray and my mom’s make-up; probably a makeshift zombie. That got me into it and I started reading books or anything I could find at the time. It was hard because we didn’t have much media (back then) but there are some really great ones from masters like Dick Smith and Rick Baker. I did everything I could to hone the craft. That’s where I really started because I really liked doing the makeup stuff.

You have the look down; where does the haunted house come in?

Just by chance, my next-door neighbor — who throws all these parties — says, “Hey, I got this [dune buggy] shed. Wanna do something in it?” So I go and build — inside a three-car garage — a 45-minute walk-through haunt. You go through the haunt, and I block off the entrance so you can’t get back out. The first time through, you can see things and the actors. Second time, I hit a switch. It’s totally black. You can’t see anything. Now you’re walking through the same maze again, but you just don’t know it. Third time, it’s all black light; so you don’t know it’s the same thing you walked through before. You come out of this thing and look at this tiny shed and say “What’s going on? Where was I at?” And I’m 15 years old doing this. That’s where it started. I did it two years there and caught the bug.

High school got me into theater. I wasn’t a good student — what comes after F? — but I have a passion for creating. So I was doing the make-up and stuff, which put me around the theater. They said, “Hey, kid, you don’t go to class anyway. Help us build some sets.” So that’s what I did: build all the sets for the theater department. One day, they needed someone to run lights for a talent show. I can do that. I can hit some switches. So one of the people in the show did a dance and sing-along to “Phantom of the Opera.” That turned me on completely. Now I’m the high school kid with a CD player loaded with show tunes … and Disturbed and heavy metal and everything else. That got me hooked into the theater. I was building sets and the make-up. Plus I was into horror all my life. It just all fit together like a puzzle.

Has Fright Factory always been at the same location?

This is our 15th year, all at the same location, in South Philadelphia. We had done haunted houses in other states — New Jersey, Delaware — and were really interested in doing something in Philly. At the time, there was only one, and it wasn’t that great. We figured “Let’s do this.” So we took an abandoned 25,000-square-foot building and turned it into the scariest place in Philly.

What sets Fright Factory apart from your competition?

Unfortunately a lot of haunted houses you go to are very strict on their actors, so they don’t get the opportunity to really build their own character. They’ll say, “You’re this. You do this. You say this. This is how you act, and you do it every time,” and you’re basically a robot. You might as well be an animatronic.

What we do is we say “Here’s your room. This is generally what we’re thinking about you doing. Now what can you do?” Let you build your own character. I think that’s what’s always set us apart from the other places. We really put it into the actor’s hands because you can’t really have a good haunted house if you don’t have good haunted house actors. The walls are just walls, paint’s just paint and a robot is just a robot. The actors are what bring it to life and without them you’re not going to have a good haunt.

A lot of people who are awkward or have boring jobs seem to be the ones who really excel, because they finally can put a mask on and become somebody else, like a superhero. That’s where we excel because I don’t want anyone to feel confined or put into a certain spot. I’m the same way. I could never get on stage and recite lines. But I put on my makeup, and I will put you through the floor and kill you.

Fright Factory is open Thursday –Sunday, 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., in October. Visit frightfactory.tv for tickets and information. Group packages are available.

Each month, Philadelphia’s prolific podcasters, the Black Tribbles visit Speak Easy with special reports on everything sci-fi, comic books, movies, video games, cartoons, and other stuff that every nerd needs to know.

Subscribe to the Black Tribbles’ podcast, “Tribble Nation,” on iTunes and Pod-o-matic. “Tribble Nation” is a monthly podcast focusing on the geek in every color imaginable, from scientist to author, from comic book artist to comic book collector. Each episode features an interview with a special guest and a review of current topics within his or her field of geek interest.

The Black Tribbles are: Jason Richardson, aka Spider-Tribble; Len Webb, aka BatTribble;Kennedy Allen, aka Storm Tribble; Erik Darden, aka Master Tribble; and Randy Green, aka Super Tribble.

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