Love and fear: How to scare the heck out of your Valentine’s date

Ruined in 2021 by Hurricane Ida flooding, the Lincoln Mill's factory basement reopens as a gruesome Valentine’s date night.

Corcodilos looks towards a mannequin that looks frightening with a sign on their front shirt which is a pink heart that says

Lincoln Mill owner Brian Corcodilos is putting on a Valentine's Day-themed haunted attraction in Manayunk. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It’s Valentine’s weekend, so find your love interest, turn down the lights, and light a candle.

Then, together, walk through a darkened, dirty basement filled with dismantled dolls and the occasional eviscerated corpse.

At the Lincoln Mill building in Manayunk, love is scary.

A hand holding a candle lights up a red heart hanging on a wall which reads, "You die first."
Each couple entering the Valentine’s Day pop-up at Lincoln Mill Haunted House will receive one electric candle with which to explore the attraction. The timed walk-through will take visitors about 20 minutes to complete. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Its seasonal haunted attraction, the Lincoln Mill Haunted House, will open as a one-day pop-up experience on Saturday evening, Feb.11.

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After the basement of the former 19th century textile mill on Main Street was ruined in 2021 due to devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Ida, owners Brian Corcodilos and partner Jared Bisak turned the 9,000-square-foot loss into an opportunity by inventing a horrific haunted house narrative: The fictional former owner of the factory had been systematically torturing and killing his employees.

According to the Halloween story, the 2021 flooding had revealed a heretofore unknown underground chamber, where former factory owner Viktor Kane had once plied his gruesome hobby of making puppets out of people’s parts.

Now that story has been extended to Valentine’s Day, visitors are introduced to his disturbed family, murderous friends, and — yes — lovers.

“There is a love story with Victor. You learn about his lover, who was one of his accomplices,” said Corcodilos cagily. “I’m going to leave it at that.”

Stick figures are drawn on some sort of canvas.
The Valentine’s Day pop-up at Lincoln Mill Haunted House builds on the story of twisted mill owner Viktor Kane and his troubled childhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Visitors to Lincoln Mill walk through a tight, switchbacking corridor in the basement, encountering special effects, a cast of about 35 performers, and set pieces describing horrific scenes from the life of Kane and the people who worked for him.

Underneath the gory bits is a somewhat true story about the history of factory labor exploitation.

“What we’re really trying to say is, this was real,” said Corcodilos. “Not the gruesome parts, but how factory workers used to be treated, and how they continue to be treated in other countries.”

Brian Corcodilos stands between two mannequins in the haunted house.
Lincoln Mill owner Brian Corcodilos stands among a group of dangling mannequins that are part of his Valentine’s Day-themed haunted attraction in Manayunk. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Some of the performers wear “blinders,” hats that restrict their vision so they cannot see other workers beside them. Others are “minders,” instructed to only pay attention to their task and not take notice of anything else happening in the factory. The isolation of workers enabled Kane to carry out his evil hobby without detection.

Much of the industrial debris littering the space — including loose equipment parts and large-scale machinery — is authentic, telling a different kind of horror story: The last textile mill on Main Street, G.J. Littlewood and Son, Inc, was forced to close after suffering damage from Hurricane Ida.

The fourth-generation, family-run textile mill, once part of a vibrant corridor of industrial economy in Manayunk, gave its now unusable machines to Corcodilos as theatrical props.

“They gave us these two big panels from their boiler that got wiped out in the flood,” he said, standing in front of two, seven-foot-tall steel panels outfitted with gauges, levers, and buttons. “They cut out with an acetylene torch these panels that weigh 400 or 500 pounds each. We set them in here on forklifts to show what a boiler panel from the early 1900s looks like.”

It’s scary — Corcodilos said his partner’s fiance could not make it through the second room — but is it romantic?

Science says: maybe.

Lincoln Mills is the only Valentine’s haunted house in the Philadelphia area, but it’s not unusual in the scary attractions industry, which understands there is a thin line between fear and love.

“You have this little almond-shaped structure in your brain known as the amygdala,” said science writer Nina Nesseth, author of “Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films.” “It’s going to light up with any sort of excitation, whether it’s something scary or whether it’s something more in line with sexual arousal or aggression.”

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Once the amygdala is triggered, the more rational parts of your brain move in to interpret that excitation as something positive, like sexual attraction, or negative, like the factory boss is coming at you with a cleaver.

If the amygdala is triggered by a safe, make-believe phenomenon, like a horror movie or a haunted house, the brain’s interpretation can pivot in any direction.

A scary hallway is lit dimly.
The Valentine’s Day pop-up at Lincoln Mill Haunted House builds on the story of twisted mill owner Viktor Kane and his efforts to turn his employees into puppets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The theory that is often put forward to explain this is known as excitation transfer theory,” said Nesseth. “Where we can take one form of arousal, such as from fear, and translate it super easily to a different one once we have more context clues.”

The haunted attraction at Lincoln Mill is designed to transfer fear into romantic arousal. Part of the narrative of the experience is the building is experiencing a power blackout. There are no lights on in the basement (with a few subtle exceptions for theatrical purposes) so visitors are given a small, battery-powered tea light to illuminate their own way through the winding corridor.

Not every person is given a candle, rather every couple must share one. Everyone has to explore the space with a partner, huddling closely around a dim candle and deciding together what to investigate.

Writing on a wall reads "Vincent is not a real boy."
The Valentine’s Day pop-up at Lincoln Mill Haunted House builds on the story of twisted mill owner Viktor Kane, who murdered his brother, Vincent. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Couples will likely lean into each other to stay inside the light, remaining in close proximity while communicating how to negotiate the space.

“You’re holding this candle together,” Corcodilos said. “So you have to work together to maneuver your way through this terrifying experience.”

The upper floors of Lincoln Mill have been renovated as office spaces and populated with more typical, daytime businesses like a design firm and — perhaps appropriate to what goes on in the basement — a therapist. Corcodilos has given up on ever finding a tenant for the lower level, due to the high likelihood of future flooding.

The basement has been renovated with concrete to be resilient to flooding, and any cosmetic water damage would only add to the horror ambience.

The haunted attractions so far have been temporary, pop-up events, but Corcodilos said he is seeking to have the building zoned for amusement to make it more permanent. Until then, he is planning to keep expanding the story of Viktor Kane in pop-up events, including what he is calling Halfway to Haunt later this spring, marking the mid-way point to Halloween.

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