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Netherworld In Focus
Co-founder Billy Messina Fine-Tunes the Haunts

By Lee Valentine Smith

Presenting a haunted house attraction is a tough job but Netherworld co-founders Billy Messina and Ben Armstrong continue to turn years of hard work into good, scary fun. Now in its 23rd season, the phantasmagorical palace continues to expand and develop new, finely detailed story arcs within the framework of two main sections.
This year the main haunts are a monster-palooza called "Night of the Gorgon" and the gritty, industrial grind of the futuristic "Cold Blooded." But those chilling quadrants are only half the fun. This year the Stone Mountain-based spookshop features four elaborately themed escape rooms and a sprawling laser-tag adventure.

Messina, who constantly shifts from Creative Director duties at Dragon Con to plate-spinning Netherworld impresario, took some time out of his hectic schedule to speak with INsite.

How do you shift from Dragon Con mindset to Netherworld?

You don't really shift gears, you just have to multitask. This year's Dragon Con was awesome and Netherworld had a big presence there. We had some of the monsters out for the parade and everyone was having fun. There's just not enough time between that and the haunts because Netherworld seems to come right on the heels of Dragon Con. There's many a time I'll be leaving a voicemail and I'll start to say one when it's the other one I'm dealing with at that moment.

But in both cases, you're in production mode all year long.

Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of overlap so it's all pretty symbiotic in the way that both need to be done. And there are definite benefits to being involved in both. Problem is, there's just no time for sleep.

Even after all these years, your excitement about both shows continues to be inspirational.

It's a definite challenge but at the end of the day it's totally worth it. It's still fun for me. But how can it not be? We get to make people happy and we get to make people scream and see them take selfies and laugh and buy t-shirts. How could that not be exciting?

Last year was the first Netherworld at its new location. Now that you're firmly established there, how's everything going?

Yeah and last year kind of feels like a hundred years ago now. We've learned a lot and we got some great feedback in the process. People seem to love it and they appreciate the additional parking because we have a lot of on-site parking now. Everything is kind of right there for everyone. The building is massive. Since it was the first year, we were taking chances and just making educated guesses for the most part. But you never really know until you dive in and then it's like, 'Oh wait a minute, let's move things around this year. Let's watch how people naturally react to it.' Only then we'll know what we're either doing right or wrong. I do have to say, I think we were pretty much right a lot of the time. But there was a lot of learning and we're using it all this year to make it an even better experience.

How has it expanded from last year's inaugural celebration?

I think this year we've got even more photo op possibilities and lots more fun stuff out in the midway. The haunts are just better, too. As with the old location, we never throw anything out. A lot of it goes to storage so we can continue to rotate out the big props as we need them. We can take one out of commission for a while and turn it into a different kind of monster for the longer story arcs. But for the most part, it's just a matter of layering and collecting more stuff and letting more cobwebs kind of take hold. Real ones and fake ones.

Space wise it's the same venue, but how have you changed the core of the attraction itself?

It's always Netherworld but we've certainly made some additions. We've added a laser arena outside which runs during haunted house season as well. We've added a new escape room, too. I'm especially excited about the new ticketing element we've added this year.

Tell us about the new ticket options.

We've changed it up to offer more options and choices as far as nights that are available and the related pricing. Basically it opens up more value nights so people can visit for better ticket deals. You can come early in the month of October and you can get to see both haunts for around twenty-five bucks - even without a coupon. And then if you find a discount coupon out there, it's an even better deal.

There's also a new time-ticketing option for the instant gratification crowd, correct?

Right, we've just added the time option. It's a new and limited option but basically you can say, 'I want to come on Saturday the 18th at 9 o'clock' or whatever. Leave enough time for parking and such, but for example, you'd get there at the time and you go to special cuing. When 9 o'clock rolls around, they flip the sign and let you right in. There's still a bit of inside cuing but you're going through the museums and concessions so it's not a boring wait at all. It's an expedited way to visit Netherworld for people who want to plan their evenings without having to purchase a speed-pass. And it's not as much as the speed-pass for people who want to plan ahead. I think it's a good option. Like with every improvement, we'll see how people react to it. If it's embraced we'll probably move forward with more options like that in the future.

So you're basically fine-tuning everything this year.

That's exactly right, from ticketing to how we're cuing to the merchandise to just the basic day to day - or night to night - elements that are all necessary for the attraction.

In addition to the show itself.

I think every aspect of the experience is a big part of the show. Of course, every year we try to outdo ourselves and make things bigger, better, more inspiring and more epic. Now we've had a whole year to build on last year's show.

Do you change the story arcs every year?

We build on them. Every year is different but it's also familiar enough for repeat visits. There'll be old favorite elements like the spinning tunnel and of course there'll be a chain saw in there somewhere and lots of big, scary monsters. There'll be more monsters this year, actually. So it's definitely exciting for us. We have to enjoy it first. We love to entertain people and we love to entertain ourselves.

The laser tag is a new level of scary entertainment.

We have a lot of space and obviously it's great to be open around Halloween but to be open on the size and level that we are is a definite challenge. So we're trying to become an entertainment depot. Everything we do is gonna be Netherworld because all the escape rooms, games and all the themes and set dressing is very much within the style of the attraction. It's creepy, it's highly detailed and elaborate. So the laser tag extends the brand to an adventure. We have the space outside, all these great props and nobody's really doing it on a level like we thought we could pull it off. It's a complex adventure. If you're a kid – of whatever age – who likes to play games like Fortnight or whatever, it's like a video game. It has all the same sort of game plays that are built into it. I can't even wrap my brain around parts of it. Luckily, we have a bunch of cool millennials who do get it. It's like they say, 'Go forward, do great things.' It'll be open during the haunt season and then beyond. And even people who claim not to like it, 'Oh I don't want to do laser tag, kids do that,' or whatever, often they'll give it a shot and it's a blast. So it's basically an extension for us to do more cool stuff. We take pride in putting the Netherworld name on it or we wouldn't do it - and we feel that everything we do has to meet those expectations.

Quality seems to be the main underlying theme of all things Netherworld.

Right, there's strict attention to detail, story arcs and just quality in general. It's the same in every aspect of what we do. We are always working toward doing something new and different. It's been twenty-three years now, so the main challenge is to do something diverse as opposed to the usual haunted house themes. It has to excite us and we have to be inspired by it. So if we like it, I think our guests will as well.

Netherworld runs now through the first week of November. For tickets and more information, visit fearworld.com.

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