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Zombies and witches declare war in Salem

Haunted houses feud at busiest season

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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SALEM - The series of events that culminated with the alleged assault on the zombies began when the Witch Mansion opened in the East India Square Mall, just in time for the huge Halloween season here.

The Witch Mansion is a pretty standard haunted house; it is dark and it is loud and things jump out at you. It has some 3-D gimmicks and slow animatronics, but what’s interesting about the Witch Mansion is the very end, when you exit into the mall and there, directly across the way, is another haunted house.

The Nightmare Factory opened in the mall five years ago, has been here year-round ever since and, naturally, does not like this competition one bit. So, the witches and the zombies went to war.

The first incident, according to Marshall Tripoli, who owns the Nightmare Factory, was when one of the upstarts tried to trip one of his actors out on the pedestrian mall on Essex Street. The woman was wearing a straitjacket, which is not a good thing to trip in. Both houses leaflet heavily on the street, a main drag for October tourists, and where historical reenactors stage an arrest each day.

Tripoli countered on Friday by sending his mall ghouls, all of them very serious about their craft - “I care how I scare,’’ he said - to stand out in front of the newcomers and scream insults at Witch Mansion. When the police came, one of the ghouls said they were chanting “White Sox.’’

Then on Sunday, it got a little crazy: A zombie was hip-checked.

The zombie was walking with a group of zombies - “a family of zombies,’’ Tripoli said - handing out leaflets when one of the upstarts, dressed in a cape and a red mask, allegedly threw his hip into him. The zombie was a 60-year-old man, which is on the old side for a zombie. Police were called again.

John Denley, co-owner of the Witch Mansion, said the only explanation is that the bumping was accidental and that his actor’s vision was limited by the mask.

Tripoli is not buying it. “There is a war, a war has started,’’ he said. This isn’t a two-haunted-house mall, and Halloween is make-or-break. This is their Christmas, when he will pay his rent for the year, and there are only so many dollars out there.

This is not the first run-in between Tripoli and Denley. They have old bad blood, but Denley said he did not choose the location for his new haunted house to ruffle any feathers. But, Denley said, the location was exactly why they were going to win.

By location, he is referring to the fact that his attraction is entered on the outdoor pedestrian mall at the exact spot where the zombie family, which has been working for the Nightmare Factory for five years, goes to get its customers.

The Nightmare Factory has no outdoor frontage.

“We were smart in the first place,’’ Denley said. “We have a location outside where the people are. We won the war before it started, and that’s why he’s so upset. He’s got a gun with no bullets.’’

On Essex Street yesterday, there were people in costume everywhere soliciting. They sold haunted trolley rides and historical reenactments and fright. This is crunch time for the tourism industry in this city.

Britt Mitchell - who was portraying Bridget Bishop, the first woman executed in the witch trials - said feuds are part of October. “It’s when all the money comes in, so there is tension,’’ said Mitchell. “It’s the only month we make money.’’

In the tourist sections, it’s common for stores to pop up quickly in open spaces in October, and the year-round businesses have never been fans of this, said Bill Lazdowski, who owns Bewitched in Salem, a themed gift shop just next to both haunted houses. “It’s a pretty clear tactic that they did, to open right in front of the established business,’’ Lazdowski said.

The owners of Witch Mansion said they hoped they will be able to stay permanently at this location.

In the end, both sides say the winner will be decided where it matters: inside the haunted house. They each offer very similar experiences, though the Nightmare Factory uses more actors, jumping out in the dark with loud bangs and aggressive lighting, while the newer Witch Mansion involves 3D glasses and stopping to listen to animatronic figures talk.

But in the end, they both accomplish the same thing.

Yesterday, as the zombies and witches entered the final two weeks of the Halloween season, it was possible to stand in the quiet mall, between the two, and hear from both sides that seasonal sound of power tools and teenage screams.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.