Kip Clinton is tickled to death to be in the piano and antiques business just up the hill from the gates of hell. The killer clown, mad butcher, werewolf and disturbing children are some of the best neighbors she has had in decades. That is not to dismiss the ladies who bake Bite Me cookies on the first floor of the building that houses Hell’s Gateway Haunted House. By day, they make the Hilltop neighborhood smell better than it ever has. But by night, it is the electric chair that is generating the buzz. It is the staged mayhem that is building a gritster destination over bloody ground. In the 1990s, it was a gangster destination. Drive-by victims died by the light of the red neon piano, the landmark on the roof of Clinton’s Music House. U.S. Army Rangers shot it out with gangsters a few blocks away on South ‘M’ and 25th streets.
Then the city of Tacoma bought two blocks of houses and apartments to build police headquarters across the alley from Clinton’s. It was a nightmare. City officials switched the TPD HQ’s location to the old Costco store on Pine Street near South 38th Street. They left their vacant houses for the crooks and hookers to whisk into a maelstrom of crime. Citizens pressured the city to obey its own codes, and failed and failed. Squatters’ fires burned the buildings an indoor campfire at a time, upping the danger to firefighters with every call. Dealers set up outdoor parlors with junked sofas and chairs. It was hell, with the occasional inferno. Clinton’s allies won in the end, and the city razed the zombie buildings. The scrubby hillside, while unlovely, offers no cover, and the neighbors have cops’ contact numbers on speed dial. Then crime spiked again when a shady outfit rented the top floor of the metal building at 2302 Fawcett Ave. They held illegal after-hours parties until one of their guests shot another, who died in the alley behind Clinton’s warehouse. That real blood, that real horror, was the end of it. Now fake blood, fake horror, have brought comfort to the neighborhood, compliments of screamologists Ian and Sandy Johnson.
Hell’s Gateway is a maze of spectacular misery, a techno-rich home for all the gory details the Johnsons once displayed at their home in Federal Way. (Yes, yes. They hear you. They are looking to move to Tacoma. They have two young sons, and want them to grow up in a great city.) Over years of overdoing it, these masters of liquid latex, these scavengers of thrift stores and post-season sales, crafted corpses hanging from hooks large and small. They accessorized limbs unencumbered by bodies. They gave werewolves an extra spring to their leap. “We used to throw a Halloween party at our house,” Ian Johnson said. “Our friends would say, ‘You guys should do a haunted house. You’ve got enough stuff.’ We did. We kept it in a trailer.” They looked close to home, he said, but “the city of Federal Way didn’t want anything to do with a haunted house.” Tacoma’s zoning, business and code enforcement officials steered the fright flight south.
“Tacoma has been great to deal with,” he said. “It’s 180 from the deal in Seattle.” The Johnsons’ enterprises include 4th Element Construction, which does water and fire damage restoration, and MANdustrial, the new salon for men at 401 E. 25th St. Hell’s Gateway was the next logical step on the business plan, and a way to keep staff employed when they were not on a more, shall we say, mainstream, job. If a worker can wire an alarm system, why not put the zap in an electric chair? Or rig a ghoul? Or route faux fog? “We’re all about the entertainment,” Johnson said. “If you don’t want to get scared, don’t come here.” There are tamer haunts, fine for kids, all over, he said. A real scare is rare. “There is only one that’s better than us,” he said. “It’s in Buckley, of all places. The Fright Factory. They’ve been doing it for 13 years with no advertising.”
In Haunted House World, word spreads through the ether and ghost getters plot their itinerary early in the season to hit the best sites before the big lines. The lines have been good so far, Johnson said. They have been so good, he looks at people shuffling down the alley, and he sees zombies. So does Kip Clinton. Over generations, and the occasional eccentric renter, the business warehouse filled up with antiques. She is selling them now at Red Grand Piano Antique Mall at 2301 Tacoma Ave. S. It is the spaces left behind the Johnsons crave. “All those rooms have a creepy, creepy feel,” Ian said. In a zombie Zagat guide, they would rate five stars. Too bad zombies, especially those who have not retained their eyeballs, cannot read.
“We are planning on a Zombie House next year,” he said. “All you’ll get is a glow stick to go room to room.” The idea charms Clinton, who, in land use development terms, sees it as the highest and best use of space. In personal terms, she believes zombies can be good neighbors whose presence is as comforting as the folks at Hell’s Gateway. “I know when they have clients there,” she said. “I can hear the chainsaw.”
What: Hell’s Gateway Haunted House.
Where: 2302 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, 98402
When: 7-10 p.m. Oct. 28; 7 p.m. to midnight Oct. 26, 27 and 31.
How much: $15 general admission, $30 VIP express pass, $40 with photo.