DULUTH — The William A. Irvin's Haunted Ship tour returned last week after a lull of three Halloweens without the area's most popular haunted attraction.
The retired 83-year-old ore freighter had been a Halloween season destination since 1992, until the sea wall surrounding its moored home in the Duluth harbor needed repairs in 2018. The 610-foot laker was then towed for its own restoration and wasn't tour-ready in 2019 upon its return. Last year tours were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Haunted Ship is a tradition for many, and its cancellation was "a loss," said Steve Rankila, internal operations director for the boat's owner, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC.) "An important rite of passage was put on hold … and some travel hundreds of miles to attend."
Its crew, too, who see the feature as a highlight of the year, have missed creating the spectacle. Hunting down props, building fresh horrors and imagining new ways to make visitors screech in terror have been a welcome activity.
"It's been three years since we touched any of it," said John Clark, a DECC maintenance technician who helps produce the tour.
All that time, staff have been thinking about ways to make it "special," Rankila said, so "opening this year is a culmination of all that tinkering."
The production, which runs several nights throughout October, is a big earner for the ship museum. Revenue from ticket sales in 2017 accounted for nearly half of all ship ticket revenue that year, with more than 22,000 tickets sold. This year will be even more important for the publicly funded tourism complex, which suffered massive losses during the pandemic.
About 70 volunteer actors staff the tour, half of which is nautically themed, as it winds through the ship's galley kitchen, ornate dining room and sailors' sleeping quarters. Cargo holds contain a maze of narrow passages bringing visitors through more typical Halloween fare, from the gory to the unsettling. Manufactured odors, like the scent of a slaughterhouse, match their scenes. A door that drops unexpectedly, followed by a giant skull that careens over tour-goers' heads, is a popular feature.
"If the door doesn't get you, the head usually does," Clark said.
DECC employees hit a "haunting" convention each year to purchase fake blood, body parts and "fog juice," and to gather new ideas. They were eager to put those, like a dizzying vortex passage, to use this year. Joining the actors, DECC crew members hide and watch, seeing what works and what doesn't, taking notes for the next year.
"We have on average 25 people [per night] take one step into the doorway and back out," said Dan Patterson, a DECC maintenance technician who also helps produce the tour. (For the fainthearted who make it farther, escape tunnels are also available.)
And Patterson, like most employees who spend time on the Irvin, has an actual supernatural story.
One November night, as he was closing the ship down for the season, he heard strange noises coming from the engine room in the back of the boat. Steps leading up to the ship were pulled in, the main door locked.
"I heard someone counting bolts, like if you had a handful in your hand, chucking them back into a bucket," Patterson said. "I looked around and couldn't find the source of the sound. I can't explain it."
Paranormal investigators have detected paranormal activity, Rankila said, which only adds to the Halloween fun.
"There is definitely energy here, something weird going on," he said.