“Those lab specimens … those body parts … Are they REAL?”
You may well be asking yourself that if you work up the courage to show up during “visiting hours” at the Black Lake Haunted Asylum at Freighthouse Square on one of its last four evenings this year: Thurs., Fri., Sat. and Sun., Oct. 28 through 31, from 6 to 10 p.m.
The creepy props and nightmarish scenery comes from the prolific imagination of designer/fabricator Ben Isitt (www.BensArtWorks.com), whose work experience runs the gamut from Hollywood movie sets to amusement park atmospherics, from commercial décor to parade floats, from fountains and other topiary sculpture to home entertainment spaces and – dare I say it? – kids’ rooms!
Not that this should surprise anyone: The versatile Mr. Isitt, age 43, originally from San Pedro, Calif., and now of Puyallup, is a professional artist and hardly deranged – although you might suspect otherwise on seeing him throwing off all “restraints,” so to speak, at the Haunted Asylum. But even there, in the dark basement corridors of Freighthouse Square, Ben surgically attaches humor to horror, schlock to shock, creating a tour experience that’s part Hieronymus Bosch and part P. T. Barnum … or maybe Ed Wood and Ed Gein?
You decide … Meanwhile, I asked Ben about his work: His answers reveal some of the influences behind his inventiveness …
AmeriCollector: Have you always been a full-time artist, or did you do something else for a living before that?
Ben: I’ve always been a full time artist.
AC: Did you study art formally in school, or are you self-taught?
Ben: I studied art from an early age and eventually attended Phoenix Institute of Technology in California, for commercial art and pursued prop fabrication through apprenticeship and through hands-on work.
AC: Where is your studio located?
Ben: I have a shop on my property at my home in Puyallup as well as a work studio in the basement of the Freighthouse Square.
AC: Do you have any hobbies not strictly related to your artwork?
Ben: Yes, I enjoy building unique flying model aircraft from time to time.
AC: You specialize in sculpture and 3-D props, which is a lot different from working on a flat surface. What materials do you prefer to work in, and in what size: life-size or larger-than-life?
Ben: I enjoy the difference in scales differently. I don’t really have a preference in size, but I enjoy working with six-pound urethane foam versus other products that are commonly used in prop fabrication.
AC: You do a range of work, from signage to statuary to parade floats – even costumes. Are there particular objects you especially enjoy creating, or themes that you like to work in?
Ben: I like the imagination and variety of working within the horror genre most because of the limitless ways to express one’s imagination. And I use the “Haunt” (Black Lake Haunted Asylum) as a practical application for showcasing creations and frightening people at the same time.
AC: The Black Lake Haunted Asylum follows a classic carnival tradition, but it goes far beyond the usual cheap funhouse effects. How did you get involved in this annual event?
Ben: Having worked for Six Flags for 10 years and building props and creations for their Fright Fest influenced me to pursue these endeavors for myself and also appease the need to be creative in something that was relative to sculpture and prop fabrication.
AC: How much new stuff do you create each year, and where do you get your ideas? Do you decide what to create by committee, or do you have free license to do what you want?
Ben: It’s hard to describe where these ideas come from. Each year, I try to incorporate something new and exciting but most of all unique. Often in haunts you see the same ideas happening in the same ways, with little difference, but I try to create things that no one has ever seen before.
I do have free license to create props for the haunt depending on the annual budget. Some years are better than others. This year, we added an organ-grinder/Gatling gun, complete with rabid zombie monkey perched on top. This takes a clichéd machine-gun effect and gives it an interesting new twist.
AC: The Haunted Asylum appeals to many people’s desire, going back to childhood, to be frightened within a safe context, such as seeing a horror movie. Were haunted houses, horror films, Halloween and other scary but fun experiences a formative influence for you?
Ben: Absolutely. Whether it’s old film or new, I always enjoy special effects no matter what capacity they are used and appreciate the ideas and the imagination behind them.
AC: What ARE your favorite horror films, anyway?
Ben: “The Thing,” all of the “Alien” movies … I enjoyed “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Time Bandits.”
AC: The mental asylum concept seems to generate an especially strong response in people. How do you explain it?
Ben: I think because most human beings fear the loss of their own mind, the power of thought or control, people are uncomfortable with the theme; however, we’re not looking to promote the negative aspects of mental illness in itself, but rather point it in a direction of a fictional character, Dr. West, who through medical experiments creates his own monsters much like Frankenstein. This allows people to experience being afraid or uncomfortable in a safe environment. This is a haunt, after all: It’s all theatrics and not intended to offend but rather entertain based on a time period when such places existed but also add a terrifying twist to the theme.
AC: Who are your artistic influences?
Ben: My artistic influences vary, but if I were to name a favorite it would be artist Judson Huss and designer of the Aliens from the “Alien” film series, H. R. Giger.
AC: What is your “dream” project?
Ben: I would enjoy working on a large intricate sculpted relief or frieze of a dramatic scene like something from Dante’s “Inferno” or even “Alice in Wonderland,” but perhaps combined with a contemporary setting.
The Black Lake Haunted Asylum tour is conducted in groups of four to six guests, lasts 15 to 20 minutes and is not recommended for children under 13. Admission is $13 but tickets are limited: Get them online at www.hauntedhousetacoma.com. Freighthouse Square is located at 2501 East “D” St., Tacoma. For directions, visit www.freighthousesquare.com.
Images courtesy of Ben Isitt, Ben’s Artworks, www.bensartworks.com
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