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Trendsetters: Spooky Success

In 20 spine-tingling years, the founders of Gwinnett County’s Netherworld Haunted House have turned their passion for scaring people into business success. Their chill-producing walk-through attraction has achieved national notoriety with its ghoulish special effects and live actors, luring more than 75,000 thrill seekers annually in the five- to six-week period around Halloween.

Netherworld, which in 2017 was ranked the No. 1 Haunted House in America by Hauntworld Magazine, was the concoction of two horror-loving friends. Ben Armstrong was a TV producer and Billy Messina was a movie special effects artist when they decided Atlanta needed a super-creepy haunted house with original characters and story lines.

“We were crazy,” says Messina, “but we were going to do this. We were going to make it work, and we loved doing it. We scraped together savings and took loans from our families and friends. We made stuff in our driveway.”

After a year in Kennesaw, Netherworld induced palpitations in Norcross, off Interstate 85 at Jimmy Carter Blvd., for nearly two decades. Many of its original themes, like werewolves and powerful zombies, pre-dated popular culture’s obsession with them.

“There’s some kooky group-think out there in the universe that none of us are aware of,” Messina says.

When the fearmongering became too much for that space, the co-founders last year purchased a 70,000-square-foot facility on 9.5 acres in the Evermore Community Improvement District (CID) near Stone Mountain. The Oct. 5 opening will be Netherworld’s first in the new space. Along with the core crew of about 20, Messina estimates the haunted house will employ more than 400 souls this season, many of whom will be scream-worthy actors. He says the CID welcomes the madness and views Netherworld as a catalyst for the area.

“All the neighbors we’ve met are wonderful, and they really care about the area,” he says. “That’s what put us over the top [when deciding to locate there]. They’ve been really embracing of us.”

In addition to the annual spookfest, Messina and Armstrong created Escape the Netherworld escape-room games with themes like Nosferatu and Sasquatch, where families, friends and corporate groups search for clues and solve puzzles to escape as the clock ticks down. The year-round attraction is appealing to a different audience and helping further fuel the business’ growth. The new location also features the House of Creeps Monster Museum and event space that can be used for private and corporate functions.

“Seeing people show up to experience something you created,” says Messina, “there’s nothing like that immediate sense of gratification.”

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