ST. PETERSBURG — The Radley family tree is one with dark, twisted roots and ghastly tales to match. Cody Meacham likes to reveal them one by one, giving each fictional family member's story an uncommon degree of visual and emotional depth without skimping on the scares.
Since 2007, when he opened the Radley Haunted House, Meacham, 25, has strived to do things differently. He has consistently built upon an increasingly elaborate story of the cursed family he invented for the enterprise. As the stories become more imaginative, so, too, do the sets he builds. This year, going through the haunted house will be like reenacting a horror flick. He tells the story of Agnes Radley, who ran an orphanage until it was partially destroyed in a Halloween fire in 1933. The Radley Haunted House opens at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Those who choose to walk through the haunted orphanage, an elaborate maze of rooms filled with creepy dolls, cobweb-covered religious memorabilia and crumbling old furniture should expect a different kind of haunted house. Not that there won't be plenty of tense and shriek-inducing moments where actors pop out at unexpected times, but Meacham eschews the standard gore and chain saws for the eerie imagery and creepy characters.
“I believe that the setting is everything, that if you believe the setting that you're in, that's what creates the scares from a deeper place, rather than just a clown popping out of a sheet,” he said. “It's a completely different experience, in my opinion.”
Last year, more than 5,000 people went through the haunted house, which portrayed a haunted underground labyrinth, Meacham said.
The haunted house sits on top of the driveway, lawn and front porch tiles in the front yard of his parents' house on 19th Street North. The impressive structure he built himself is made to look real inside and out, from the charred interior of the old school house he fashioned to the bowing wood planks that make up much of the exterior. It's wired with lighting — black lights and strobes, where appropriate — and audio for appropriate music and a fictional paranormal research team to guide visitors through.
The seesaw and swing sets are his handiwork, as are the tiny beds the orphanage's doomed children slept in. Meacham, a scenic technician at HSN by trade, works on the Radley stories and set designs practically year-round. He hunts for antiques in clear disrepair — including the unnerving baby dolls and the 100-year-old wheelchair in the orphanage basement. He's found some good stuff at Brocante Vintage Market, a monthly market specializing in antique and vintage furniture and decor, since it opened in August. He also salvages old set pieces from HSN and picks up items at antique malls.
“Over the years, I kind of collect things,” he said. “All the stuff I kind of reuse and repurpose, but a lot of people don't really pick up on that. The way I reuse it tends to disguise it every year.”
While Meacham does most of the work himself, he has a little help here and there. About a dozen friends will dress up as “scare-actors,” which this year will be ghosts of orphans and their matron-turned-witch, Agnes Radley. A couple of friends help out with construction and the printing of fliers.
Gulfport metal artist Frank Strunk III said he was so impressed when he first went through Meacham's haunted house three years ago that he wanted to get involved.
“His sets are amazing — his attention to detail, his attention to theme,” Strunk said.
One year, Strunk made a replica of a gramophone. This year, he created a large, rust-colored replica of a boiler for the “basement” where, according to the story, Agnes Radley set a deadly fire, and where the story's harrowing climax takes place.
“I had a blast doing that,” he said. “I love all of that haunted [stuff]. He's nice enough to let me donate.”
The Radley Haunted House, which is at 3900 19th St. N., will run Thursdays through Sundays through Halloween, as well as Oct. 30. Admission is a suggested $4 donation, and credit cards are accepted. The doors open at 8 p.m.