Deranged hillbillies, body parts and laughter — one of these things is not like the others.
And that’s just the way the Ingham family likes it.
Walt and Tammy Ingham have crafted nightmares in their backyard for the Howard County community to scream at for more than a decade. They are best known for their Edge of Insanity haunted asylum, housed in a dark and claustrophobic barn. COVID has forced the family to temporarily shutter the decrepit hospital and hide the inmates away, but the pandemic creates an opportunity to explore Hillbilly Haven (or hell, depending on if you are a resident or guest), a sprawling outdoor maze that may protect you from the virus but the Inghams can’t guarantee anything beyond that.
The maze is full of hovels, many with misspelled signs declaring who lives inside. Visitors (victims?) will get a grand tour of the settlement and most likely come face-to-face with the Hillbilly Haven community.
Walt Ingham’s haunted vision was inspired by a former boss back in New York who would decorate his acre and a half of land for both Halloween and Christmas. Ingham bought their current home with the idea of using the backyard as a staging ground for his own creations.
It’s not all about jump scares and chills for the Inghams, however. They’ve built a close-knit adopted family with their actors and designers, and proceeds from the annual event benefit multiple charities around Kokomo (such as the Carver Center, Cops 4 Kids, the anti-bullying program Don’t be a Monster) and a scholarship in honor of Walt’s brother, Thomas, who died tragically right before the first Halloween event was to begin. The scholarship supports two students a year at New York’s Ellenville High School who plan to study business in college.
“Basically if you don’t have a strong voice in the community, that’s where our money is going,” Tammy Ingham said. “So your money is well spent, and I really do believe you will have a good time.”
Kooky and spooky
“We have a special cast,” said Tammy.
“They call us mom and dad,” Walt said.
“This is our haunt family,” she said. “You watch them come back every season, and it’s like having a family reunion. They just pick up right where they left up.”
“We’ve seen them grow up, get married, have babies,” he added.
Some of the cast members who make the haunted backyard come to life have been volunteering for the Inghams since they were in high school. One started at the age of 9 and is now a college graduate. The cast also includes Tammy’s adult children, Bryan Hagen and Brittany Smith, now Walt’s step-children.
“You are blessed that they let you be part of their lives for so many years,” Tammy said. “And you are an important part of their lives. They tell you when they are doing things — ‘We’re having a baby’ or ‘We just bought a house’ — we are privileged to be able to give so much money to charity, but we are exceptionally privileged to have these people in our life.”
One of their newer volunteers, Audree, is a 16-year-old with a “vengeance and a fire in her blood to do this,” said Tammy.
Tammy described Audree’s work ethic as hardcore, saying she is always ready to do any job, whether it be physical labor like raking or mowing or just scaring visitors. Audree will give 110% and leave drenched in sweat but ready for the next day of work.
“Audree was diagnosed with sarcoma three or four months ago,” Tammy said, swiping away at tears. “She had a mass in her stomach which should never happen to anyone but particularly to a 16-year-old. She should be learning to drive. She should be trying to go on dates. She should be hanging out with her friends. She should have been going to the beach and going to the movie theater and doing things, but she has spent her summer getting chemo and radiation. She had surgery to remove the tumor. And now she is undergoing her last bouts of chemo and radiation. They are rough. Audree is the reason there is a little standup shack outside and a wheelchair here. She wanted to work this season.”
The standup shack sits away from the maze at a safe distance where Audree, her immune system devastated from chemo and radiation, would be protected from guests going through the tour. But, if able to participate, she will be close enough to deliver the good scares she so enjoys.
“We wanted to make it so she could [be here] if she wanted to,” Tammy Ingham said.
There is also a merchandise booth this year, with 100% of the proceeds will go to helping Audree and her family.
Tammy recalled Audree coming to a recent volunteer meeting.
“She apologized because she couldn’t come to her work days,” she said.
Comedy with an occasional ‘boo’
So how does a haunted asylum mutate into a horror/comedy hybrid?
Very organically, Tammy said.
It began when they decided to use a tour guide through the haunted asylum so no one got lost. The guide got so involved with the role that she built a fully developed character that Tammy described as a little creepy, a lot crazy and really funny.
“She kind of had a Popeye-esque way to it,” she said. “She would give you this delivery and there would be this [side commentary] that you may or may not catch on to [right away] and then it would hit and you would laugh and while you are laughing you got scared.”
It creates a great dynamic, Ingham said, because people forget where they are and then get frightened.
She said managing the line between horror and comedy is very tricky, and the comedic aspect grew thanks to the talent, chemistry and improv abilities of the cast. Because of their ability to adapt to any situation, the performances constantly evolve. What you see one weekend might grow into something new the next.
“This is very different than theater acting,” she said. “It’s organic and it’s all in the moment. You are never going to get the same response every time, and you kind of have to respond back no matter what is said to you. It keeps you very sharp.”
Tammy performed in some plays as a child but has no formal theater training. However, she discussed the process of acting like it was second nature.
Out of place
The Inghams work hard at their craft, even attending conferences to learn more about scaring people.
Tammy recalled a visit to the Midwest Haunters Convention once. The location this particular convention took place in had been double booked. The many masters of horror had to share the space with a knitting convention.
One night the Haunters Convention hosted a masquerade ball where guests could dress up as their haunted house characters. Ingham, who planned to appear as Mama, the matriarch of the hillbilly clan, was walking around when she found a knitting circle. She hurried back to her room, got into costume and grabbed her prop bag. She pulled some twine from it and began to crochet a baby blanket.
She returned downstairs, now a little old lady with a gray bun and a wrinkled, calloused face and sauntered toward the knitting circle.
“This is where you ladies are! I been looking all over the place for you,” Mama cackled, her voice akin to a dog’s growl crossed with a car engine firing up. “Nobody told me we were sitting here. Is it OK if I crochet because I’m not much into the knittin’?”
She reached into her knitting bag, made up to look like a skinned human head, and pulled two rib bones out — her crochet tools — and worked alongside the knitters for over half an hour.
The knitters took turns inspecting Mama’s instruments and work and taking pictures. Mama’s photograph still circulates within the community.
“Every one of the haunters, that’s just what they do,” she said. “You just build a very believable character that you can plop into any situation and react as you think that character would. What is that called — character acting. Duh! It’s in the name.”
All are welcome
With Halloween right around the corner, the Inghams and their extended family of volunteers are already back at work bringing scares to Kokomo. There are still three weekends to see the madness.
“We say we are less Disney and more Dreamworks,” Tammy Ingham said. “We have humor that will go over a child’s head. We’re never vulgar. We’re very family friendly.”
The husband and wife team estimate they receive 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a year. Many come back for a second time. Or even a third. Walt remembers a super-fan coming up to them in a store and saying she had been to the event five times in one season.
“The patrons have been awesome,” Walt said. ”They are the ones who tell people about it. Because the [actors] do such a great job, we have gained popularity and have been able to get bigger.”
“We’re not trying to compete with places like Indy Scream Park,” Tammy said. “They are all wonderful venues, and I recommend you go to as many as you can. They are there to promote a good time. It’s just that we are really different, so it’s like comparing apples to zebras. It’s a really different thing that we do.”
They hope Kokomo isn’t too afraid to give them a try and help some good causes in the process.
But maybe bring a change of pants, they suggest. If not, there’s a hillbilly in the maze who might be willing to share some clothing in case of an emergency.
For tickets and time information visit http://www.weitlesasylum.com/.