Monday, Oct. 22, 2001 | 8:20 a.m.
From the steel walls of The Mortuary come shrieks and giggles.
Out from the black plastic door visitors come tumbling down the ramp with eyes open wide. "Is it over?" asked 5-year-old Travis Stevens on a recent weeknight, as he emerged from the haunted house attraction on North Rainbow Boulevard and West Smoke Ranch Road, created by the Freakling Brothers.
The boy held tight to his father's hand until his feet were firmly planted on the pavement. Last month the space where the Mortuary stands was a theater parking lot.
But the Freakling Brothers have temporarily transformed it into the Mortuary, one of three Halloween haunts in town created by the longtime local spook team.
Travis said he understands that the Mortuary wasn't there last month. He also trusted that his barrel-chested dad, Rich Stevens, could take care of any really scary situation.
Still, what lurked behind those curtains, creaky wooden doors and sheets at the haunted house got his blood pumping.
"I knew it wasn't real, but it was real scary," Travis said.
It's that sense of security loosened a tiny bit to reveal a glimpse of the unknown that makes the Freakling Brothers houses so scary, co-founder Duke Mollner said.
Mollner, along with partner Craig Lewis, celebrates the Freakling Brothers' 10th year this Halloween season. They have spent decades perfecting their craft.
"We really care about the way we scare," Lewis said. "When people run out of there screaming, we know we are doing our job."
The freak show began in 1976 when Mollner, his wife, and young son Daniel turned the front hallway of their home on East Rochelle Avenue in southeast Las Vegas into a den of doom.
Mollner would lurk in the shadows as children filed into the home to collect their sweets.
He waited until they seemed unaware of the man behind the mask and would jump toward them, scaring the Tootsie Rolls right out of their little hands.
"It was great," Mollner said.
Each year he added to his home attraction until it took over an entire room. Mollner would lie in a homemade coffin with candy on his chest. Only the brave trick or treaters would enter. They, too, would shriek and giggle when Mollner reached for them.
Mollner estimates 1,000 people would line up to experience the one-minute, hair-raising experience he had created as a hobby.
"It was a lot of work," Mollner said, "but it was fun to scare all those kids."
After he and his wife moved to a new home in 1990 Mollner put his creepy masks and coffin away and resumed his life as a dealer at a local casino.
Meanwhile his son, Daniel, and Lewis carried the elder Mollner's ideas to film school in Southern California in 1989. They created a home-away-from-home haunt in their rented house.
"We turned the yard into this haunted house and people just came from everywhere," Lewis said.
People also donated money, without being asked, by flipping coins and dollar bills into an empty cauldron.
But the neighbors weren't happy with the hordes of Halloween fans that crowded the rural street. In 1990 they were forced to shut down their haunted house hobby.
That's when the idea to create a public Halloween attraction became serious.
"We knew we could do this," Lewis said. "We just needed a good place. Las Vegas was friendly to the idea."
Mollner, his son and Lewis created the Freakling Brothers company in the summer of 1991. Daniel Mollner left to pursue other interests in 1996, but continues to float ideas with his father and best friend, Lewis.
That Freakling touch
The Freakling Brothers' first endeavor in imitating the living dead was with Circus of Horrors in 1991.
In 1993 they added the Dungeon, and in 1995 the Black Box.
Each year the Freakling Brothers rotate the houses from the previous year's location. By the time the attraction visits the same corner four years later it is considered a new experience.
The Mortuary is a new attraction that was introduced last year, but one the Freakling Brothers will keep in rotation.
The Freakling Brothers' three attractions are set up in much the same way -- a series of six semi-trailers, linked and arranged into a rectangular pattern.
The structures take one year to complete from conception to realization. They take three months to build and cost approximately $100,000 each.
Fear springs to life with a bevy of scares scattered throughout the trailers.
Each room is a separate scene in a story about the demise of a fictional family of morticians, who happened to be called the Freakling Brothers.
At the Mortuary, guests begin at the front offices of the Mortuary and slowly make their way through the embalming room, morgue, mausoleum and finally the cryogenic chamber, where the Freakling Brothers have dissected, rather than interned, their clients.
The comfort level of the guests fluctuates with each room. Just as they begin to feel safe, soothed by the mist in the Tranquility Garden room for instance, an innocuous janitor ushering them further into a dark room shakes them up.
"A lot of people don't realize there's a story, but we want to make it a complete experience," Mollner said.
Cloth brushes against your skin in the dark and shifting rocks crunch under your feet as you wind from room to room, hoping to find the exit.
Water (or is it?) drips from hidden tubing overhead in a nearly dark room. A clear plastic sheet by day becomes a cold, stiff surprise in the gloom of night as guests of the haunted house round the final corner.
The effects were thrilling for Lori Rueger, who ran through the house and waited breathlessly outside for her friends. They had been right behind her, she said.
While she wanted to run from a dimly lit tunnel with a gravelly floor, the crunch of the stone path and the loose footing made her heart beat faster with anticipation.
"If someone came at me then, I'd have to scramble," Rueger said. "I felt the water on my head, and I knew it was water, but it was creepy."
Her friend, Rachel Eddy, soon staggered out of the Mortuary and shrieked at finding Rueger already outside.
"We've been through it before," Eddy said. "But there's always something different that you forget and it gets you again."
Mollner and Lewis continue to scare up ideas by attending year-round Halloween conventions throughout the country.
A few years ago a glove that emitted sparks when raked across a metal surface caught Lewis' eye.
The gag was not too scary on its own. But imagine a large man wearing the glove, chained to an electric chair behind a chain-link fence -- that's a bit scarier.
When that man jumps at guests and rakes the glove across the fence, it produces a harmless shower of sparks over guests' heads.
"Now that's scary," Mollner said.
The Freakling Brothers have stuck with actors and timing as their main sources for spooking customers.
Actors roam the lines of people waiting to enter the Mortuary. The thick makeup distorting their faces and their slow, scrutinizing movements make them appear inhuman, capable of something you may not have bargained for with the $8 price of admission.
"There is nothing scarier than a live person," Mollner said, "especially if they are right on your heels."
If you feel that someone is watching over you inside the attraction, it's because they are. A technician is constantly crawling through the structure to ensure nothing goes awry with the attraction's electronics -- or the crowd.
If, say, a group of rowdy teenagers plows through the house, well-placed actors quietly separate them.
"The actors know how to change the intensity of their scares," Lewis said. "We're not here to traumatize, just have fun."
That's what keeps the customers coming back.
Phil Clough returned for the second year to the Mortuary with his 5-year-old son, Brian, on a recent weeknight. From across the parking lot, they could hear the giddy screams of guests winding through the haunted house.
Before they took the plunge, Brian waited to check the expressions on people's faces as they exited.
"I had to make sure they didn't lose their heads," Brian said. "Now I'm ready to go in."