20 Years of Netherworld: Building a Business Out of Collecting Scares

Today, the haunted attraction is 40,000 square feet of scares. Twenty years ago, when it first opened in Kennesaw, it was closer to 5,000.

Today, the haunted attraction is 40,000 square feet of scares. Twenty years ago, when it first opened in Kennesaw, it was closer to 5,000.

Ben Armstrong pops the door open and leans out. He wears a friendly smile — odd contrast to the massive skulls, the winged gargoyles, and red-eyed demons loafing and leering about the Netherworld parking lot.

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He leads the way into the museum. It’s brimming with grotesque gadgets, animatronic art, defunct horror movie props, freakish taxidermy, fake body parts and hideous contraptions. It’s, honestly, overwhelming and gives one an unsettling feeling, as if at any moment the mass of mementos could come alive, gasping, twitching and groaning.

And, when he flips the switch, it can.

Armstrong said that, much like within the museum, the contents of Netherworld as a whole are “falling out the doors.”

“We do replace things — the effects and monsters and sets — but sometimes we just add on more layers,” he said, laughing. “We’ve got a lot of stuff.”

Netherworld co-owner Ben Armstrong. Photo: Frank Reddy.
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Netherworld co-owner Ben Armstrong. Photo: Frank Reddy.

It’s understandable, given the haunted house has been in business 20 years now. Armstrong and fellow co-owner Billy Messina have been doing this for quite some time. After two decades, it’s easy to let the props pile up, especially when Armstrong becomes attached to them like he has.

He points out several prize pieces: a talking, spinning statue of Zeus; a salvaged piece of dental equipment that’s been altered by Netherworld artists “to look cool”; a framed, animatronic nightmare of stretched faces and skin (“only a handful of these in existence”); and a duo of robotic witches stirring a cauldron.

“There’s just a lot of weird creatures in here you wouldn’t see anywhere else,” Armstrong said. “But, we also make a lot of our own stuff. We’re always trying to create new monsters and storylines. Everything sort of revolves around this idea that you want the familiar kinds of scares and details, but you want to add on top all kinds of unique, crazy, weird things people have never seen.”

He gestured toward a back entrance to the haunted house’s upstairs attraction — a winding maze with a footpath the length of several football fields, he said.

This bone-chilling labyrinth consists of dozens of different rooms and areas all fused together that play on every imaginable phobia of the American psyche — from claustrophobia to arachnophobia. There’s vampires, clowns, witches, sharks, and more.

Even taking a daytime tour with the guy who designed it can be spooky.

Today, Netherworld is 40,000 square feet of scares. Twenty years ago, when it first opened in Kennesaw, it was closer to 5,000.

“It’s crazy to think this place has been around for 20 years, because you take it day by day, season by season, and you don’t see the years until you take a moment and stop and look back,” Armstrong said. “On the one hand, it seems like forever ago that we started, and on the other it seems like only yesterday.”

For every year at Netherworld, there’s a new theme and storyline — envisioned by Armstrong, who is also a writer — that governs how the haunted house gets laid out.

As he made his way through a spider-themed section with gargantuan arachnids and web-encased corpses dangling from above, Armstrong explained the maze is a mixture of animatronics, actors and special effects — staples of a good haunted house.

Photograph courtesy of Netherworld.
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Photograph courtesy of Netherworld.

Even before Netherworld, he and business partner Messina schooled themselves on the haunted house formula.

“We worked in other haunted houses together, and one of the things we came up with was the 80/20 rule,” Armstrong said, explaining that 80 percent of the people who come to an establishment like Netherworld “want scares, chainsaws — the basics, but the other 20 percent want more. They want elaborate things they have seen nowhere else. They want the details. So, every year we do more and more to accomplish that.”

After 20 years in business, their efforts have been rewarded in the way of seemingly endless accolades. Netherworld has consistently been named one of the country’s top haunted houses by national and local news outlets, as well as horror fan sites.

For fan Derek Muehlberger — who with his Florida family gets in the car every year and drives seven hours for the spectacle — what sets Netherworld apart is “the overall experience.”

“It’s the whole package. From the moment you get out of the car to the moment you get back in … the production value is just top notch,” Muehlberger said. “It’s all very original, very creative. And, they’ve been doing this for 20 years, so they know what works and what doesn’t.”

Armstrong said it’s been a good run these past couple decades. And, he hopes to keep the momentum for another 20.

“I think in the future we are going to expand. We may expand to new locations. We may expand to new forms of entertainment related to what we do,” Armstrong said. He referenced the recent craze for escape rooms as an example.

The business currently has “a prototype” beside the gift shop: a three-minute escape room guests can try.

“But, we’re going to continue to do what we do in a strong way, and we’re going to probably expand into other areas of entertainment that would work within our brand,” he said.

The business is in his blood. And, adds Armstrong, laughing, his blood is also in his business. It’s who he is. It goes all the way back to when he was in elementary school — when he used cardboard boxes at Halloween to craft a haunted house in his homeroom.

“I’ve always loved all this,” he said, stepping out the door of the sprawling warehouse that is Netherworld, smell of latex monster masks wafting from within. “Ever since I was a kid, it’s just been fun for me.”

Saying goodbye, he waved, sporting an affable grin before a backdrop of menacing jack-o-lanterns and demonic sculptures soon to come alive as evening approached.

Photo: Frank Reddy
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Photo: Frank Reddy

Frank Reddy

A veteran journalist, Frank Reddy has written freelance articles for a wide range of mostly Atlanta-area publications, including What Now Atlanta, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed Atlanta, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Magazine, Gainesville Times and Gwinnett Daily Post. He has won multiple awards from the Associated Press and Georgia Press Association for business writing, feature writing, and hard news coverage. He is the author of Eyes on the Island, a debut novel, which was published in August 2016 by Fiction Advocate.
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