Spookin’ at the Irvin: An Inside Look at the Duluth Haunted Ship

All photos by Erik Poffenberger

Most Duluthians can say they have taken the Duluth Haunted Ship tour, but how many have been on the other side? Every year this haunted attraction reaches out to invite volunteers to participate in the spooking instead of being spooked. I was able to get behind the scenes, uncover the creepiness and see how organizers of this historically haunted attraction keep things afloat (get it?) throughout the season.

The retired iron ore and coal freighter William A. Irvin has been a museum since 1986 and hosted haunted tours since 1992 with themes ranging from Phantom of the Opera to more traditional things like freak shows and clowns. No matter the theme, the main goal is to have a good time and scare as many people as possible. An estimated 30,000 people are expected to tour this ship this year. It might seem simple on the outside, but there are so many things that happen behind the scenes to make it all happen.

The ship is split into 12 zones with three to five rooms in each quadrant; each of these rooms has between two to five actors. Every quadrant has an experienced lead actor in charge of making sure the area is run smoothly. All of the chaotic arranging and planning is mostly a team effort with different people running different departments, but all of it is overseen by the actor coordinator, Jessica; simply Jessica. Jessica has been working at the Haunted Ship for a few years now and works at getting everyone where they need to go and filling the quadrants as evenly as possible.

Because I have clowning experience as a member of the Eveleth Clown Band, I was drawn to work in the Clown Birthday Party room. I was brought to the costume closet where all the outfits were hung neatly and organized by theme and room with prop buckets overflowing at our feet. The costume coordinator, MJ, is tasked with finding outfits to match the vibe of each room and making sure the actors are in the proper mindset to play their characters.

The next stop was the makeup trailer, which was probably the best part. I really enjoyed chatting with my artist, Zoey Nichole, who does most of the children’s face painting in the Duluth/Superior area and has been a part of the Haunted Ship team since she was 16 years old.

Zoey said clown makeup is her favorite because of the crazy colors compared to the classic horror palate of black, white and blood red. There is such an art behind this type of makeup because of all the tiny details, the different structures of people’s faces and just knowing what is going to look good for every theme. Zoey explained that as they get deeper into the season, all the artists start to get a sense of how all the themes are going to look and how they can perfect the makeup on each actor every night. The end product of my costume was breathtaking — I felt scary, goofy and somehow drop-dead gorgeous all at once!

Once the basics were taken care of, it was time to hit the haunting floor and head to our designated rooms. We were given a lot of creative freedom, which adds to the unique experience of the ship. One could go every night and see a different show every time based on the actors involved and their inspiration. It was interesting to dig back to my high school improv days when interacting with the people coming through the ship. Everyone reacts to fear in a different way, so being able to play to their terror in unique ways was really fun. Also, many people are particularly afraid of clowns, so I think there was a big advantage for me and my scare count.

The one acting guideline we were expected to follow was to never break character. I found that to be the hardest part of the experience — not the physical labor or the makeup that got stuck in my ears and eyebrows — but holding back the urge to laugh. My acting partner was cracking me up and the two clowns in the kitchen next to us were having their own experiences and bantering conversations that were just too good not to cackle at.

I would call my experience at the Haunted Ship a success that might become a fall tradition. I have always loved touring the ship during the Halloween season, but there was just something thrilling about experiencing it in a different way than most of the visitors get to. The staff on the ship put so much work into the event, and it shows. They have their own little community that meets up every year to create this fun, wonderfully spooky thing.

It was sad having to take off all the makeup and snap back into reality, but all good things must come to an end. The Haunted Ship is always looking for new volunteers in all facets of the process. Visit duluthhauntedship.com for more information.

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