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Haunted Ship's 2010 makeover a tad 'dramatic'

Inside this year's William A. Irvin Haunted Ship, which is now under the control of local actress Chani Ninneman. Matthew R. Perrine/Budgeteer News

Thinking this year's Haunted Ship on the S.S. William A. Irvin will be the same as in years past? Think again; there is new blood in charge.

Local actress Chani Ninneman has taken the reigns as production manager of the Haunted Ship and has brought a fresh perspective along with her. At first, she met some adversity from former crew members who were used to doing things a certain way, but she has since smoothed things over.

The biggest change is that a theme has been incorporated into this year's haunt. Ninneman called the theme "Captain's Revenge" in keeping with the nautical setting. Upon entering the ship, visitors are told a story that sets up the rest of the tour. The cargo hold contains an abandoned carnival and warehouse section that simulates an escape from the ship.

Returning visitors will also notice less gory scenes than in the past.

"Gore is not my style," Ninneman said.

She feels there are better ways to scare people than with blood and guts. Instead, she utilizes things like the skill of the actors to misdirect people's attention and scare them from behind.

Further, every room is not meant to scare visitors. The main purpose of some rooms is to entertain, which is where the use of skilled actors comes in.

Because of Ninneman's background in theater, she is well connected with the various theater groups in the area, bringing many professional actors aboard for the first time. She credits the amount of acting talent she has to allow her flexibility.

Every night is a little different, as each actor has the ability to improvise in their role. Just because they are in one location one night doesn't mean they will be there the next -- or that they have to act the same way each night.

Another addition this year is the use of more technology. Funding allowed the purchase of new LED lighting throughout the haunt, but the engine room is where the real technology show happens. It is here that sound, light and special effects take center stage, thanks to an unlikely source.

The mastermind behind the engine room is the new special effects and lighting engineer Jake Roeber. Although only 16 and still a student at Superior High School, Roeber has a knowledge of special effects that has led the crew to call him by the nickname "Wiz."

After coming up with some preliminary ideas for the engine room, Roeber was told he could design the whole thing. He said it took him only three days to install and program the scene and is proud of how it turned out.

His behind-the-scenes capability became evident his first year on the ship, when we was able to fix some broken fog machines. This led to him being more involved the following year with the technological side of things by fixing anything he could.

Now, in only his third year as part of the Haunted Ship, Roeber has one of the most important and complicated jobs in the whole process: If something breaks, he has to fix it. He acknowledges that he doesn't know everything, and that sometimes he has to teach himself as he goes, but his strive for perfection is what makes him so successful.

"If something doesn't look like it should, I take it personal," Roeber said

Despite having such an aptitude with electronics, he says that, outside of a haunted setting, they don't really interest him. He hopes to pursue a career in haunted attractions by getting a degree in either show production and touring (technical theater) or psychology. He also aspires to take over the Haunted Ship some day.

The hiring of both Ninneman and Roeber have been welcome additions to the Haunted Ship, but hiring Ninneman almost didn't happen because of her busy schedule.

Ninneman said she was approached in the spring by her former boss at the Irvin, Steve Rankila, wondering if she knew anyone who might be interested in taking over the project. Despite her other commitments, Ninneman decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up.

"I just got so excited, I said 'I'll do it,'" she said.

Ninneman admitted to having to shuffle other engagements, like dropping out of Rubber Chicken's production of "Evil Dead: The Musical." Although it is a sacrifice, she says it isn't necessarily a bad one.

"In the future, it will mean a lot less theater, but that's OK, because this has been one of the most amazing experiences in my entire life," Ninneman said.

The biggest inspiration to Ninneman in this process is not a scary movie or another haunt but, surprisingly, Disney World. She points to the level of detail in all aspects of the park that help visitors feel like they are in a different world, even when they are standing in line. She wants to replicate this attention to detail as much as possible in future editions of the Haunted Ship to immerse customers into their surroundings. This will make everything seem more real.

She is already looking forward to what the crew will be able to do next year with a full 12 months of planning and preparation. Her goal is to make the Haunted Ship competitive with some of the biggest haunts in the country in attendance and entertainment value.

After an opening weekend where nearly 2,400 people visited -- which doubles opening weekends in previous years -- she appears to be on her way.

NEWS TO USE

Hours for the William A. Irvin Haunted Ship this week: 6:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Cost is $10 for adults and $6 for kids; see www.duluthhauntedship.com for complete details.

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