By Missy Wattenbarger
Late in the evening, lights of downtown Chattanooga peacefully twinkle below when taking the road that goes up Lookout Mountain, one of the nation's most scenic and historic mountains. Located on the side of it is a large structure known as Cavern Castle, which serves as the entrance to Ruby Falls, a 145-foot cascading waterfall located more than 1,120 feet underground.
The castle, a replica of a 15th century Irish one, is touted as the "world's grandest cave entrance." Constructed out of limestone excavated from the cave, it serves as the perfect starting point to experience some of nature’s most remarkable wonders — and some of the most frightening, depending on the season.
Beginning in late September, starting around 7:30 p.m. EDT, things only seen in nightmares and horror films begin roaming the premises as part of the unique Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern attraction. Ordinary haunted houses have monsters, ghosts and special effects, but Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern adds a whole new level of fear: “Descend 26 stories underground...where no one can hear you scream.”
Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern is a free form haunt, where visitors move at their own pace, with a little encouragement. The intense event takes place both above and below ground and is considered one of the area’s best haunted attractions. It was awarded the number six spot on Rand McNally’s top 10 national haunt attraction list in 2010 and has been listed as a Top 20 Event the last two years by the Southeast Tourism Society.
A new story is created every year for the attraction, ensuring that even repeat visitors get a good scare. For its 10th anniversary, Haunted Cavern shares the story of former billionaire Thadeus Krane, and visitors near and far are invited to partake in his experiment.
The story goes that Krane has spent his life and fortune devising ways to beat death. Rumored to be more than 130 years old, his time is running out and depleting funds has forced him to move his experimentation facilities into one of his abandoned businesses, the legendary Toy Factory. With his team of world-renowned scientists long gone, Krane is forced to rely on the abilities of unscrupulous geneticists and a team of NecroEngineers to continue his mission.
Reportedly, Defex from ruined experiments run the streets, harvesting specimens to continue Krane’s nightmarish research. They scour the area, raiding morgues, cemeteries and hospitals and drag or even lure fresh, live specimens back to the Toy Factory. From there they are taken to “The Pit” to await their time of experimentation.
Many of the Defex can be seen during a freak parade at 7:30 p.m. and while waiting in line to get into Cavern Castle. They offer up a good scare before the blood and gore begins. A freakishly tall one is stationed in front of the castle to “greet” guests as they drive by. Sliding Defex, who have proven useful in corralling victims, lurk in the parking lot, as well as other monsters who like to see the new arrivals up close.
Near the castle, guests are given a glimpse as to how far Krane will go to live forever. There, a woman is suspended from the top of a large wooden box, her body torn in half and its intestines left to dangle in the chilly night air. Despite her appearance, don’t be afraid to talk to her. She actually prefers it, offering up some comedic relief before the screaming begins.
“You can talk to me,” she said. “This isn’t a zoo.”
Once inside, visitors are directed to a glass-doored elevator that descends 260 feet deep into the heart of the mountain. During daylight hours, this is when a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide greets guests to share interesting and unusual facts about the cave, the waterfall and the city itself. For the Haunted Cavern, however, they are immediately ordered to stand in a single file line by one of Krane’s dog soldiers. Then the person in front is handed a tiny glow stick and ordered to lead the group forward into the dark cave.
Hidden inside are gruesome scenes of nurses and doctors tearing open patients, body bags dangling from the ceiling with other parts scattered around the path. Terrifying monsters lurking in the darkness are attracted to the dim light of the glow stick. The leader of the group may draw their attention, but most times they prefer to attack those behind him.
Another elevator awaits the group at the end of the cave to take them to a new level of horror. They are eventually led outside, where a shuttle bus takes them back up the mountain to the final segment of the haunt. There, other monsters who have survived tortuous experimentation now wish to bring this joy to others with the use of metal grinders and chainsaws. Others simply jump out wanting to “play,” and others are too distracted while their patients scream out for help.
On average, the full Haunted Cavern experience takes approximately 45 minutes to complete. However, frightened visitors often go through much more quickly.
As it gets closer to Halloween, be prepared for large crowds and expect the wait outside to be significantly longer than the attraction itself. On the night of Oct. 12, those arriving around 10 p.m. had to wait over two hours before getting inside Cavern Castle to buy their tickets. Finding parking may also take some time, causing many to circle the parking lot a few times before securing a spot. One parking attendant suggested coming on Sundays, when the attraction is open until 10 p.m.
"The line is usually half the size,” he said. “I guess because people don’t normally think about going to haunted houses on Sundays.”
Guests can experience the haunt every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October, including Halloween night and Nov. 1-2. Tickets are $23 on Fridays and Saturdays and $21 on Sundays. There are additional savings if bought online, but doing so does not affect the wait time. On site ticket sales begin around 7:30 p.m., with the attraction opening at 8 p.m. In general, Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern is open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays but often stays open later to accommodate patrons on busy nights.
Because of the gore and violence, the attraction is not recommended for children ages 10 and under. However, adults and teens are dared to venture out and face their fears in the depths below.