Foolish For Ghoulish, His Work Is Boo-ti-ful. Halloween Artist Haunted By A Passion For The Scary

Posted: October 29, 1993

Allan Erush wears Halloween underwear - all year round.

"He just bought fraidy cats with glow-in-the-dark eyes," says his wife, Sarah. "He's very proud of them."

Erush's visible wardrobe is black, black and more black, from his boots and jacket to his own jet-black long hair. "For somebody's wedding," admits Sarah, "he might wear gray."

He owns three cats - black, of course - and a pet rat. His answering machine greets callers in Dracula's voice. He converted his Volkswagen Beetle into a hearse.

His favorite relaxation is watching horror movies. "He calls it research and development," says Sarah.

Not surprisingly, Allan Erush's passion - and his livelihood - is building haunted houses.

"I built my first at age 7," he recalled this week. "It was a dog house with Outer Limits cards stapled to the walls. Kids would go inside with flashlights. Every year I expanded the dog house, ultimately to 11 rooms. But our neighbor was a tax assessor, and he told my dad they'd start taxing it, so my dad made me tear it down. I think he just hated kids."

Then Erush converted his parents' home into a haunted house every year. "I could not believe any parents would let their child tear the house up that much for one day," said Sarah, who met her husband-to-be back in the '70s, when a boyfriend - fatefully - took her to Allan's house on Halloween.

Finally, Erush's parents had enough.

"My dad was sick of coffins in the basement," he said. "So I was forced to build haunted houses in the real world."

For which the world should be grateful.

For the next three nights - as they have for the last few weeks - the foolish and courageous may wander through Erush's haunted house, Grisly Gothic Gables, a converted barn at Cathedral Road and Wissahickon Avenue in Andorra.

"Oh, my God, don't go in there!" pleaded one man, as he emerged the other night.

"That's insane!" screamed his wife.

Erush loves such reactions.

"A couple years ago, we lost half our visitors in the first room - a few actually wet their pants," he recalled. "It's sort of a good payoff when they do that. Some kid threw up in Mount Airy one year, but that wasn't as good because we had to clean it up."

*

Fear not, Allan Erush is not into guts and gore. In his haunted houses you find no blood, no chainsaws, no slashing. He is more Boris Karloff than Freddy Krueger, and he frightens people the old-fashioned way - by surprise.

"We're a cross between Dark Shadows and The Addams Family - creepy, but we can be funny at times," he explained.

"We have our share of rotten corpses - but they're not moist."

After several years of haunting houses in Fairmount Park, Erush this year has converted the Courtesy Stables - an old barn owned by the Riders of the Wissahickon - into Gothic Grisly Gables. A portion of the $6 admission goes toward renovation of the stables.

Erush, now 36, has invented an entire family - the Grisly family - dating back to Lithuania and the 13th century. All the relatives, dead and alive, occupy the 17 haunted rooms and are played by haunted house groupies - by day, normal working people - who Erush has befriended over the years. People leap

from the most unlikely places, and victims are usually too petrified to notice the finer touches - the original spider webs on windows; the actual cat skeleton perched on a table; the glorious music, including Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain.

Ask Erush why he loves horror, and he will just shrug. But others have their theories.

"He likes to create his own world," says George Ledoux, his cousin.

"He's just the opposite of what he creates," said Janice Mininberg, one of the actors. "Sweetness, kindness and light."

"Mentally, he's about 10 years old," says Sarah, 34.

Born and raised in western Massachussets, Erush came to Philadelphia in 1984 to attend Temple, where he earned a bachelor's degree in theater. He worked for five years as an exhibit designer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, saving his vacation every year to work on haunted houses at Halloween.

Last winter, he left the museum to pursue his passion fulltime, spending three months working on a haunted house in Hilton Head, S.C., with another fanatic he met through Fangoria, the trade magazine for horror buffs.

"He wants to be known as the guy - you want something haunted, you call him," says Sarah.

In good years, says Erush, he earns enough on his haunted house to cover expenses. All the actors volunteer, and he rewards them with a halloween party - on New Year's Eve.

Erush barely eats or sleeps as he prepares his haunted house. This year, however, he was slowed by a ruptured appendix, and hospitalized for nine days.

"Sarah tried to save the appendix for the haunted house," he recalled, ''but I told her I didn't want to see it again."

The Erushes live in Germantown, in an old Victorian, and Sarah regretted that they didn't have time for a tour.

"We live in a haunted house," she said. "It's dark and gloomy, with wallpaper hanging off the walls, plaster falling from the ceilings. We looked at it and bought it the next day. Allan's brother showed up the next weekend and said, 'You're not going to do anything to it, are you? It looks great!' "

Sarah, by day head of drug information at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has long since learned to live with Allan's, er, eccentricities.

"My dream," Erush says, "is the Haunted B&B."

He is serious.

"A Victorian house built from scratch," he continues, "a complete nightmare. A roller coaster comes screaming through the breakfast nook. I'd build all canopy beds, and you'd go through this really scary, dark ride in your bed. All dead relatives coming out. Even the food would be themed. And there would be a graveyard out back.

"It would really go over big," he nods, "especially with the new Convention Center here. I just need a million dollars."

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