Possessed by the spirit

Halloween is a way of life for some locals

The Barbee family does some serious bonding at Halloween. (Left to right): Andrea Nattress, Walter Barbee (holding Walle), Anna Nattress, Tammie Barbee, Alex Nattress.

The Barbee family does some serious bonding at Halloween. (Left to right): Andrea Nattress, Walter Barbee (holding Walle), Anna Nattress, Tammie Barbee, Alex Nattress.

Photo by Ken Smith

Get your freaky on:
Asylum of the Dead is located at 3163 Esplanade. Suggested donation: $5 adults, $3 children. Open every Friday and Saturday night in October and on Halloween from 7-10 p.m. Search Facebook for more details.
The Chadbournes decorate their front yard in spectacular fashion at sundown on Halloween night. See the display at the corner of Netters Circle and Sandi Drive.
Zombie Wrecking Crew is located at 4444 Pacific Heights Road in Oroville. The ride is $25 and up for extra ammunition. It is open Fridays-Sundays through Nov. 5. Gates open at 5 p.m. Go to zombiewreckingcrew.com for more details.

Each October, the time of year when true believers say the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead is at its thinnest, several sites in Butte County undergo a sinister transformation.

In north Chico, a family living on the grounds of a fictional former insane asylum is tormented by grotesque creatures who take up temporary residence in their barn; another Chico home, a picture of normalcy from the outside, hides a sweet grandmother’s dark obsession; and south of Oroville, the last line of defense against the zombie apocalypse is a busload of volunteer militia members armed to the teeth … with paintballs.

The CN&R visited these spooky sites to meet the minds behind them and find out what drives some to such lengths in pursuit of freaky kicks. There’s the Barbee family, who open their home to the public each year to host a haunted attraction called Asylum of the Dead; Linda Chadbourne, curator of an enormous private collection of decorations she’s amassed over the past 25 years; and Thomas Taylor, who combined his passion for paintball and the love of the undead into an intense interactive experience called Zombie Wrecking Crew.

Read at your own risk.

A family frightmare

The first Halloween after the Barbees moved from central Chico to a century-old farmhouse on the outskirts of town, they realized something was terribly wrong with their new home: No trick-or-treaters came to the door.

Brionne Saseen and Nick Quedens explore the Asylum of the Dead.

Photo by John Domogma

“It’s pretty far out The Esplanade and has the long driveway,” Tammie Barbee said. “We wanted to get people to come get candy, and also so we can scare them, because that’s what we love doing.”

So, the family decided to build a haunted house. Tammie’s husband, Walter, a professional plumber and all-around handyman, told Tammie he’d build the attraction inside of an old wooden barn and attached five-vehicle carport on the property if she drew up the plans. On Oct. 1, the Asylum of the Dead—as the Barbee family’s haunted house is known—opened for its third year.

Every alleged haunting is driven by a good ghost story and, inspired by the fact that the home was historically owned by a doctor and the Barbees found an antique surgical table on the property, Tammie created the fictional asylum’s backstory. She said it has been fleshed out and updated over the years by her daughter, Anna Nattress, one of the couple’s three adult children from Tammie’s previous marriage, whose ongoing involvement makes the asylum a family endeavor. The other two children, Alex and Andrea Nattress, are also on-hand most nights to help run things.

The tale runs something like this: In the late 1800s, a doctor and his wife built the farm and had a son named Charlie. The bright but troubled boy began conducting foul experiments on animals after the untimely death of his mother. He was institutionalized, only to break out 10 years later and return home to find his father had remarried. The doctor and his new bride became the first of Charlie’s human experiments. When the Barbees moved in and began renovating the barn, it awakened the grotesque creations and the spirits of his other victims.

“It’s not just asylum-themed, though,” Tammie said, explaining the story is pretty loose and that some rooms incorporate themes from contemporary horror films like Saw. “I mean, it might be fun to fill the whole thing with zombies, but not everyone is afraid of zombies. But everyone’s afraid of something, though, and maybe they’ll find it in there … a doctor, a clown, who knows?”

During a recent late-afternoon visit, Walter offered a tour of the then-empty asylum to show off his handiwork. The Barbees borrowed ideas from other attractions they’ve visited, including big-dollar productions in Sacramento and San Francisco. There are engineering challenges in constructing a safe, semipermanent structure for the express purpose of scaring people, so the asylum features many interesting accoutrements—swing-away false walls, camouflaged “trap” windows that drop open with a startling bang, and much more. The layout changes—and grows—each year. When asked how he figures everything out, Walter smiled and offered the source of his secret knowledge: “YouTube.”

Linda Chadbourne has been collecting Halloween decorations for 25 years.

Photo by Ken Smith

The family collects suggested donations of $5 from visitors. In past years, they’ve donated the proceeds to charity—the Butte Humane Society in 2014 and veterans’ group Wounded Warriors Project in 2015. This year, the money will benefit a famous family member. Walle, one of four of the family’s dogs who haunt the asylum’s grounds, won the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest in 2013. The beagle/basset hound/boxer mix’s victory was due in part to his humped back, which now desperately requires surgery.

As sundown approached, more than a dozen volunteers ranging from teen to middle age congregated at the property’s main house to prepare for the evening. All of the volunteers are organized through a Facebook group overseen by Anna, and many return year after year. The organizers try to ensure there are at least 15 costumed “scare masters” manning the Asylum every night, and the Barbees said they rarely have problems finding willing volunteers.

Tammie shared a story about one girl who “pumpkined” out as a visitor the first year, but continues to volunteer as a scare master. (“Pumpkin” is a code word used at the asylum to signal that a visitor is too scared and needs to be escorted out; other codes the volunteers use to communicate include “fresh meat” to announce new arrivals and “rabbit” to indicate a belligerent visitor. Walter said between two and four people commonly cry pumpkin nightly; “Rabbit” has been invoked only once, when an inebriated guest—drugs and alcohol are forbidden at the asylum—was asked to leave.)

After nightfall, the asylum was alive and running like a well-oiled machine. Two young women collected donations and prepped guests on the rules, and once inside the barn, another woman recited the asylum’s origin story as screams and laughter rang through the air. It took several minutes to walk through the maze-like interior, and it’s packed with a fair number of starts and scares ranging from gory to goofy.

Each room offered something entirely different and each appealed to various basic human fears, both natural and supernatural—there’s a slaughterhouse, an execution, a crazy carnival, and much more. Perhaps in homage to Walter’s day job as a plumber, one of the most frightening details to watch for is a horrifying clogged toilet. As recent visitors recounted their walk-throughs outside the exit and the asylum’s residents howled from within, a new group of victims entered, and one voice rose above the din.

“Fresh meat!”

The Good Witch of north Chico

The Chadbournes’ Halloween decor includes some very realistic-looking pieces.

Photo by Ken Smith

The only outward indicators of the horrors lurking inside Linda and Doug Chadbourne’s north Chico home during Halloween season are a life-size pumpkin-headed butler dummy near the front door, next to a wooden sign that reads, “An Old Bag o’ Bones Lives Here With His Favorite Ghoul.”

Stepping inside the house, however, is like entering a horror-themed carnival attraction. Thin, black curtains hang over the windows, leaving the interior lit by lamps resembling witches’ legs of all shapes and sizes. A wooden hutch laden with brightly colored glass skulls and skeleton figurines serves as a Day of the Dead altar, and the fireplace is adorned with faux-granite tombstones and plastic pumpkins.

It’s difficult to step in any direction without waking motion-activated monster mannequins lurking in every corner of the home’s common areas—a spooky fortune teller and her skeletal pet dog; disembodied, talking busts with glowing eyes; an undead musical duo who play dueling banjos. Even the bathroom isn’t a safe haven, with bloody handprints dripping down the shower curtain.

“For me, there’s Halloween, and then there’s the countdown to Halloween,” Linda said during a recent tour of the home, explaining that her love for all things macabre began when she first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager. Given her sugary demeanor, Linda’s dark proclivity—like her home’s decorated interior—is a bit jarring; one would more likely guess her favorite holiday activity involves fruitcakes rather than phantoms.

Linda, who with her husband owns Chico’s Chadbourne Office Supplies, said she’s been collecting decorations for at least a quarter-century. Today, her annual budget for Halloween decorations is $5,000. She collects year-round, mostly through mail-order company Grandin Road, saying she prefers the company’s quality products over other brands.

She picks up more items for the collection on the twice-yearly vacations she takes with her husband. “I get myself two souvenirs each trip: a Halloween treasure and a new scarf,” she said. The couple have traveled all over the world, often choosing destinations and activities that play into her love of all things spooky: “I made sure we went down to the crypts when we visited Paris,” she noted as an example, adding they’ve already planned their next trip, in March—to Eastern Europe, and specifically to visit Transylvania, home of Dracula’s Castle.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I’ll finally get to see the castle,” she said. “That’s at the very top of my bucket list.”

Several times during a recent interview, Doug emerged from the couple’s home office to add his commentary, playing the perfect foil to his haunt-happy wife. As Linda talked travel, he interjected a few stories about nearly missing flights because of Linda’s habit, like the time she had to deconstruct a motorized “haunted vacuum cleaner” and line her luggage with the pieces because the box was too big to carry on.

“While she’s doing that, I’m standing in line looking at the ‘Now boarding’ sign,” Doug said with mock exasperation.

The bulk of Linda’s collection is PG-rated, at least for the time being: “As my grandchildren get older, I can get scarier, but the youngest one is only 10 right now,” she said. “So I don’t have anything too scary … no clowns, no snakes, no dead babies or too much gore. I don’t mind the clowns, but my husband and grandchildren don’t like them.”

Linda said the decorations are mostly stored in one of two large warehouses the couple maintain—one for their business and one for her collection—during the off-season. The decorations come out in mid-September and most come down immediately after the big night, save for a guest bedroom that remains Nightmare Before Christmas-themed until that holiday passes. Doug built Linda a shed last year so she could keep her favorite items close to home. The outbuilding, christened “The Dead Shed,” has now become part of Linda’s backyard display, which also features a koi pond haunted by a life-size swamp monster.

The Chadbournes invite neighbors, family and their customers to walk through their home each season and view the display. Linda’s biggest event is an annual bunco party: “The girls and I all put on our witches’ hats while we play; we have so much fun!”

To distinguish Zombie Wrecking Crew from other haunted attractions, creator Thomas Taylor included a custom school bus with mounted paintball guns.

Photo by Howard Hardee

The only fully public part of the display happens exclusively on Halloween night, when the Chadbournes’ lawn is filled with more than 50 gigantic inflatables, including a 16-foot-long dragon, 7-foot-tall man-eating plant, gargoyles, a hearse and more. As she talked about the blow-ups, Doug reappeared to grumble about how long it takes to put up and take down the front-yard display.

“Halloween is very busy for us; we have people here every night and they bring their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers, everybody,” he said. With a smile that belied his curmudgeonly words, he added, “Do you wanna know what my favorite part of Halloween is? First of November, the day it all comes down.”

The killing fields

“Hands off your weapons until the lights go down,” Thomas Taylor admonished visitors one recent Saturday night as they boarded a converted school bus in the southern reaches of Oroville, where thick riparian woodland along the Feather River intersects with the paint-splattered battlegrounds of Combat Zone Paintball Park.

The bus, painted black and equipped with a front-mounted “wrecking plow,” looked like something out of Mad Max. Fifteen guns bristled from windows on each side, and passengers—30 at a time, departing every 30 minutes—sat on bench seats lining the windows. The bus rolled out, bumping through the night past cars in various states of disrepair and bombed-out-looking structures.

“Looks like we’ve got some walkers coming up here,” Taylor, dressed in military-style tactical gear, yelled to the eager riders. “Get ready!” Just then, the running lights turned dark blue, the stereo kicked up to 11 and a pack of zombies emerged from the darkness. All of the riders simultaneously squeezed their triggers and kept squeezing, punctuating the blaring rap-rock with the nonstop popping of paintball gunshots. All the while, Taylor ran the length of the bus, urging the shooters, “Yeah! Get ’em! Kill ’em! Kill ’em!”

Zombie Wrecking Crew, as Taylor’s interactive adventure is called, is operating for its third year. A professional paintball player and co-owner of Combat Zone, Taylor said his idea for a seasonal Halloween attraction was born of a desire to share the sport he loves and continue in it after his pro days are over.

Life isn’t easy for the undead: Taylor estimates guests fire about 50 thousand paintballs at actors playing zombies most nights, and more than 100 thousand on busy nights.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Wrecking Crew

“We wanted something that was completely different, fun and creative,” Taylor said via phone on a day off from leading tours. “We wanted it to be a cross between a haunted house, a paintball ride and something you’d see in a horror movie. We also want to pull people out of reality for that time and make it feel like you’re part of something rather than just shooting people for the heck of it.”

Given their popularity the last decade and his own preference, he said, zombies were an obvious choice for the theme: “I love zombies, they’re awesome, and it seems like most people do. I’ve had so many conversations with people, from all over the world doing paintball, about what they’ll do when the zombies come. Everyone has a plan for the ‘zombiepocalypse.’”

Initially, Taylor thought the ride would primarily appeal to the typical paintball demographic, namely adolescent to 30-something males. But people brought young children to ride on their laps, so he scrapped an age-8-and-above rule. Then a group who booked a tour the first year made him realize the experience’s broader appeal.

“Someone made a reservation for an 80-something-year-old woman’s birthday party,” he recalled. “She showed up with a group of her friends who were all about the same age. We helped them on the bus, they shot the piss outta some zombies, then we helped them off the bus.

“There’s something about going out there and shooting people, or zombies, without the threat of being shot back that appeals to all generations.”

As for the undead, Taylor admits that—though zombies are provided protective masks and padded gear—paintballs have a way of slipping past even the best defenses. “Every night someone says, ‘One got past my mask and gave me a fat lip,’ or, ‘Ouch, my shoulder!’” To ensure the zombies—who are paid employees and, Taylor noted, usually introduced to the ride as paying guests—can take it, he’s developed an unusual audition process.

“We give them the mask and the overalls, but no pads at all. Then we line them up in front of the bus, execution-style, and rip into them. We figure if they can take 300-400 hits like that, they can handle the job.”

Ryan Soulsby, who prefers the nickname “Cowboy,” works for the Butte County Public Health Department and moonlights as a zombie. He says he’s taken some licks, especially on his first night, when he ended up being the last zombie the bus encountered.

“I was the guy everyone had to unload their hoppers [paintball magazines] on if they had any shots left,” he said. “I must have been hit with 10,000 paintballs that night.

“But it’s worth it,” Soulsby continued. “When I hear everyone on the bus laughing and cheering and having the time of their lives, I don’t feel the pain at all.”