How a Cast of Ghosts and Goblins Revived the Spirits of a Midwest Neighborhood

After a cattle boom came and went, the declining West Bottoms section of Kansas City started to look like a ghost town. It took a visionary, fright-loving family to give it a new lease on life.

How a Cast of Ghosts and Goblins Revived the Spirits of a Midwest Neighborhood

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The line of people waiting to get into “The Beast” nearly wraps around the block. Once you’re inside, you realize that you’re not just in a haunted house. You’re in a maze that takes you through a terrifying Louisiana mansion, Jack-the-Ripper-era London and a werewolf forest.

When The Beast opened in the West Bottoms neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, just off Interstate 670 in 1991, it became America’s largest open format haunted attraction, according to Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, 46, vice president of Full Moon Productions, the company that developed and manages The Beast. (The “open format” is a maze of connecting staircases that put the spectator in a situation where they face a variety of possible paths. Whether it’s encountering werewolves or the headless horseman, people experiencing the maze are taken up and down various floors as they try to find their way out.)

A fire spinner performs on the street outside of The Edge of Hell haunted house as patrons wait to enter.
A fire spinner performs on the street outside of The Edge of Hell haunted house as patrons wait to enter.

The family-owned company opened “The Edge of Hell,” its first haunted attraction in 1975 when Arnett-Bequeaith was five years old. Since then, she says she’s played every role in Full Moon’s haunted houses, from angel to devil and everything in between.

The Beast is located inside a cavernous, remodeled industrial building. Navigation of the indoor werewolf forest is a daunting task since it’s about a quarter-acre in size. To get out, visitors have to shoot themselves down a four-story slide, but not before being chased by a pack of werewolves.

“The Beast is about the fear of being lost,” says Arnett-Bequeaith, a tall, slender woman who resembles Elvira when she has her makeup on and hair done up. “When it opened, we were hard core. If any actor or actress told anyone how to get out of the werewolf forest, they were fired.”

Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions at the Edge of Hell haunted house, getting her makeup done.
Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions at the Edge of Hell haunted house, getting her makeup done.

But then they had visitors who couldn’t get themselves out, because they were paralyzed by their own fears.

If you visit, plan on spending 45 minutes getting out of The Beast. “We’re working with the fight or flight mechanism,” explains Arnett-Bequeaith, who took on the role of Full Moon’s vice president in 2009. “Yes, we ask you to crawl under things. Yes, there are uneven floors.” Visitors choose which way to go, so everyone has their own experience. “It could be the short way; it could be the long way, or the lost way.”

Some people travel great distances to experience the very prevalent fear of the unknown in The Beast. Kim Miller, 52, from Wichita, Kansas, doesn’t let the nearly three-hour trek to West Bottoms dissuade her from taking a frightful stroll through the searingly intense labyrinth.

Make-up artist Colleen May applies eye liner to Amber Arnett-Bequeaith.
Make-up artist Colleen May applies eye liner to Amber Arnett-Bequeaith.

“It’s become an annual tradition,” Miller says as she waits in line.

Though The Beast is Miller’s personal favorite haunted attraction in the West Bottoms (she cites its “interactive” component as a highlight) it’s not the only spooky space on most visitors’ itineraries. Full Moon oversees four grand haunts in just a three-block cutout of the neighborhood, each with its own unique theme. There’s the “Macabre Cinema” — boasting a one-hour tour through a four-story haunted movie theater from the 1930s — and “The Chambers of Poe” — where visitors get the chance to experience Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, including “The Raven” and “The Black Cat,” firsthand. America’s oldest commercially operated haunted house, “The Edge of Hell,” grapples with the choices people make in walking the line between good and evil. Originally set in what was once known as Kansas City’s River Key neighborhood, about two miles north of the West Bottoms, The Edge of Hell now sits 666 feet above sea level. Full Moon moved the attraction here in 1988, marking the beginning of the neighborhood’s frightfully refreshing transformation, one that Arnett-Bequeaith says would not have been possible without the vision of the company she presides over.

Harry Lewetzow, also known as "Rat Man" sits in the lobby of the Edge of Hell. Lewetzow, now in his 25th year of being "Rat Man", is a street performer outside of the haunted house who "eats" hits rats kept in his coat.
Harry Lewetzow, also known as “Rat Man” sits in the lobby of the Edge of Hell. Lewetzow, now in his 25th year of being “Rat Man”, is a street performer outside of the haunted house who “eats” hits rats kept in his coat.

A century ago, Kansas City was a cattle town and business was booming in the West Bottoms. The largely industrial area, was, in its heyday, home to the Kansas City Stockyard Exchange, but over time, the herds thinned and the West Bottoms turned into a shadow of its former self, save for a few repair shops, such as cabinet makers, storage businesses, and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning technicians that occupied a handful of warehouses.

Colleen May airbrushes a skeleton face onto performer Aaron Meyer at the Edge of Hell haunted house.
Colleen May airbrushes a skeleton face onto performer Aaron Meyer at the Edge of Hell haunted house.

For years the West Bottoms suffered from the kind of industrial decay common to former factory towns. Block upon block of brick buildings stood silent and empty, haunted by the ghosts of a bygone era.

Today, the boarded-up warehouses of yesteryear have morphed into an eclectic collection of hip antique stores and artisanal shops. Although still somewhat deserted on the weekdays, food trucks line the streets on weekends to serve piping hot coffee and barbeque delights to twenty- and thirty-somethings on the lookout for a funky retro end table to complement their IKEA living room

October nights are a particularly special time in the West Bottoms, when the skeletal remains of industry take on a more festive atmosphere. Fiery-colored gargoyles overlook the rows of bricked-up windows as maniacal laughter booms over hidden loudspeakers. Fanged clowns stalk the area’s cracked streets, startling groups of visitors as they huddle together to brave the chilly fall air.

Make-up and stencils used by make-up artist Collen May sit on a counter top at the Edge of Hell haunted house while she gets Arnette-Bequaith and other performers ready for a filming session
Make-up and stencils used by make-up artist Collen May sit on a counter top at the Edge of Hell haunted house while she gets Arnette-Bequaith and other performers ready for a filming session

“The bats still fly around down here,” Arnett-Bequeaith says. “The architectural structure and the history here really lent themselves to what we were trying to create.”

Since 1988 Full Moon has been buying up one building at a time in the West Bottoms, and the area has changed in dramatic ways, with other developers and businesses moving in. Luxury condos, like Stockyards Place, have been going up at a noticeable clip the past few years. Stockyards Brewing Company and Blip Roasters, a high-end coffee shop and roastery, are just two of several new businesses founded in West Bottoms this past year.

“Right now, the West Bottoms is considered the new hot spot,” Arnett-Bequeaith says. “But when we relocated here in 1988, we were told that even The Edge of Hell couldn’t make it in the West Bottoms.” She says back then most people throughout Kansas City thought that nobody actually lived in the West Bottoms, and that the neighborhood was too scary for anyone to willingly travel to. “What we really found out was that the buildings weren’t abandoned. There was activity going on here, but the maintenance had been deferred for so many years. Basic city services — sidewalks, light bulbs — all these elements weren’t in place.”

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Full Moon saw an opportunity and jumped on the chance at purchasing some reasonably priced real estate. Today, they own thirteen buildings in West Bottoms — over a million square feet of structures in a four-block area. Some of those buildings are devoted to retail space, but Full Moon’s four haunted houses are the clearly the collective centerpiece.

The Edge of Hell, which Arnett-Bequeaith says is the “angel of the West Bottoms,” is next to the historic Twelfth Street Bridge. Just a few doors down, travelers can walk through horror scene after horror scene at the Macabre Cinema. Between Eleventh and Twelfth, they’ll find the Chambers of Poe on Santa Fe Street. After that, walk up a block to The Beast over on Thirteenth.

The Historic Twelfth Street Bridge District of the West Bottoms as seen from the west side of downtown Kansas City.
The Historic Twelfth Street Bridge District of the West Bottoms as seen from the west side of downtown Kansas City.

Throughout Full Moon’s efforts to revitalize West Bottoms, she has fought against a perception that this once vibrant part of Kansas City is an abandoned ghost town.

“The revitalization of the West Bottoms has been a long time coming and has been nothing short of just love and passion for this area and giving everything that we have back,” Arnett-Bequeaith says.

Jordan Bunce, dressed as "Scary Harry," walks through the lobby of the Edge of Hell. Bunce has been dressing as “Trash Man” for the past three seasons.
Jordan Bunce, dressed as “Scary Harry,” walks through the lobby of the Edge of Hell. Bunce has been dressing as “Trash Man” for the past three seasons.

Arnett-Bequeaith, who has a master’s degree in urban redevelopment from Drake University and sits on the mayor’s planning boards for Kansas City, has worked to get the West Bottoms’ infrastructure back. In her mind that means providing a police presence, street sweepers, garbage pickup, light poles, and other services and amenities. “[T]hat’s not something that could really happen overnight,” Arnett-Bequeaith explains, adding it took ten years of protest to get a small stretch of sidewalk in front of The Beast fixed by the city.

Another challenge Arnett-Bequeaith faces is creating year-round cash flow. “This isn’t something I just get to whip up and tear down and I get to rent it out to someone else the rest of the year,” she says of the haunted houses.

Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions, shows off her 1940's inspired look before filming a promotion for "Ghost Train.”
Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions, shows off her 1940’s inspired look before filming a promotion for “Ghost Train.”

As a response to rising costs — ironically due in part to the success of their very own developments — Full Moon handles the planning and execution for “First Friday Warehouse Weekends.” Each month a vast assortment of the roughly 25 antique, restoration and décor shops in the West Bottoms open their warehouses to the public. Food trucks line the streets. Roads are blocked off so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, checking out the deals each store offers. The event draws between 15,000 and 20,000 people on these weekends. Business has been so good for some shopkeepers that a handful of the warehouses now open every weekend, with others even open throughout the week year-round.

“What we did was brought in retail first,” Arnett-Bequeaith says. “Normally, you have the city infuse money through Section 8 or HUD housing [but] we created the tax base that helped shine the light from the city standpoint…now all of the sudden you have tax dollars coming in.”

In the basement of The Beast haunted house is a recently cleaned-up large space that will eventually be converted into event space or even a pub.
In the basement of The Beast haunted house is a recently cleaned-up large space that will eventually be converted into event space or even a pub.

Jenna Baechle, 42, co-owner of The Painted Sofa on Mulberry Street, moved into the West Bottoms two years ago. Baechle started out selling her new and vintage home décor items inside another West Bottoms shop during First Friday weekends, but as business grew, she decided it was time to get her own retail space. She says she owes her success to “the atmosphere on First Fridays,” reminiscent of a festival.

Haunted houses draw a different clientele than those who patronize Baechle’s shop. “It’s more of a pain for us because we deal with their trash the next day.” Baechle says, but, slight littering aside, she feels the West Bottoms’ redevelopment has had a positive effect on her business. “We’re getting ready to open our second floor this month,” she says. “So it’s obviously growing for us.”

Hand-drawn construction plans hang on a wall on the ground-level of The Beast haunted house. The space will be converted into a concession area for guests leaving the haunted house, but the kitchen will be open year-round.
Hand-drawn construction plans hang on a wall on the ground-level of The Beast haunted house. The space will be converted into a concession area for guests leaving the haunted house, but the kitchen will be open year-round.

Other burgeoning businesses in West Bottoms have invested money in keeping the area clean and safe, helping establish the neighborhood as “the diamond in the rough people are now starting to spot,” Arnett-Bequeaith says.

As people move into the luxury condos going up and frequent the restaurants, bars and coffee shops opening regularly, some question whether there will still be a place for Full Moon’s seasonal haunted houses. Bill Haw Sr., a local developer and owner of Livestock Exchange and Haw Ranches, thinks the continued renewal of this historic neighborhood will ultimately “be driven by something else.”

He is rebranding his own efforts at developing and revitalizing the West Bottoms by calling the part of the neighborhood south of I-670 “the Stockyards District.” In addition to purchasing 48 acres, Haw also owns the hundred-year-old Telegram building on Genessee Street.

“[Full Moon] has done a wonderful job, but our idea is more toward gentrification,” Haw says. “We are trying to differentiate ourselves from what is going on North of [I-] 670.”

Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions, and two of her performers, Jordan Bunce and Aaron Meyer pose near a train before shooting a promotional film.
Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, Vice President of Full Moon Productions, and two of her performers, Jordan Bunce and Aaron Meyer pose near a train before shooting a promotional film.

To do that, Haw envisions a West Bottoms that is occupied with more permanent attractions, like Amigoni Urban Winery and Haw/Contemporary art gallery, all occupying space in the old stockyards.

But Arnett-Bequeaith says seasonal haunted houses are still the heart of West Bottoms, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Does anyone ask the Chiefs to move because they can only play football so many days a year?” she says. “When you look at entertainment as a whole, true high entertainment cannot be done year-round and it cannot be done every single night.”

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