30 years of terror10/29/2014
Sometimes, watching Merlyn Linn move, it’s not hard to see each and every one of his 74 years.
“I’ve had 11 surgeries, you see,” he said, sitting in the tiny break room of his Highland Park supermarket. “I had cancer and had part of my jaw removed. But really the only things that bother me are my hips and my knees.”
Linn has come about those aches and pains as honestly as any man ever has. For as long as anyone in Highland Park can recall, Linn’s Super Market at 3805 Sixth Ave. has served as Highland Park’s grocery store. The neighborhood has changed over the years, and bigger stores have come, gone and come again, but Linn’s has been there through it all.
“People tell me, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if you ever closed,’ ” Linn said, without a trace of pride or ego. “They mean a lot to me, too.”
“Merlyn is one of the kindest, hardest working men I have ever met,” said Highland Park resident Troy Church. “He literally works every single day. I am extremely thankful for him and his little store.”
Today, Linn estimates that he and his wife still put in 120 hours a week at the market. He’s running errands and paying bills all day, then is in the store every night at 8 p.m and usually sticks around until 3 a.m. And that’s pretty much been the way of it for 60 years.
“I started here in 1955,” Linn recalled. “When I was 15.”
The store at that time was called Lutz Valu Mart and was owned by the titular Frank Lutz. Linn started out on call, just coming in whenever Lutz needed an extra hand. But after a tour in the armed forces, and alongside a year at Grandview College, Linn devoted more and more time to the little market. He quit once, leaving for a few days in 1963, because he thought he might want to go work for the new Robin Hood supermarket on Hickman Road. But he returned to Lutz after looking the new store over and deciding that it wouldn’t last six months. It didn’t.
Eventually, Lutz made it clear that he was grooming Linn for bigger things and asked him if he’d like to buy the store someday.
“Well, I just laughed,” Linn recalled. “I was working 72 hours a week and taking home $72.”
The market at the time was still run like a small-town store: closed on Sundays and by 9 p.m the rest of the week, and no beer sales. It was a modest business in a modest neighborhood, but it still seemed out of reach of Linn’s meager wages. But, a few years later, Linn had put together enough money to buy the place after all.
“I met (Lutz) up here on a Sunday, and he gave me $15,000,” Linn said. “He said, ‘You’re going to need this to run the tills.’ I always laugh about that. Nowadays, if I sold the store and brought $15,000 to a 26-year-old guy, I might never see him again.”
It was 1966, and Merlyn Linn was a business owner. The super market was already a staple of the Highland Park neighborhood, but it would be another 18 years before the decision that would ultimately cement his legacy.
“I think I’ll build a haunted house.”
Like most great ideas, Linn’s haunted house didn’t leap out fully formed; Linn didn’t just wake up one day and start building, like a kind of creepy Ray Kinsella.
“I first built one at home in my garage,” he explained. “I have four kids, and they wanted to build a haunted house for some reason. So I said OK. We had a guillotine and chainsaws and all that. It was free, and my kids worked in the various scenes. Well everybody in the neighborhood loved it. And Channel 8 came out and filmed the whole thing and put it on the 10 o’clock news.”
It was from that small, local sensation that the idea for something larger eventually sprang.
“One day I was out in the garage,” he recalled. “I could still see the tape markers and everything (from the haunted house). So I went into the house and said to the family, ‘You know, I think I’m going to build a haunted house in the grocery store.’ They all just laughed.”
By this time, Linn’s kids were all in high school, or getting close. The idea was far from a certain success, and the idea of having a father who lost his shirt on a crazy idea for a super market haunted house was enough to cause preemptive bouts of embarrassment. Nonetheless, Linn persevered. First he mapped out his layout. Then he started bringing in the wood.
“I’ve always said that you could build two homes with all the wood I’ve got down there,” he said with a laugh.
He brought in a contracting company to help with the final construction, and he and his team were putting the finishing touches on the haunted house right down to the wire.
“That first year,” he recalled, “we opened an hour late, because were were still hammering away, getting everything finished.”
“It was initially built for kids,” he continued. “Not little kids, necessarily, but 16 and under. But (the haunted house) caught on with the adults, because it’s got more suspense.”
Linn’s Haunted House has scares aplenty, but he’s always avoided the blood-and-gore visuals that many haunted houses employ. Instead, Linn has made his haunted house into a more visceral experience that preys upon a customer’s own imagination. Well, that, and plenty of jump-scares.
Though the haunted house itself remains as a permanent structure in the market’s basement year-round, Linn doesn’t open it for business until the first weekend of October. Before that date, however, there’s always plenty of work to do.
“I have to have an extra insurance policy for 16 days,” Linn said, explaining how he gets the basement ready for business each summer. “Then the fire department comes out, and they’re real strict. Then I’ve got the plumber and the building inspector and the electrician that all come and check the building out. Not just the basement, but the whole lot.”
“They were going to close me 28 years ago,” he continued. “We didn’t have smoke detectors. I had this non-flammable carpet on the ceiling, and my sprinklers coming down through that, but the fire marshal said, ‘No, you need to have sprinklers above it, too.’ So we put in sprinklers above and below (the false ceiling). Now I joke that if there was a fire down there, you’d probably drown.”
Making the building’s basement compliant with the stringent fire code for such an attraction extended beyond just updating the basic safety equipment.
“They said we had to have another exit. So I had to dig a trench 9 feet deep and 4 feet wide, to the outside lot. My youngest daughter had her boyfriend come over and he brought three or four guys, and they dug an exit out with pickaxes.”
Once all the big stuff is out of the way, the yearly upkeep is pretty minimal, Linn said. In fact, the overall layout of the haunted house is virtually unchanged since it opened, largely because it would be too hard to move things now, Linn admits.
“If I was building another one, I’d make all the chambers the same size,” he said. “That way, if I wanted to move things, it would be more modular. But these rooms are all different sizes, so it would be hard to move anything without taking it all apart.”
Anatomy of terror
Listening to Linn talk about his creation out of context can be a little unsettling.
“We’ve got a gorilla and the ‘separation room,’ ” he said, ticking off on his fingers. “And chainsaws — which you’ve almost got to have — and three clowns.”
But as Linn starts walking through the basement and showing off all the tricks for scaring the bejeezus out of people, the years of long store hours seem to melt right off his achy joints. He knows the basement maze like the back of his hand, and it’s hard to keep up with him as he jaunts around corners and through hidden doors.
Linn’s Haunted House is a claustrophobic affair. Customers start by crawling through a tunnel roughly 2.5 feet square and 90 or so feet long, into the first chamber. There is absolutely no light, which serves to intensify the suffocating feeling.
This is Linn’s stock and trade. Throughout the 20 or so minutes it takes to find your way through the maze, there’s surprisingly little in the way of visual scares, and nothing you’d conventionally classify as blood and gore. Instead, Linn completely deprives you of one of your senses, which makes it easier to prey upon the heightened ones that remain. No matter where you go in the basement, there’s always something waiting to scream at you or brush through your hair. Walls close in from everywhere, and swinging panels shut off hallways that were open just a moment ago.
One of Linn’s favorite parts of the haunted house is the aforementioned “separation room.” Linn himself will take position in one corner of the maze — he’s there every night — and will latch on to lost customers, pretending to be just as baffled.
He’ll ask the blind and confused victims, “Which way is out?” before leading them into a 3-foot by 8-foot chamber. Once there, he’ll swing closed a panel behind them, completely sealing a group within a room with no exit. After a few minutes of panicked fumbling, another worker will open a panel on the opposite side of the room, sending people back to repeat a portion of the maze and start over again.
There are times when Linn allows customers use of their eyes, but it never works out really well for them. Lights exist primarily to highlight one of the house’s many jump scares, with skeletons and ghouls springing out of walls at people, along with plenty of noise to make the effect nearly crippling. Eventually, customers make it to the final room in the maze, which is, sadly, full of clowns.
“They do a great job,” Linn says of his clown workers. “They have chainsaws, but they almost don’t need them. I guess some people think clowns are scary enough already.”
When outfitted to the brim, the haunted house has 32 people working its various stations. Nowadays, Linn usually gets by with around 25. His kids still help out each year, as does his wife. But the lion’s share of the passion clearly lies with the family patriarch.
“I like it,” Linn says, explaining why he doesn’t take a night off. “I still like working at the market every day. I like everything I do. Isn’t that the point of life?”
Reality is scarier
For a hand-built attraction in the basement of a small grocery store in the middle of an outlying neighborhood, Linn’s Haunted House does all right for itself. Linn estimates that 250 people go through the attraction each night that it is open, and over its 30 years of operation, the haunted house has become an annual tradition for hundreds of Des Moines residents. This year, Linn’s Supermarket won “Best Haunted House” in Cityview’s “Best Of” awards, beating out larger, gorier competition.
But 2014 might be the store’s last hurrah.
“Times have changed,” Linn acknowledges sadly. “We live in an area where, well, you’re not in West Des Moines.”
“We have a lot of poor people,” he continues, still trying to be diplomatic. “I guess they have poor people in West Des Moines, too, but it’s a different caliber of poor-ness.”
As the neighborhood has trended downward over the years, and larger box stores have cropped up closer and closer to Linn’s corner, business has suffered. The recession didn’t help, and now things are only getting worse.
“(The government) cut back on food stamps,” he said. “That really hurt me.”
Linn loves his work. But he sees a time quickly approaching when he just can’t do it anymore. The cost of advertising is prohibitive to him these days, and Sixth Avenue doesn’t get a ton of drive-through traffic. Even those who do pass through aren’t likely to pay the little corner market any mind. Still, Linn continues on — maybe out of habit, maybe out of love.
“I don’t think about retirement,” he said. “My wife says we need to get rid of the store. She says, ‘You lose money every day you’re open.’ And I do lose a lot of money. I should have gotten out in 2006,” he pauses for a half a heartbeat before shrugging a little. “But I like it.”
Linn does what he can to remain competitive with the box stores. He points out that his prices are similar to what you’ll see at Hy-Vee — he’s more expensive on some things but cheaper on others — and he feels like the store can still be of productive service to the community.
“People come in and look around and see that we’ve got everything the newer stores have. It’s just smaller.”
Linn walks through the neat aisles of his little market with pride. He’s proud of the business he has run for half a century. He is proud of the quirky little landmark he has built in the basement. But he knows that pride can only take him so much further. Like he said before, people tell him all the time that they don’t know what they’d do without his market in the neighborhood.
“I always tell them the same thing,” he says with another laugh. “I need them to keep coming back, and maybe bring three or four friends with them.” CV