I have always been a fan of not only monsters but of Halloween. It was only natural for me that in 1985 I combined both loves into a small yard haunt. Each year the display got larger and it eventually got to a point where I had more than 30 people volunteering their time to make sure my haunted yard (known as FRIGHT NIGHT since it was only open on Halloween night) went off without a hitch. It was at this time, in 1989, that I met James Lurgio, another resident of Jamestown, Rhode Island. Unbeknownst to me he was also a fan of monsters and Halloween and after one of my shows he called me and I invited him over to see my collection of masks, props and costumes. We have been friends ever since.
As our friendship grew so did our respective collections. James even started helping me with my annual haunt and oftentimes, when I no longer needed a mask or prop, I would give it to James for his collection. Before I knew it he was doing his own yard haunt and then that developed into a haunted house at the local recreation center. Back in those days, Jamestown (an island that is 9 miles long by 1 mile wide) was very lucky…it had two amazing Halloween traditions to visit each October. I eventually retired from home haunting (though in recent years I have started putting together a small yard display for unsuspecting trick-or-treaters) but James kept going with his love. He eventually moved his haunt to Belcourt Castle, an actual haunted mansion in Newport, Rhode Island (this was featured on the SyFy Channel’s GHOST HUNTERS show) and then he worked with Spooky World in Massachusetts before taking the show on the road to Salem.
Salem, MA, well known for its Halloween tourist season thanks to the infamous witch trials of 1692, is now home to COUNT ORLOK’S NIGHTMARE GALLERY. If you are a fan of horror cinema then this is the place for you! NIGHTMARE GALLERY opened in 2007 and it is Salem’s only monster museum, showcasing over 50 life-sized recreations of the horror genre’s most memorable characters. For most of the year COUNT ORLOK’S NIGHTMARE GALLERY, located at 285 Derby Street, is a walk-thru monster museum but in October, the museum comes to life with startling surprises around every turn and this year, actors William Forsythe and Tony Moran (the original Michael Myers) will be onhand signing autographs (see website for dates and times)! This labor of love really needs to be seen to be believed!
Being a Rhode Island native, I was always discouraged by the 2+ hour drive to Salem to visit the museum but I did do it just recently and I was not disappointed! When I entered the waiting area I was immediately impressed with not only the figures on display but with the elaborate “stonework” that James created. James then took me on a tour through the museum. I do not want to give too much away but the whole set up was amazing, and it brought back so many memories of some of my favorite monster movies, past and present. I give James credit…this is definitely a labor of love. James, like me, lives in Rhode Island and has to make not only the long drive to the museum every day but then he does it again at the end of the day on his ride home, often experiencing Boston rush hour traffic. His efforts show through though with a totally professional and fun monster exhibit.
In between driving back and forth, creating new exhibits in his museum and talking with visitors, James took the time to answer some questions for us.
DAVID: Were you always interested in monsters growing up?
JAMES: Yes, I always loved monsters and mysterious creatures. As a kid I would get hand me down books having to do with monsters and every Halloween I would go to the stores that had monster masks and beg my mom for a cool monster mask.
DAVID: What were some of your favorite monsters?
JAMES: I always loved Dracula and Frankenstein and the Hunchback. I had a great cape when I was a kid and I would dress in it whenever possible. I had a green shirt too that I would stuff a rolled up bath towel in the back to simulate a hump and run around the house with half of my face drooped and dragging one leg. That’s normal, right?
DAVID: Over the years you have amassed quite the collection of masks and busts. How did you get started in this hobby?
JAMES: Ahh, well interesting YOU should ask me this question as I used to collect drug store masks and every now and then there was a cool place in the mall that might have better stuff. My world would always stop there though. There was never anything better than that. That is, until one day. Some time in the late 80’s my friends and I diverted from the normal trick or treating route and introduced me to a neighborhood haunted house. There was a HUGE crowd and I got in line. This tour had a HUGE impact on me. I had never seen this kind of quality before. The monsters looked REAL and the displays were creative and over the top! This was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I decided to call this person sometime after Halloween. I did and his name was David. All I had to do was ask for a tour and next thing you know I was in his house. My older brother came with me to make sure he wasn’t a weirdo and he was! But in a good way! He loved MONSTERS! His room was FILLED with them and then he took us to a room upstairs and that room was filled too! I knew from the moment I saw this collection, I wanted to make this my reality. David was everything you wanted in a Monster Mentor, He gave me some catalogs that day and I started my collecting by saving up my allowance and buying specific monster head treasures when I could. He would take me to a really cool monster shop called the Flaming Cauldron Troll Shop which turned out to be the best place to make the pilgrimage to and hang out throughout my teen years. The collecting continued and I started to do my own local haunted house. Naturally I needed new stuff from year to year so I collected what I could.
DAVID: What was your family’s and friends’ reactions to this hobby?
JAMES: Reactions? My parents have always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do. I am lucky there. My mother once drew the line at a prop severed head. She said it was too gory. A few years later I had 8 severed head props. Then they drew the line at a real coffin. They said “No More Coffins”. I eventually collected 13. They supported me by helping me in any way with the haunted houses. When I think of all the little chores my parents have done for me over the years….Wow.
DAVID: Did you always know that your love of monsters would one day lead you to having your very own monster museum?
JAMES: Did I know about the museum the whole time? Kinda. I had this in me somewhere. I knew I wanted to do SOMETHING but I didn’t know what. I suppose a big influence on me was seeing Forrest Ackerman’s legendary collection on TV one night in 1990 during a special called the Horror Hall of Fame. I had a new goal and it was to have a place where people can see this stuff all the time. Maybe even year round. It would be many years and many tries until that would happen though.
DAVID: Before opening the museum you did annual displays each Halloween showcasing your collection, including one at an actual haunted mansion in Newport called Belcourt Castle. What can you tell us about these experiences?
JAMES: Nightmare Gallery at Belcourt Castle was some of the best haunt years ever. I still can’t believe the Tinny’s let me do this in their home. The owners and I had an agreement which lasted 1999-2001. The owner, Donald Tinny loved this. He had a wonderfully morbid mind and we would walk through the displays together as they were being created. He would tell me of times when he would decorate for Halloween with his own hand made coffins and set up ghoulish scenes. We got to be good friends and the haunted houses became a welcome part of October for the owners and staff. I left Belcourt after 3 seasons because of the new manager. So did the rest of the staff. He was crazy. It was sad but better opportunities were to come eventually after a long 3 season dry spell.
DAVID: What made you decide to break away from a haunted house-type display to go to an actual museum?
JAMES: Well, NOW I have the best of both worlds. I did eventually break from the haunted house to do a museum for “Hallowscream Park” which eventually became the 3rd incarnation of Spooky World. I did this for 3 seasons. I carted the collection to Boston. I got used to the idea of doing a museum. I didn’t have to worry about giving anyone breaks or anything. It was just me and a couple of employees watching people making sure they behave in the museum.
DAVID: Why did you choose Salem?
JAMES: Why Salem? A friend of mine owned Spooky World at the time had a place in Salem and encouraged me to visit. Maybe get inspired to get a place of my own. Well that was during the summer of 2007 and I was INSPIRED! My friend talked me through the actual process and that’s all I needed to get me going. I spoke with my parents about it and they were on board in very little time. We figured we’d try it there. Worst case scenario, we’d close if we couldn’t make it work.
DAVID: Salem has had a long tourist history thanks to the witch trials of 1692. How has the tourist reaction been to a monster museum?
JAMES: Reaction has been VERY GOOD!. You can only tell the story of 1692 so many times before it gets old and un-compelling. My museum proves a welcome distraction from the many witch themed attractions in Salem. We’re so different and welcome we’ve become ranked the #1 attraction on tripadvisor!
DAVID: What are some of your favorite monster movies, past and present?
JAMES: My favorite monster movies are varied. I love the classics. Pretty much anything with Vincent Price. I like modern movies too. Love the Underworld movies. I kinda feature all my favorite monsters in the museum.
DAVID: Do you have anything exciting planned for the month of October, the height of the Salem tourist season?
JAMES: Yes, Salem is wonderful in October. We transform into a haunted house on the busiest weekends after 3pm in October and we also have some amazing celebrity appearances we’re planning on too. Check our website for updates! www.nightmaregallery.com
DAVID: How often do you add new displays to the museum?
JAMES: Yes, we add an average of about 6 new monsters per year-new AND old ones. It’s dependent on our budget for that year and what’s available by certain artists.
DAVID: Is there a character that you really want to have in the museum that you haven’t been able to get?
JAMES: UGH! Yes, I hate thinking about the characters we DON’T have though. But yes, there are so many characters I’ve wanted to add. but haven’t for some reason or another. We have a list of targeted characters every year. If they come up, great. If not we find another avenue to get them. Recently we hired a house artist who is sculpting and finishing some great characters for us! COME SEE!
DAVID: Is there anything else you would like to share?
JAMES: Yes, I’m there almost every day. Most people don’t know that they meet the owner when they come in because they’re used to meeting misc. employees at the other attractions. We get a variety of visitors from the folks who have NO idea what the place is to the die hard horror fans who’ve heard about this place through their friends. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people enjoying my collection the way I do. We also are the only attraction that isn’t content with the place the way it is. There are so many attractions in Salem that were built years ago and haven’t been touched since. This is more a passion than anything else and people sense that when they come in. Even as we speak, I’m in the lobby readying some architectural details for the interior. We do this all year. A monster museum owner’s work is NEVER DONE!