Mary Barrett Costello has restaurants in her blood: Her late father, Frank, opened Barrett’s on the waterfront in Charlestown 40 years ago, and had several other eateries. Costello, along with partners, owns Abington Ale House and other restaurants south of Boston, plus Plymouth Bay Catering. But her real love is horror, and for 22 years, she has operated Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, behind the Ale House, during the Halloween season. Costello, a 60-year-old grandmother, spoke to the Globe about her interest in zombies and things that go bump in the night.
Q. Is it true that people call you “Scary Mary?”
A. I’ve had that name on my business card forever.
Q. What is it about you and Halloween and horror?
A. I’ve always loved it. From a very young age, I read every Stephen King book, saw every
Stephen King movie.
Q. How did the Haunted Mansion begin?
A. My father owned a miniature golf course, and there was an empty house on the property. I told him he should make it into a haunted house. He said that was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard. But people love to be scared. It started as a lark. We didn’t know anything about anything. And it progressed to where we are today.
Q. Which is where?
A. Everyone in the haunted house industry comes to see this one. This is really a house where we change it every single year.
Q. There’s a haunted house industry?
A. Oh yes! There’s a huge Haunted House Convention we go to every year, in St. Louis. It’s everything that’s new in the industry. This year, I saw these “Alice in Wonderland” characters and I was off and running. I love the designing part of it.
Q. Tell me about your haunted house this year.
A. We have 13 different sets in the house, which is 4,000 square feet. As you walk in, [there are] eight doors, and you have no idea how to get out. The next set is when the fairy tale goes wrong. You see the blood queen holding a bloody heart. At the tea party, we have a heart pumping on the table. It’s awesome. This year, I tore down the minigolf course and put up a second attraction we call The Cell. People are loving it.
‘People either come out laughing or crying. There’s no in-between.On Saturdays,we have a “lights on” tour forpeople who are too afraid.’
Q. I’m almost afraid to ask. What is The Cell?
A. I found a maze made out of prison bars. We built a facade around it so it looks like a prison, and it’s filled with zombies. We have strobe lights. Honestly, I can get lost every single time I go in there.
Q. Do people really get scared?
A. We’ve had two people faint this year. People either come out laughing or crying. There’s no in-between. On Saturdays, we have a “lights on” tour for people who are too afraid.
Q. Who helps you with all of this?
A. I have a set builder who’s been with me for the last 22 years and other professionals from all walks of life that I hire. We start in February discussing where we want to go for the season. I have 35 people on the payroll who do makeup and acting. We rent two trailers each season, one for costumes, one for makeup. Everyone who’s involved in this loves it.
Q. So you hire professional actors to play ghosts, vampires, and the like?
A. Everyone in The Cell is an actor, because it’s kind of hard to play a zombie if you’re not an actor. But we have a lot of volunteers. Every single night is manned with a different volunteer group trying to raise money for their nonprofit that we donate to. Over the past 22 years, we have raised over $600,000 for different causes, such as cancer, animal shelters, and many others.
Q. How do you pick the volunteer groups?
A. We do it on a lottery basis now, because so many people want to do it. And once they do it, they want to do it again. I already have letters for next year.
Q. Who’s your audience?
A. The first two weekends, it’s a lot of young kids. Then as the season goes on, it’s adults in their mid-20s to their 50s. They come from all over New England: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
Q. You close on Oct 30. Why not open on Halloween night?
A. Parents are with their kids, or people are at parties. So we lock the doors and leave everything just the way it is until the following year when we start remodeling it.
Q. What will you do Halloween night?
A. This year, I’m going to visit some other haunts. I want to see what others are doing. There are so many haunts up in New Hampshire.
Q. Do you believe in ghosts?
A. No, I really don’t. I’ve had many conversations on the topic and a lot of people try to convince me, but so far, no luck.Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.