To most Castle Island fans, the seaside park is a tranquil oasis to while away the hours, snacking on Sullivan’s hot dogs or watching the powerboats speed across the water.
But to one imaginative entrepreneur, the old fort’s granite walls are the perfect place to scare the daylights out of thousands of visitors by turning this normally quiet outpost into a “Spooky World”-style freak show, with full-fledged zombie attacks, this fall.
The prospects of handing over a beloved landmark to a for-profit venture known as Fright Island has sent chills through many long-time residents of South Boston.
Amid the standard trepidation about traffic and public safety, there’s a deeper fear: Fright Island’s critics worry the family-friendly South Boston they cherish is under siege as younger professionals flock to the neighborhood, and handing Castle Island over to blood-covered zombies and beer-buzzed millennials would just accelerate that trend. This is, after all, a neighborhood that just rebuffed a Starbucks in part to protect locally owned shops.
The issue will put to the test the Baker administration’s desire to discover creative revenue-producing activities for state-owned properties. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation owns and manages the historic fort, and commissioner Leo Roy said he hopes to make a decision within the next 10 days about whether Fright Island should be given a five-year contract to operate.
The concept was roundly derided at a Castle Island Association meeting Roy attended on Saturday. But he also knows there are plenty of younger people who would attend, just as they throng the nearby Lawn on D on summer weekends. And he’s eager to find new ways to draw millennials to the state’s parks.
Roy said he understands a need for balance. He made a similar decision recently by approving, over neighbors’ objections, a Red Bull Flugtag event that will bring homemade flying machines to the Charles River Esplanade. Generating revenue for DCR is important, he said, but exposing parks like Castle Island to new audiences is an even bigger priority.
“The neighborhood is changing and new people are moving in, and I think longtime residents are adjusting to that change,” Roy said of South Boston. “That’s natural. But I think the important thing to remember is that the DCR facilities there, Castle Island and the beautiful beaches, belong to all the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
That opinion is shared by Fright Island creator Matthew DiRoberto. It’s part of his argument for why he should be allowed to hold the event at the 1830s-era fort, which he says will feature sets designed by pros who typically build for major motion pictures.
DiRoberto said he expects to attract about 800 people a night, or about 15,000 people over the course of 18 days, starting in late September. Tickets would likely sell in the $30 to $40 range, he said, and he also plans to generate revenue by selling wine and beer.
“I understand where the sentiment comes from,” DiRoberto said of the neighbors’ caution, “but I think there’s an opportunity to look beyond that to raise money for the [Castle Island] association and for DCR to make it more accessible. ... I truly believe we’re going to be reimagining the space for younger people, getting younger people to go in there.”
Initially, DiRoberto was in talks with DCR to stage Fright Island — in partnership with Jason Egan of Fright Dome in Las Vegas — in the old fort on Georges Island. But the logistics of pulling off such a project in an offshore location proved to be too difficult. So by 2015, he shifted his focus to Castle Island.
The talks continued at DCR through 2015, initially as a project for radio station operator Greater Media Inc., where DiRoberto worked as a general sales manager at the time. Then DiRoberto branched out on his own, launching a Boston-based marketing agency and continuing to collaborate with Fright Dome.
A DCR spokesman said the proposal submitted by DiRoberto last year called for contributing $1 per ticket to the agency but the agency is negotiating for a much higher fee.
DiRoberto points to other historic forts in the country that are already used for revenue-generating events
DCR officials recommended that DiRoberto reach out to neighborhood groups, to get their support. That effort, taking place in recent weeks, hasn’t gone as smoothly as DiRoberto hoped. Both the Castle Island Association — the nonprofit group that acts as the fort’s caretaker and hosts its own free Halloween event for families in late October — and the City Point Neighborhood Association rebuffed the Fright Island concept.
Critics say they worry that opening the doors to this private venture would make it tougher to close them for others. “How can you then say ‘no’ to another group that has something even more outrageous?” said Robert Allison, president of South Boston Historical Society.
DiRoberto said he is trying to assuage concerns: He’ll have off-site parking served by a shuttle bus, and he’s negotiating with a ride-sharing service to offer a free ride to and from the park to ticket buyers. Partiers will be limited to a two-drink maximum. And DiRoberto wants to share some of his revenue with the Castle Island group and the Harry McDonough Sailing Center.
In all, DiRoberto doesn’t expect to make money right away. That’s why he wants a multi-year commitment from DCR, to ensure he can recoup his upfront costs over time.
And he said he’s filling a niche, offering a professional-level “haunt” — a word the industry uses to describe a haunted attraction — that has essentially been unavailable in Greater Boston for years.
Getting into the haunt business, apparently, isn’t for the faint of heart. Spooky World co-owner Michael Accomando bought the business with a partner in 2008 and said he’s still plowing profits back into the seasonal business to build it up. Spooky World was last based in Massachusetts in 2007, when it occupied the Bayside Expo Center, although the owners tried a version of it at Fenway Park in 2011. The Spooky World operation now occupies 70 acres of land in Litchfield, N.H., about an hour’s drive north of Boston.
Based on his experience, Accomando expects that Fright Island’s attendance would easily exceed DiRoberto’s estimates if it’s allowed to go forward. On a busy weekend night, he said, Spooky World can draw more than 4,000 people. But it’s not easy to turn a profit.
“Our market is starting to get flooded because everybody thinks they’re going to become a millionaire in the Halloween industry,” Accomando said. “It takes a ton of money to make one of these shows happen. We’re putting it all back in [to the show] and we’re hoping that later down the road, it really turns into something huge for us.”
As for Castle Island, it’s worth noting that the place has its own spooky history. Lore has it that the fort served as the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” after he was stationed there in the Army.
Still to be determined: whether Poe’s buried antagonist will make an appearance this fall.Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.