Grass Valley haunted house a terrifying labor of love |

Grass Valley haunted house a terrifying labor of love

What began as a window display 15 years ago has transformed into ghoulish, fright fest that attracts thousands of thrill-seekers through the LOVE Building in Condon Park each Halloween and quite an elaborate hobby for its three creators.

Dr. Mortis’ Mortis Manor, Home for the Criminally Insane, will open its haunted doors for the 15th year Saturday. The Manor promises to deliver plenty of blood-curling, nail-biting horror this year, along with the addition of a Zombie Hunt.

The long-running terrifyingly popular attraction was originally the brainchild of Chris Navo. While living in an apartment in Grass Valley, he participated in a Halloween window-decorating contest in the complex. The spirit of Halloween took hold, and each year his display grew. The first Mortis Manor was created at Navo’s rental house on Ridge Road, along with his best friend Aaron Tate and father-in-law Ken Tearson, he said.

The “Terrorsmiths” — as the trio refers to itself — created Mortis Manor wherever Navo lived each year.

It was at a rental house on Tippy Way when the crowds grew to 1,000 and police showed up to coordinate traffic through the Alta Sierra neighborhood. It was then that they decided to create the concept of a true “haunted house” for Nevada County.

“It was something, really, that Nevada County needed,” Navo said.

Navo, Tearson and Tate partnered with the Grass Valley Host Lyons Club to use the LOVE Building at Condon Park and the Nevada Union High School Theatrical Society to provide actors for their performance. In all, 20-30 student actors are used for the production.

All proceeds from the annual fright fest go to benefit those two nonprofit organizations.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the first years of Mortis Manor is the care and time taken to bring the haunted house to life.

Navo said that 90 to 95 percent of what people see is created in a shop at his house. The three men spend easily 300-400 man hours through the summer and fall designing, building and creating the horrifying sets for each room in the manor. All of that time is done outside of their “real” careers.

The men are presented with a unique challenge with the LOVE Building that few, if any, other haunted-house designers must deal with — they only get access to the building 24 hours before Dr. Mortis’ makes his first appearance.

Typically, haunted houses are built in the course of two weeks, Navo said.

All the rooms and elements are built with that in mind and designed for a speedy but safe set-up and take down, he said.

Every single aspect of the audio, video and special effects has to be designed ahead and made to fit within the space.

“It’s all a strategic nightmare,” Navo added.

But each year it comes together, passes fire inspection and is ready to open to the public. While it takes a lot of time, energy and resources to make it happen, Navo calls Mortis Manor “a wonderful hobby.”

“I hate to say that it’s work,” he said of the passion the Terrorsmiths have for Dr. Mortis.

Their labor of love and fun with the work can be seen in the details.

The last names on all the tombstones around Mortis Manor are the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There have been Latin verses in past scripts that translate into phrases relevant to the haunted house. This year Navo recommends people pay attention to the paintings.

Also new this year is Zombie Hunt. Navo and his partners modified a laser-tag set to create “zombie zappers.”

On Sunday and Monday nights, house guests will get the chance pay a bounty of $15 to hunt for zombies within the manor. To build the suspense, the music and lighting will be changed, and the zappers will warn guests with “danger, danger, danger” when zombies are near.

“We’ve created an interactive haunted house,” Navo said of the hunt.

Mortis Manor features 18 rooms and runs from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday.

Zombies will once again roam the parking lot and a free live show will take place out front of Mortis Manor every 30 minutes on regular haunted house nights of Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tickets for the haunted house are $6 in advance or $8 at the door. The Zombie Hunt is $15. There are also “fast pass” tickets available for $12, which allow people to move ahead of the line. Die-hard fans who want to return to the manor more than once can pay a $4 re-admission rate.

Tickets are available at both SPD locations, Raley’s, Brighton Street Market or any member of the Nevada Union High School Theatrical Society.

Visit for information.

Features/Entertainment Editor Brett Bentley can be contacted at or by calling (530) 477-4219.

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