Mark Cline is a master artist in the 2019-2020 class of apprenticeship teams in the art of roadside attractions and fiberglass sculpture. In this feature Richmond-writer Don Harrison takes an in-depth look at Mark Cline’s life and work.
By Don Harrison
Mark Cline is keeping alive the vanishing tradition of the roadside attraction—those haunted houses, singing caverns, historical parks and outsized food that have long enticed bored travelers with promises of rest stop thrills. Cline, working largely in molded fiberglass and foam, has put his own unique spin on the kind of regional off-road novelties found in places like the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry, Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, and the World’s Oldest Edible Cured Ham in Smithfield. His Haunted Monster Museum, which burned down in 2012, even managed to combine two roadside Virginia traditions—the Civil War historical attraction and the Dinosaur Park—with a grisly battle reenactment that imagines the scene had Tyrannosaurus Rex had chosen a side in the Civil War.
Born in 1961 in Waynesboro, the third of four boys, Cline loved to draw from the time he could hold a pencil and always looked at things a little differently: “When I was 7 years old, I entered a snowman contest and, instead of a snowman, I built the Statue of Liberty.”
“My father and I were traveling, coming back from Baltimore, and Dinosaur Land [in White Post, Virginia] was closed, but I asked my dad to stop there—I’d been there before—and he said, ‘OK.’ I was probably about 12 years old. We stood there together looking through the fence at these huge dinosaur figures, and I said, ‘I’m going to make these when I grow up, dad.’
Mark Cline not only made good on his vow, he became the guy who designed new beasts for Dinosaur Land. “I’ve never done a dinosaur attraction that was unsuccessful,” the professor says proudly. In addition to the work shown at his Enchanted Castle studio in Natural Bridge, you can also find his work in Putt-Putt golf courses, Six Flags theme parks and the Pavilion in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; regionally, he’s crafted a huge dinosaur head for the Luray Reptile Center and mounted a gigantic King Kong climbing a truck stop in Fairfield. For all your fiberglass creature needs … call Mark Cline.
The “professor” has made his bread and butter with large complex constructions, but his most successful projects have been scaled down, almost minimalist. His full-scale replica of Stonehenge, titlled Foamhenge, effectively situated slabs of foam to simulate the world’s most mysterious ruins. And his “Eleven” cost less than $1,000 to make. The project involved little more than decorating a pair of 40-foot storage bins that he saw in a neighbor’s yard. But no one who traveled to Buena Vista to see Cline’s homespun tribute to the Twin Towers will forget its stirring simplicity.
“Others see big blocks of foam and he sees Foamhenge,” says writer Ken Smith, the author of several books on Roadside America. “Same thing with those bins and the Twin Towers. He sees things that others don’t, and that’s the definition of an artist.”
Movies were a big influence on Cline’s artistic sensibilities, and his sci-fi and horror favorites aired on “Slime Theater,” a local creature feature show on Saturday nights at 11 p.m. on Charlottesville’s WVIR TV. “I did some artwork for them. I used to send them this stuff, and they asked me to come on the show—they used my stuff as the backdrop. Then they found out I was 12 years old and said, ‘Hey man, this guy’s kinda cool … .’”
After (barely) graduating high school, things changed. “I had nothing, no career, I wasn’t military or college material, jobs were very limited where I grew up in Waynesboro. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go.
Cline was fortunate to find not only employment, but also a direction in life. “It was a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, right outside Waynesboro … where they [made] little resin figurines. They did minutemen and turtles and all these things made of pecan-shell flour. So I basically became the guy who went there in the morning and mixed this stuff up.”
One day, the owner of the place, John Sewell, asked him to stay after work. He wanted to show Cline how to make a mold of his hand.
“That’s what really got me going,” Cline says, excited, relishing the memory. “I mean, I was like a kid that just—it was a revelation: ‘Wow, I can make all kinds of stuff out of this.’ [Sewell] told me, ‘Yes you can, Mark. Now, here’s a five-gallon bucket. Go home and play with it. Just don’t tell my wife I gave it to you.’” Red Mill manufacturing is no more, but Cline still keeps in touch with his mentor, Sewell. “I remember the last time I saw him, I told him, ‘I don’t know whether to hug you or hit you for starting all of this.’”
And what did he make out of that five-gallon bucket of resin?
“I started making monsters,” he says.
After years of perfecting his sculpting methods, Cline decided to open a Monster Museum attraction in Virginia Beach. It failed, but he knew he was onto something. He studied a map of Virginia. “I looked at Natural Bridge and said, ‘I’m gonna go there… It was another tourist area … closer to Waynesboro than Virginia Beach.”
At that time, the early ’80s, the area had little beyond its scenic caverns and a certain rock formation. “Natural Bridge itself didn’t want to have anything to do with me at the time—it had different owners—they thought the stuff I did was beneath them.” The ambitious youngster opened The Monster Museum of Natural Bridge when he first arrived, but it closed within three years. “Nobody wanted to invest in me. I got money off of the tourists, but the locals didn’t come.”
His first marriage closed down too, an event that prompted another cross-country trip, more soul searching. “What I learned from that trip was that I had everything I needed right here to be successful.”
He turned his spook house into a studio tour and entertained tourists with thrill-ride creations and celebrity impersonations. They could also watch Cline mold fiberglass. “It was somewhat Willy Wonka-ish,” he admits. For $5, visitors could enjoy the sight of a bungee-jumping pig, visit a “Tornado Room” or get put in a chair and sent to the Moon, Cline style.
Even with the tour, he struggled. “I didn’t start off doing statues, nobody wanted to buy monsters. I had to start painting signs for people, cheap, to get my foot in the door.” Cline attended trade shows with increasingly ambitious concoctions, resulting in outside commissions from corporate clients such as Six Flags and Jellystone.
“A couple years later, the new owners of Natural Bridge came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you have any ideas for bringing more family units in?’ I said, ‘Yeah, how about a haunted monster museum?’ They said, ‘Yeah! That’s great.’ See, it’s different now. I was 21 when I first got here. I had to gain their trust.”
“Now I do charity events, I help raise money for people, I loan folks statues and donate money or services. People have recognized this now. I’ve sort of become their Disney.”
The professor’s community spirit is all the more striking when you consider the still-unsolved fire that destroyed his original Enchanted Castle. In the most striking panel of his autobiographical comic, Cline sets the scene: “At 2 a.m., April 9, 2001, his studio burned to the ground. A letter was found accusing Mark of practicing witchcraft and devil worship. Although arson was suspected, it’s never been proven.” The note read, “God uses fire as his judgment. Behold, the judge is standing at the door.”
He claims that he became a long-standing target for “religious crazies” after getting a call from the Salem Avalanche, the single-A minor league baseball team in Salem, Virginia. “The team was on a long losing streak and asked if I could stage a séance to expel the bad demons of baseball before their game on Friday, June 13th. A Christian radio station and some preachers got hold of it and started protesting. The event went off OK, it was done in fun, but it became a media thing and the religious element didn’t like it. Then, a few years later, the fire … .”
“We were done pretty dirty on that deal,” echoes Sherry Cline. She too blames “religious fanatics” for setting the blaze, people who view Cline’s spook show antics as spiritually sinister. “A couple of churches around here said we were like devil worshippers. I never knew you could be considered a devil worshipper just because you made gargoyles.”
Insurance covered the buildings but not what was inside. “The fire—I looked at it as losing everything we’d worked for,” she says. “He looked at it as a new start.”
Mostly closed until after Memorial Day, Cline offers to open up Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum for … a personal tour. Cue maniacal laughter.
This museum, heavily advertised on passing I-81 and Route 11 billboards, rests near the Natural Bridge Welcome Center and stands as testimony to the close relationship Mark Cline enjoys with the town’s current owners. Housed in the same compound as Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom, the artfully dilapidated Victorian manor was donated by Natural Bridge for Cline to embellish and spookify. “Anyone in the business would die to have a house like that to work with,” says Nightmare Mansion’s James Johnson.
The professor’s own fears involve not monsters but the future of the town. According to Leonard Puglisi, one of the eight partners who own the 215-foot-high limestone bridge and its surrounding tourism apparatus, the place is currently for sale (anyone got a spare $32.5 million?). “I don’t know what new owners would want to do,” Puglisi admits. His guess is that Cline is fine. “Mark’s made a lot of money for Natural Bridge over the years. The relationship hasn’t been totally one-way.”
The world of wacky roadside attractions like the Haunted Monster Museum—a trend that hit a peak in the ’60s—has been on a general decline. “Ninety percent of haunted houses fail in their first year,” Troy Faries says.
“These things have been disappearing over the years, or they’ve consolidated into parks like Busch Gardens,” explains James Johnson. “That doesn’t mean the right idea in the right location won’t still draw people. Everything cycles around.”
Ken Smith, who co-wrote two best-selling Roadside America books, agrees—he doesn’t think this particular American subculture will ever totally die out. “Americans like to go and drive around and look at things on vacation. We love our cars and roads.” Cline’s ventures fit in perfectly with other regional off-road novelties like the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry, Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach and the World’s Oldest Edible Cured Ham in Smithfield, he says. “Mark’s Haunted Museum is different because he actually put his in an old house. With that long walk up the path and through the woods, he creates a nice atmosphere even before you get there.”
The imposing castle sports a giant one-eyed skull as well as a huge reptilian tail protruding from its upstairs window. There’s a downed airplane and all manner of mayhem on the grounds of the creepy dwelling, which has the faces of writhing spirits protruding from one side of the exterior. An annoying telephone constantly rings in the booth across the lane (don’t answer it!) as eerie music plays throughout the compound.
Cline is approached by a couple of Liberty University students, who stopped at the Mansion not knowing it was closed. They too are invited inside … if they dare.
When the door creaks shut behind us, we ramble through a dark maze that includes a psychedelic room, the skeletal remains of the Marx Brothers and a séance table complete with grisly surprise. The professor himself leads the tour, breaking into his repertoire of voices (Elvis, Barney Fife, Ernest) and instructing his guests not to fear the beeping smoke detector. “He doesn’t get to do these tours much anymore—this is a rare thing,” whispers Faries, along for the tour. We giggle and jump at all the appropriate moments.
The host admits that his haunt is purposefully old-school, tapping into that boyhood Slime Theater vibe. “I can’t really get by with gore because I’m down here with the tourists,” he says as he gives out free passes to the visitors and waves goodbye. “Plus I find it more of a challenge to entertain and scare people another way. Some people come to my monster museum expecting to see Dracula or Frankenstein, but when they get there, you don’t see that. You see bits and parts of these monsters and you fill in the rest with your mind. And it’s even scarier.”
The professor is already planning his next attraction, a historical project designed for children. “I haven’t titled it yet, but it should be educational. It’s about the shelling of Lexington in 1864. I talked to historians about this to make sure it’s right—but, see, this is where I make some people nervous,” he says. “Some purists in Lexington are biting their nails, saying, ‘Is he going to tell the story [right]?’ Well, I believe in educating through entertainment. Kids see what I do—adults don’t get this.
“When children see a frog with a fiberglass mouse on its back, or dinosaurs fighting Yankee soldiers, or Stonehenge off on the side of the road, it opens up their imagination … to different possibilities.”