By Lauren Jette
GEORGETOWN — With severed body parts, bloody handprints on the walls and other scary scenes, the Nightmare on Jail Hill at the historic Williamson County Jail in Georgetown offers a truly frightening experience, with all proceeds benefitting a good cause for another holiday: the Williamson County Brown Santa program.
The idea to hold a haunted house in the old county jail, which hasn’t been used since the 1980s, came about from a former captain in the sheriff’s office, who used to give tours of the jail, Captain Mike Gleason explained.
When it was her turn to head up the Brown Santa program, she decided to see if the sheriff’s office could make some money off the tours as a fundraiser for the program.
“I think they did really good, as long as they made some money, any money’s great, so it grew and it grew and then it became really popular for some reason,” Gleason explained.
“I don’t know if it’s just because of the lore of (the jail) because it’s so creepy, because we’ve had some pretty shady guys in here, Henry Lee Lucas for one of them. It’s creepy, but it’s fun, it’s off the beaten path, you can make a night of it.” Since those first years, the tour has grown considerably.
“It grows every year, bigger and bigger and bigger,” Gleason said.
“A lot of the kids, they’ll go to House of Torment and some of the other ones and they come back and say ‘y’all’s is much better’. It’s weird that we compete with these commercial ones that probably do it on a 10 times larger scale and make a lot more money.”
Part of what makes Nightmare on Jail Hill so creepily good is the imagination of the different groups who decorate parts of the jail, Gleason said.
“We rely on groups, a lot of the same groups that help us out with Brown Santa at Christmas time,” he said. “A lot of big companies, their inner charitable groups look for projects year-round to do. So we call these groups up to stake their claim and say be imaginative. We’re not going to tell you what to do, we just want it to be scary and they kind of lose their mind over that. Some really get into it and get into a competition.”
In addition to the volunteers who decorate, Gleason said they rely on many volunteers to make each tour a success.
“We need about 100 (volunteers) a night just to do the operation itself, sell the tickets, do the tours, run water, give you a break, give someone else a break. There’s all these different jobs.”
While some people enjoy creepy scariness of the tour, others not so much, Gleason said.
“We have a lot of people who come and enjoy the outside, but refuse to go inside,” he said.
“When you turn the lights on and walk through, you’re like, ‘this is kind of crummy’ but man, when the lights go off, the whole element comes on.”
This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Brown Santa program, Gleason said.
“We help all the kids in unincorporated jurisdictions in Williamson County, but we turn nobody away,” he said. “A lot of times people, through their socioeconomic issues, they lived in Round Rock last week, they live in the county this week. A lot of them don’t know if they are in the city or the county or what, so we don’t ever turn anybody away.”
The Brown Santa program helps make sure families who might not be in the best position have a Christmas.
“We do donations to the family, which usually consist of a couple toys, a game, sometimes a clothing article, all age-appropriate,” Gleason explained. “Then we give either an HEB or Walmart gift card and that allows the family to go out and buy a meal for Christmas and we also give them the bows and wrapping paper to wrap all the gifts.”
In addition to Brown Santa, Williamson County Sheriff’s Office also does adopt-a-family, where community organizations or groups can adopt and family to provide for during the holiday season, Gleason added.
“We have grown tremendously, from having a couple of bucks in the bank to having a lot of money in the bank,” he said. “We’re now venturing out into other charities, making Brown Santa year-round.”
This year, the department is teaming up with the City of Georgetown’s Blue Santa program to share the public library space. Gleason said they are seeing a greater need with all the growth the county is experiencing right now.
“Our growth brings people who don’t have jobs, looking for jobs. I think we’re up to about 400 adopt-a-families and 1,400 kids last year,” he said. “It will grow again this year. And being in conjunction with Georgetown, we’ll probably get some of their spillover and vice-versa.”
Tours of the haunted jail will run this weekend, Oct. 16 and 17, and next weekend, Oct. 23 and 24, from 7 to 11 p.m. The jail is located at 4th and Main Street in Georgetown. Tickets are $10 for adults, kids 8-12 years are $5. A fast pass ticket is $20 and will get you to the front of the line.
All proceeds benefit Williamson County Brown Santa Program.