It takes a year to “scare the ship out of you.” That comes straight from the top — the captain of the USS Nightmare.

Although the enormously popular Halloween attraction is open from September to early November, captain and general manager Allen Rizzo and his creative staff work year-round to make your heart pound and your knees shake with fear.

“We’ll start as the show is going on, talking about next year,” Rizzo says.

From either side of the Ohio River, you can see the old steamship docked below Newport on the Levee in September and October. In a past life, it was the William S. Mitchell, used by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a dredge steamship in the 1930s.

Fast-forward 50 years. BB Riverboats bought the steamship in the 1980s with the intention of turning it into a restaurant on the river in Louisville. After the plan fell apart. Rizzo, a long-time captain for BB Riverboats, spent 10 years convincing his boss to turn the boat, which was deteriorating in storage, into a haunted ship. He got the go-ahead in the early 1990s. Today, it’s one of America’s Top 13 haunted houses, according to Haunt World magazine

Rizzo and his staff, a group of six to eight people, attend a national convention in the spring to see the newest technology in props, special effects and lighting. Then they detail a room-by-room list of changes in preparation for the physical labor that is done in the summer months.

“We go in and tear everything up that we’re going to tear up. We make those changes, we have to reset all the scenes, and do some cleaning, some painting, some maintenance,” Rizzo says.

The staff tries to make additions and minor changes to special effects, lighting, sound and characters in three to five rooms each year. This year is no exception.

“We’ve added more to the captain’s private collection,” Rizzo says. As well as enhancements to the rat lady and changes in the lab scene and museum.

In mid-August, they moved the boat from Dayton to Newport, and started the final set-up: ramps, electric, and the clean-up.

Rizzo discovered his passion for haunted houses as a young child when he would tag along with his older siblings to haunted houses.

“I enjoyed getting scared, I enjoyed scary movies,” Rizzo says. “Now I’m in [this business] because I enjoy working with the people I work with. I count them among my closest friends.”

He also enjoys being able to share the scary fun with his grandchildren.

“I’ve got a couple areas where I can put them behind the walls and have them be part of the scare,” he says.

“They’re at the perfect age to get scared.”