Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Haunted Attractions: Part 1

I'm a haunted house designer. That is, I have designed "haunted houses" for theme parks, farms, and even a 270 year old tavern once owned by Patrick Henry's father-in-law. In the industry, they are called "haunted attractions".

When I graduated from high school, I really didn't know what to do with myself. I wound up getting a job at a local costume/magic shop I had been purchasing from for years.. Turned out, they weren't only a retail shop. They were one of the largest wholesalers in the country. They had warehouses that ran an entire city block.

The company was owned by a gentleman that once did "midnight spook shows" at theaters. I write about Phil in my "Magic of Fundraising" post. He was known as "Dr. Evil" way before Austin Powers ever came on the scene:

Dr. Evil

Dr. Evil (who I know as "Phil") was a haunted house enthusiast, and sold much merchandise to Jaycee groups around the country (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per haunted house). He even co-wrote a book, "How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House"

I worked at this costume shop for three years, and had plenty of opportunity to look through that book, along with many other books on special effects makeup, horror movies, and things that go bump in the night. I knew that one day I would operate my very own haunted house.

Truth be told, I had been designing "haunted houses" since I was about 8 years old. I had almost every Aurora monster model that had been put out. Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Dracula, The Salem Witch, King Kong, Godzilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare. I used to "haunt" my bedroom on my summer vacations. I made my first coffin when I was 13, and got coffin handles for Christmas. I even slept in it one night. I was goth before goth was ever invented.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Virginia, near Richmond. I heard about a place that did a "haunted history tour" the year before. It was a 270 year old tavern, where Patrick Henry was a bartender. I managed to get to a meeting of the board of directors (the tavern is owned by a preservation foundation). I asked them how much they made the year before. They told me $1000. I told them I would rent the building from them for $1000 if they let me produce my own haunted house there. And they did.

The Hanover Tavern
I had a stipulation placed upon me. The event had to feature the actual history of the tavern. This was to be an educational tour. So I did my research, and there was an interesting array of people who had stayed there. From Patrick Henry himself to General Cornwallis, George Washington, and P.T. Barnum. And so these were the ghosts you met. Cornwallis had come back to pay his bill... in the form of a hand reaching out from a grave, and a ghostly illusion of him materializing on the back porch. A ghost appeared warning you... projected onto a white bust of George Washington. And P.T. Barnum and an assemblage of dead clowns awaited you in the dining room... with your tour guide's head the main course!

What was cool to me about the attraction (and to many of our patrons) was that there were no chainsaws. There were no rubber masks. There were no teenage actors. This was a weird form of interactive theater, where adults were having a blast having the daylights scared out of them. I was in heaven.

The location was rather remote, and financially, it turned out not to be quite worth the effort I had put into it to make it work. It was several months worth of work, a fairly stout investment (not only did I rent the place, but bought the props, paid the actors, etc...), and quite exhausting. I was not ready to just jump in and do it again the following year.

However, in 1999, a local radio station wanted to do a haunted house. They had a venue they used for concerts in the middle of Richmond. They hired me to design and direct it, but in the 11th hour the city shut them down due to building code issues. Well... didn't quite shut them down. The station just didn't want to spend the $150,000 to bring the building up to the city's demands. I had a blast designing it. It was called the Fright Factory.

The premise was that you were entering the lab of a scientist working on a time machine. The lab has been destroyed.  He is on recorded video, talking about his experiments. But as he is explaining the machine, something goes wrong... a portal opens, and he is grabbed by a demon. As you leave the lab through the portal, you are sent through time to various different locations... from Poe's reading room to an egyptian tomb to a victorian graveyard, and finally a Hellraiser type of chaos... winding back in the pristine laboratory. The professor unscathed... wondering how you got there... just as the demon comes to whisk him away.

The following year, I found myself decorating for Kings Dominion Fearfest. Then in 2002 I designed and directed Busch Garden's Sea Dog Cemetery (zombie pirates!). By this time, I had gotten quite good at making props. I had been doing film and theater for about 10 years.

Impaled corpse for Busch Gardens

In 2003 I decide to make a go of it on my own again. A local farm was already doing a Halloween event, and let me use one of their barns. I got the local Ren Faire to provide most of the actors. This is the year Grimmwood was born.

Next up, Grimmwood Manor in Haunted Attractions: Part 2


  1. This is so cool! I love to have the beejeebers scared out of me.

  2. HI Em, thanks! It has been one of my biggest passions, with three more parts coming up!

  3. Hi Arthur ... what fun you must have had - despite the not quite breaking even, or making sufficient - what a great learning process. Who'd have thought there were properties out there for the haunted taking?!

    Looking forward to the rest of the posts .. cheers Hilary

  4. I was behind before April began and now am hopelessly so. Still trying to see my way through. That's why you haven't seen me for a while. Had to stop here when I saw the mention of Phil. I shipped so many copies of that haunted house book out of the California warehouse and Charlotte shipped many times more. The sales of that book would be the envy of any writer on any of the blogs.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out