HellsGate’s John LaFlamboy Brings the Mythic Haunted House into Reality in Lockport, Illinois!

Hells Gate Haunted House

Take a wild ride with us through the amazing life and career of haunter extraordinaire John LaFlamboy.

John LaFlamboy - Hells Gate Haunted House

“It’s not just a haunted house. It’s an adventure,” is the mantra John LaFlamboy likes to recite when talking about his massive haunted attraction, HellsGate Haunted House, just outside of Chicago in Lockport, IL. It’s also a philosophy he applies to his company, Zombie Army Productions, through which he produces a number of events and projects including HellsGate, Statesville Haunted Prison, the Chicago Zombie Prom, a reality web series called “Days of the Living Dead”, Legacy Adventure Park and a number of feature films. “We bring the highest quality to the darkest of events,” LaFlamboy is fond of saying.

In a lot of ways, HellsGate Haunted House is the culmination of a lifelong obsession with and passion for a legendary bygone Chicago attraction. “Before the industry, before the Internet, before everything there was a haunted house called Hell’s Gate in an old, abandoned house out in the middle of the woods outside of Chicago,” relates LaFlamboy. “It’s the haunted house that started all the wives’ tales and urban legends about haunted houses that spread across the country. It was the haunted house that people claimed to have had a giant slide. It was the haunted house where people claimed you could get your money back. It was the haunted house where people claimed that someone had died.”

LaFlamboy is actually working on documentary that explores the questions regarding what happened to the original Hell’s Gate attraction. Apart from generating actual casualties, LaFlamboy’s new HellsGate does have a giant slide and you can actually get your ticket money back if you find the legendary skeleton key hidden somewhere inside the haunt! “I heard these legends my entire life and I always wanted to do a haunted house that paid tribute to the one that started it all,” says LaFlamboy.

“I grew up in a poor Irish Catholic family on the outside of South Chicago,” says LaFlamboy. “I was the oldest of seven and when you’re the oldest, it’s your responsibility to entertain your siblings. We didn’t have game systems or entertainment centers. Poverty made us get creative. I told stories to my siblings to get them to go to sleep at night.”

Hells Gate John LaFlamboy Quote

“If there is one thing that I am, it is a storyteller.”

Hells Gate Haunted House

LaFlamboy’s first haunt experience was inside the vintage Dr. Frankenstein’s Haunted Castle at Indiana Beach where he was startled by the tilting balcony above the Frankenstein Laboratory scene. His first attempt at building his own haunt took place in a friend’s basement at 15 years old. “I was astounded by the fact that she had carpeting in her basement,” he admits. “I thought her family must be rich!”

“In high school I would set up weekend tours where I would take students to haunted places and tell them stories and sometimes like 80 people would show up,” admits LaFlamboy.

“When I was studying theater in college there was a theater conference in Miami that took place each year where students had a real opportunity to land a professional job, but nobody was going because the trip was too expensive. I suggested we build a haunted house to raise money, but the school wasn’t interested. However, the Dean of the Theater Department, Sarah Blackstone, took enough interest to write me a personal check for $900. I used that money to build a haunted house inside a tiny space in a shoe store at a local mall with black plastic walls. In two weeks we had made $6,500.”

“With that money, I took 26 theater students down to Miami from Southern Illinois University. I rented all the vans, rented all the rooms and paid for all the meals. Twenty-three of those students scored professional, paying jobs there. I ended up writing my thesis on why every theater department should develop a haunted house wing of its division.”

Hells Gate Haunted House

LaFlamboy opened Statesville Haunted Prison in 1998 and that attraction has developed legends of its own over the last 20 years, many believing it to have once been an actual prison. “News crews have come here to film and have told me that they have actually visited the prison before it was a haunted house, which is impossible, but that’s what they want to believe. I used to tell people that they were mistaken, but then they’d look at me liked I just killed Santa Claus!”

The opening of HellsGate in 2016 was much more successful than LaFlamboy had anticipated. “The first three days we figured we’d do maybe 1,000 people; maybe 100 the first night and maybe 400 on Friday and Saturday night. We did 9,000 in the first four days. That’s more than some haunts do in their whole season, and I ended up writing 9,000 apology emails for the long lines.”

“We had to rent buses to bring people out into the middle of the woods and the Chicago Marathon was also taking place that same weekend and there were no more buses to rent.”

“Now we can move 3,000 people a night and be done by 11 PM,” says LaFlamboy, “and not a single person waits more than an hour. So the machine works. Once we figured out the bus schedule, everything fell into place.”

Reflecting on the public perception of those who work in the haunt industry, LaFlamboy has seen the evolution of shifting opinion. “When I first got in it, people thought we were all Satan worshipers or guys who liked to wear hockey masks and jump out and scare people. I think the public understands now that this is just as much a viable, safe form of entertainment as going to the theater or going to a concert.”

Hells Gate Haunted House

“We are a billion dollar industry. Halloween itself is a nine billion dollar industry. This is now a major form of entertainment in America. Not just America. We’re in Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany, China and Australia.”

“The public craves live, interactive entertainment,” says LaFlamboy. “We’re living in a digital world. We communicate with emojis and we don’t even use complete sentences anymore. I think the human spirit craves connection and that shared, live experience. I think that’s why Escape Rooms have been successful because you need to work together with a team in a physical space to solve a problem. The haunt industry is here to stay.”

LaFlamboy does offer advice to others looking to get into the horror business. “You can not scare everybody,” he admits, “but you can entertain everybody. People who think the only mission in haunting is to scare people are missing the whole thing. We’re in the entertainment business.” LaFlamboy’s Zombie Army crew currently consists of around 500 members with an 85% annual return rate. “We have an open door return policy, so if you need to take a leave of absence because of a job or because you have kids to take care of, you are always welcome back into the family.” His attractions also consistently have a seasonal 80 to 85% customer return rate which LaFlamboy attributes to the passion he and his team put into their work. “Money is a byproduct of what we do, but is not the primary goal.”

For more information about HellsGate Haunted House, Statesville Haunted Prison or LaFlamboy’s brand new Legacy Adventure Park, check out the Zombie Army Productions website at www.zombiearmyproductions.com.

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