I, Haunter: Blood, Sweat & Fears

I Haunter

After five years writing about the horror business, last season I crossed over to the secret place behind the black plastic curtain and survived to tell the tale.

My love for haunted houses echoes back across my entire life from my first trip through Walt Disney’s The Haunted Mansion to my first “freak out” at a store front haunted house built inside Oxmoor Mall in the 70’s. I refused, kicking and screaming, to pass beyond the black plastic entryway as my dad waved goodbye to the hard earned money he spent on a non-refundable ticket. All this happened after listening to me beg to be taken there for the better part of a week.

Strobe lights flickered from beneath that mysterious black plastic maw that threatened to swallow me whole, and the sounds of screams blended with Disney’sChilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” LP reverberating deep inside that retail space turned haunt season madhouse. My building curiosity turned instantly into full on pre-teen panic attack.

To this day I have regretted that shameful failing of bravery and still wish I could go back in time and experience the unknowable terrors awaiting me behind that black plastic veil. I’ve spent the ensuing decades of my life trying to fill that experience gap in the hallways, chambers and crypts of hundreds of haunted attractions across the country.

During many of those years, especially during the last half decade I’ve spent writing for Louisville Halloween, I have peeked behind the magic curtain, read about the craft and history of haunting and interviewed many of the sorcerers who design, build and perform in these sacred seasonal attractions, but never have I crossed the line of fan/journalist to professional haunter.

This is my story from behind the black plastic curtain.

I Haunter

During the winter and spring of 2015, the seeds of an idea that our team had planted years ago began to show signs of bearing fruit and the planets seem to align in such a way that might make our shared dream a possible reality. I, personally, had no experience in designing, building or casting such an attraction, let alone the business complexities involved in such a monumental endeavor.

Thankfully, my years of fandom and journalistic promotion of such attractions surrounded me with professionals who had decades of combined experience in all of those areas, and it was my great fortune that they allowed me to tag along as “the new guy” during the creation process of introducing a new haunted attraction concept to a city that certainly wasn’t lacking in great haunts already.

We knew it was going to be tough to stand out in the crowd of amazing haunts this city has already embraced, especially as a first year haunt with a limited budget. If you’ve ever visited a haunted attraction in the middle of October and seen hundreds of people in line waiting to be terrified, you may have thought running a haunted house was an easy windfall; a license to print money just for popping up and scaring teens with disposable cash.

I can now tell you from experience that this fantasy is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s hard to describe how many hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours are spent planning, building and pulling off a piece of living, interactive theater that hinges its entire success and/or failure on seven weekends in late September through the end of October. To complicate matters further, outdoor haunted attraction owners (like ours) are at the mercy of Mother Nature. If it’s too warm out in late September, customers generally wait for a more seasonal weekend to seek scares and if it gets too cold later in October, customers may choose the promised warmth of an indoor attraction. If it rains, all plans are off and whole days and/or weekends can be lost.

My dusty English degree and a couple of decades of hitting the keyboards for rags and blogs gave me a Wonka Golden Ticket to exchange for a backstage pass to this new project, and my overall familiarity with the urban legend we planned on using as a framework for this new attraction permitted me the privilege of writing the backstory that our team of seasoned pros used to design the story-oriented maze.

Through months of instant messaging and emails, ideas were passed back and forth, and then in March of 2016 the design team did some extensive window shopping at the Transworld Halloween & Attractions Show in St. Louis, but we were limited in how much we could afford to spend on props, masks and costumes until contracts were officially signed with our intended location. Without the certainty of an appropriate location, everything was just fantasy football.

Finally in late spring, contracts were signed and the dream had become a reality; with only a few months until opening day, perhaps a harsh reality might be a better description. Budgets were planned and the owners began to special order custom masks, costumes & supplies, and to pick for needed props.  Still, our contract didn’t allow us access to the location until early August, giving us only six weeks to go from nothing to a completed 20 minute walk-thru attraction.

Thankfully, we had a facility where some of the sets could be designed and built and then later transferred to the haunt location. Everything needed to be moved to the woods, including the hundreds of 8 foot by 4 foot wall panels that needed to be hauled from storage to the moving units and then carried by hand from the units down trails deep into the woods by hand.

This is the part for which my dusty English degree and years of hitting the keyboards for rags and blogs did not come in handy at all.

Panels. Ask any haunter about panels. Everyone uses them and everyone has had the splinters, bruises and torn muscles to prove it. This is where the real work began, in the 90-something degree heat of August under the sweltering cover of the thick forest canopy. Work often persisted well after midnight with the use of headlamps and the buzzing of generators. Nothing comes easy in the woods. Power drills needed be constantly charged as there is no convenient power socket to plug into. Every item needed to build, paint and decorate the attraction must be carried to the scene locations back in the woods and then cleaned up and carried back out before leaving each night.

Over the course of the build, I got sick from heat stroke twice and while assembling one key set piece by collecting dead trees, tangled vines and sticks, I ended up with the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had that left scars that still act up occasionally in the frigid cold of December.

Meanwhile, our casting director was working the phones overtime trying to scratch up enough talented actors to fill all the roles we had created. Haunt actors are a special kind of crazy. The pay is minimal, the work is often grueling and repetitive and if you do your job really well, you risk taking a fist to the nose from a startled customer (ask our resident creepy clown, Amber!). I know because I got to experience that aspect of the business as well on a couple nights early in the season when parts needed to be filled at the last minute.

One night I wore a gorilla suit for 7 hours in 90 degree heat, which would have been difficult sitting in an air conditioned room, let alone trying to summon the energy to beat my chest, break out of my cage and attack hundreds of unsuspecting guests who had no idea I was drenched in sweat and dying from dehydration. My respect goes out to those who suffer night after night to frighten and entertain the paying public in this crazy business. After enduring the heat and humidity of September, our cast then had to deal with the 40 degree nights of late October.

Opening night was as stressful as anything I’ve ever experienced, butterflies in my stomach and bats in my belfry, and not everything worked exactly as planned. Props failed. Masks and costumes had to be altered on the fly. Scenes needed to be reworked, but we all came together as a team and helped prop each other up when we were on the verge of falling down. By the second weekend we started hearing nice things from customers leaving the haunt and by the third weekend we were a well oiled fright machine. More than a cold machine; a new haunt family.

I was only a small cog in the machine that dreamed up and brought this little mythic netherworld to life, but by the end of the season I knew I wasn’t just part of a machine but part of something bigger. The paint was still fresh and the final scenes were still being built when our cast members arrived to get fitted for costumes, tour the trail and get to know the characters they would be playing. Thirty some odd strangers entered our lives of varying ages and occupations, all of them probably as suspect of us as we were of them. By the end, we were a family of close friends banded together by this monstrosity of frights we had created.

The work isn’t done on Oct. 31st either. We had a week and a half to completely tear down the entire haunt, take the pieces to winter storage and leave the natural wilderness we respectfully borrowed looking the same as we had initially found it, as if we had never been there.

I suspect there are very few, if any, haunt owners, builders or actors out there who do this for whatever profit they see at the end of the season. It’s just too much blood, sweat and tears to justify the financial rewards promised. Only a deeply entrenched love of Halloween and things that go bump in the night provide the kind of passion required to endure everything it takes to ultimately create and deliver this particular brand of interactive escapist theater.

Beyond all the stress, time restraints and physical toils that wrack the mind and body of the best haunters, there is an indescribable joy that comes with seeing his or her dreams and nightmares brought to life for a live audience to engage with. When the work is done and the sound of screams echo through the dark woods, everything suffered seems worth the price paid.

Perhaps the reward is best summed up by the testimony of a young child, maybe only 10 years old, accompanied by his father mid-season, who when asked if he was scared told us that this was his third time running our terror gauntlet this year. His dad admitted, “I took him through three weeks ago and he loved it so much, he asked to be brought back every weekend since.

Worth it.

The Phantom of The Ville

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