How I Built a Global Haunted House Empire
I built my first haunted house after school in the fourth grade. My family lived in an apartment complex, and I talked the owner into letting me construct it in the community center, a separate building from the apartments. Flea markets and garage sales yielded most of the supplies, and I still remember turning a fuzzy purse into a wolfman’s mask. Some of the classic tricks worked, too, like cold spaghetti for guts and peeled grapes for eyeballs.
Right after high school, in 1989, my partner and I founded a company, Halloween Productions, which builds haunted houses and terror attractions around the world. We started in St. Louis and have gone to Chile, China, England, and other countries. Honestly, I can’t even remember how many houses we’ve built. We’ve also partnered with major corporations, like MGM Studios and Six Flags. Revenues fluctuate annually, but a good year brings in around $4 to $5 million, all depending on the size of our jobs.
Our first attraction was the House on Haunted Hill in St. Louis. It sounds grander than it was. We converted both floors of an old decrepit church, and needed several loads of dirt to fill a giant sinkhole outside. We kept expanding it though, taking over the grounds, too. Inside, we had Grandpa. That was this rotting corpse in a coffin, fitted with a microphone so we could talk directly with the guests. I guess we couldn’t do that now though. Back then we saw a lot fewer people.
We soon created another house, The Darkness, one of three that we still operate in St. Louis today. Shortly afterward, people started asking us to build houses for them. I thought, Really, you want us to make houses for you? I felt shocked that anybody was interested. As our business has grown, I’ve tried to keep our motto the same: If you take a dollar from a customer or client, you’ve got to come through. This makes it really crazy for us in the fall, when we’re building attractions for clients and running our houses. We deal with construction problems, like faulty strobe lights and pending inspections, while managing 200 to 300 actors in our attractions. I push our staff as hard as they can go, and we try to bootstrap whatever we can. Our biggest flaw today: We really should hire a full-time secretary.
Given our small staff, we try to figure things out for ourselves instead of hiring outside consultants or engineers. I guess that’s the same mentality I’ve had since fourth grade. I remember when we first wanted to explore animatronics, my partner, Jim Kelly, led the way. We knew nothing though, not even how to get a piston to move. So Jim spent hours bent over a plywood sheet laced with electronic wires, trying to get that piston to move. It looked like a shop-class project. Sure enough, he got it to shoot back and forth, and now we use animatronics all the time.
Running a haunted house is just like running a beauty salon, I like to say. You’ve got to bring in new products and know what works. Like sound, for instance. We’ve gone from using a tape-deck, which you needed to adjust every few hours and eventually wore out, to motion-detected audio with built-in amps. A niche is important. Most attractions have established their own differentiated theme, like an frozen castle or aslyum where the patients run free. It’s not just Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers running around. Although, despite any technological innovation, an actor with a bladeless chain saw will always make people shriek.
The best part of the haunted-house business: It’s an all-American industry. Think about it. Halloween is mostly in the United States and Canada, but haunted houses exist across the world. So when somebody wants zombies, psychos, or, say, a fuzzy wolfman, they end up calling an American.