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Inside the creation of travel-worthy haunted houses

From set design to monster school, these haunts are a year-long business endeavor

(Illustrations by Keegan Sanford for The Washington Post)

When Ben Armstrong goes to work this time of year, his schedule is pretty full.

As co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House near Atlanta, Armstrong has to check on the food trucks, photo stations and escape rooms. There are queues to set up, special effects to maintain and robotic creatures to keep in order. Once that’s all running smoothly, he can do what he really loves: scare people.

“Usually I’ll just get in something fairly simple — an incredibly scary mask and robe — and go into the dark and scare people for hours at a time,” he says. “I’ve got my radio, so if there’s an issue, I can get out of that very fast.”

That sums up the behind-the-scenes life of a haunted attraction: multilayered, very busy and ultimately as scary as possible.

“It really is like a reality show, and it would be one of the most interesting reality shows that anyone has ever seen,” says Larry Kirchner, who is deeply immersed in the world of “horrortainment.” He builds and operates escape rooms and haunted attractions and runs the website, which includes a directory and ratings.

The site includes more than 6,000 listings of various fall happenings, including festivals, pumpkin patches, hayrides and haunted houses. The Haunted Attraction Association estimates there are about 2,000 haunts around the country, from tiny charity offerings to giant professional operations. According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey on Halloween spending, 172 million people plan to celebrate the holiday; of those, 22 percent plan to visit a haunted house.

Theme parks such as Universal Studios and Six Flags have made Halloween a juggernaut, staging events that draw hordes looking to be chased by zombies or terrified by clowns. And while most non-park attractions draw local and regional fans, high-profile haunts earn visits from much farther afield. Some even note nearby hotels on their websites and offer a discounted rate.

Bud Stross, co-owner of the Dent Schoolhouse in Cincinnati, says his attraction’s core audience comes from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. But the market is much wider.

“It is amazing now; we see people from not only the U.S., but we’re starting to see worldwide fans that will fly in and check out Dent,” he says. “It’s extremely flattering and crazy when you’re talking to a guy from Ireland who flew in just to see your haunt and he’s flying out the next day.”

While October is the busiest time for the country’s haunts to operate, the biggest require full-time, year-round attention. And many are adding shorter events to coincide with other holidays: Krampus-themed Christmases, red-bathed Valentine’s Days, even “Ghouls Gone Wild” over spring break, says Brett Molitor, a haunt owner and president of the Haunted Attraction Association.

But Halloween is the biggest and most time-consuming draw by far, which is why owners are already thinking a year ahead.

Allan Bennett, who owns the family-run Bennett’s Curse in Baltimore with his wife, Jill, says he’s working now on his Christmas show — but he already has some thoughts for Halloween 2020. His brainstorming process involves sitting alone quietly, listening to atmospheric music and letting the ideas pour in.

“Once the show is built and ready, we just kind of kick in and think about what’s next,” he says.

He’ll start developing those ideas once the season is over, working with artists and sculptors, before he and his brother build most of the sets.

Several operators who spoke to The Washington Post described a similar approach. Stross, in Cincinnati, says he reads every review of his attraction to get a sense of what’s working and what can evolve. After the Christmas show, he’ll bring together a team that includes “creative gore thinkers” to plan how to bring ideas to life, with concept art and walk-throughs before moving on to the construction phase.

“We used to just run and gun it,” he says. “Now that we’ve gotten bigger and things got more expensive and we need to kind of up the ante, there’s a lot more production time that goes into it.”

Every March, haunt operators attend the annual Halloween & Attractions Show in St. Louis, where exhibitors peddle everything from masks to animatronics to costumes, props and fog effects.

That’s where the major buying happens in preparation for the coming season; Molitor says most haunts will change between 10 and 35 percent of their attraction every year. Building typically starts in the early summer, he says, and then things start to get extremely hectic: “August, September, they’re brutal.”

By late summer, haunts are wrapping up building, ramping up marketing and hiring the people they’ll need to organize parking lots, provide security, apply makeup and do the scaring.

Netherworld, which boasts attendance of more than 75,000, hires roughly 500 people for the season, in addition to roughly 20 year-round staffers. Like most businesses, there’s some training required.

“There’s a monster school that we take them through to teach them all the basics,” Armstrong says. It includes lessons on vocal warm-ups, “how to move like a monster,” stretching, walking like various creatures, and creating a backstory and motivation for different characters.

Bennett, who has a staff of about 65 during the season, says his training covers tips such as screaming from the diaphragm, maximizing energy without getting exhausted and literal scare tactics.

“We teach them the scare and reset, how to survey the group and decide where would it be best to attack, so to speak,” he says.

Stross, who hires more than 200 people for the Dent Schoolhouse and connected Queen City Slaughter Yard, even offers training in the offseason, including improv sessions, fire safety and how to evacuate in an emergency. The attraction gets between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors a year.

The weeks before an attraction opens, usually in late September, are “crunchtime,” Stross says, full of last-minute buying and making sure all the details are taken care of.

“Once the haunt starts going, it’s kind of nice,” he says.

But things remain incredibly busy. There’s constant maintenance to worry about, for one thing. Staffing issues need to be dealt with. Animatronic monsters need adjusting. Hot dogs need restocking. Parking lots, inspectors, social media — they all need attention. Sometimes, that might mean leaving as late as 4 a.m.

“It’s just kind of like a circus,” says Kirchner, who runs the site as well as attractions including the Darkness in St. Louis. “Then on the last day, you don’t even know what to do with yourself.”

Read more:

How to navigate the etiquette of dark tourism

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