Haunted Attractions Are Scaring Up Huge Crowds
The Fright Stuff
Haunted houses and other Halloween attractions are nothing new, but they’re enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in America today, generating, by one estimate, more than $1 billion in revenues annually. Some are kid-friendly, while others are extreme enough to issue guests a safe word in case they need an early exit. But they all feed off people’s natural attraction to an often-intense adrenaline rush that’s totally safe — even though it might not feel that way at the time.
Brennan McKenna started working at Warner Farm at age 14, manning the strawberry stand. He returned every summer during high school and college, and started helping out with the farm’s renowned, artistic corn mazes in 2004; that year’s design was George W. Bush and John Kerry.
He’s had other jobs since, but he takes pride in his current role — pressed for a title, he came up with ‘haunted events manager’ — at the Sunderland farm.
“I tell people, ‘my job this week is to figure out how to scare people in the most efficient way, using some piece of farm equipment.’”
He’s not kidding — one scene in the haunted cornfield depicts an executioner’s chamber, where one poor character (not real, fortunately) is being chopped apart by — well, McKenna isn’t sure what it is, except that it’s an old farm implement stamped with the year 1875.
Adjoining this walk-through attraction is Mike’s Maze, an annual corn-maze attraction first created by farm owner Mike Wissemann and an artist neighbor 16 years ago; the theme for this year’s maze is “See America,” a tribute to the National Park Service. That remains a draw throughout each fall for visitors who enjoy navigating it by day and, with flashlights in hand, by night.
The neighboring haunted maze is a more recent addition, first developed three years ago. The farm has since added Zombie Night Patrol, where guests ride a wagon through a creepy village and shoot mounted paintball guns at the zombies who charge the vehicle.
“That’s a thrill,” McKenna said as he gave BusinessWest a tour of the village — like the haunted maze, silent during the day but ready to spring to life (or at least some undead state) thanks to a gaggle of paid actors in costumes and makeup. “Kids can do this and not get overly scared. The haunted corn maze is much scarier because walking through corn thinking someone’s going to pop out is inherently scary.”
The Halloween attractions at Warner’s, collectively called Mike’s at Night, have been a boon for the farm, which aims for a complete family experience, complete with concessions, live music, and a children’s play area with slides, a jump pad, and pedal cars.
It’s also an example of how Americans have increasingly embraced the fun and pageantry of Halloween in recent years, evidenced by a proliferation of haunted houses and other spooky attractions.
Jeremie LaPointe and David Spear recognized that trend when they launched DementedFX in Easthampton two years ago. The haunted house they created drew 19,000 visitors over two seasons, and now they’re aiming higher with a new, much larger space on Main Street in Holyoke, with more room for the walk-through and an indoor bar area, serving beer and wine, that wasn’t possible before. But it wasn’t simply the need for more space that brought them to the Paper City.
“We went into this business venture thinking we wanted to get as close to the Five College area as possible,” LaPointe said. “We thought this was our demographic, but we came to find out, it really wasn’t.”
The reasons aren’t totally clear, but he suggests a lack of money — today’s high-school and college students are struggling with a very difficult market for the kinds of jobs people their age used to have — may be a factor. Whatever the reason, the post-college crowd dominated the queue in Easthampton, with more sales to 36- to 50-year-olds than to the 14-to-18 crowd.
As a result, the revamped DementedFX is geared more toward adults, with some strong language, violent scenes, and ‘anatomically correct’ props, though nothing that could be considered sexual content. Children aren’t turned away, but their parents are warned, and refunds aren’t given if they decide to cut short their trip (which runs about 18 minutes, on average) by using a safe word.
“We don’t want to pander to the kids because we realized they’re not our demo,” LaPointe said. “My son’s 9, and I wouldn’t let him come here. But I’m not going to parent for people. We had a group of 5-year-olds go through with their parents the other day — and we’ve also had grown men cry.
“A lot of it has to do with your own level of anxiety, what your own fears are,” he went on. “We try to hit a lot of those fears. We use smells, which a lot of people find unpleasant. We use temperature changes, claustrophobia, light sensitivity — and it’s really loud. By the time you’re done, your anxiety level is high, so when you finally finish, it’s a moment of celebration, which is fun to watch.”
In other words, he said, getting scared is fun. Increasingly, people seem to agree.
The Haunted House Assoc., an industry group, draws a distinction between Halloween attractions (hayrides, corn mazes, pumpkin patches) and haunted houses, but reports that, together, these destinations bring in more than $1 billion in revenue per year — and help keep many family farms afloat.
McCray’s Farm in South Hadley offers both types of attractions, thanks to Dan Augusto, a man who, a quarter-century ago, turned a love of Halloween and a collection of holiday-themed props into one of the region’s true seasonal success stories.
Seeking a place to display his collection, Augusto approached farm owner Don McCray, who was intrigued with the concept — originally, a simple hay-wagon ride out to the fields, into a heavily wooded area, where about 15 scary scenes were laid out, populated with both props and actors. “We probably had 30 volunteers — friends and friends of friends,” Augusto said.
There was only one problem — what was then a very limited parking area. “I told Don, ‘we need more parking; we’ll have vehicles up and down Alvord Street.’ He laughed and said, ‘settle down, city slicker.’ By the third weekend, I hopped off the wagon, and he came over and hugged me, smiling, saying, ‘Dan, I don’t know where we’re going to put these cars. You were right.’ But, at the time, it was a good problem to have.”
The second year, Augusto was paying the actors, and the event became more of a real business, with a payroll and workers’ compensation and liability insurance. Animatronic displays were added as well, and the path expanded as well to include more displays. “Every year, we said, ‘let’s try to put more and more into this space.’”
In the late 1990s, Augusto converted a large carport into the property’s first haunted walkthrough, which in recent years has become known as Massacre Manor, a full-blown haunted house, filled with animatronics and actors. This year, he added a second walk-through attraction, cheekily called DON — in reference to Don McCray, and also an acronym for Diagnostics Operation Nexus. “It’s a genetic research facility that’s had…” — here he paused for effect — “…some issues.”
DON is important in the evolution of what collectively has become known as Fear on the Farm, he explained, because now there’s truly something for everyone. The hayride aims to scare, but there’s security to be found in a big group aboard the wagon (and for those too young even for that, the farm offers milder daytime attractions for children). Massacre Manor increases the fright with a more close-up experience, and DON, aimed squarely at an adult audience, ramps up the intensity even higher.
Even the hayride is customizable depending on the crowd, and the actors will occasionally, and discreetly, break character to comfort a child or, better yet, give him a glowstick and tell him lighting it is the only way to keep the monsters at bay and save his parents — essentially, giving a sense of control back to a kid who might otherwise feel overwhelmed. Older riders don’t get the same treatment; the actors delight in targeting obviously frightened adults.
“I’ve seen some attractions where, if they see a kid crying and screaming, the actors will attack that poor kid,” Augusto said. “There’s nothing creative there; you’re terrorizing a little kid. We try to entertain that kid by going after his parents and the other people on the wagon.”
As Halloween attractions have gained a greater following across the country in recent years, a strain of extreme terror experiences have popped up as well, like the popular Blackout haunted houses in New York and California, where guests are handled — often roughly, sometimes with a sexual connotation — and subjected to actual abuse. (One year, Blackout actually waterboarded people.)
Others have taken the concept further. Blackout requires a liability waiver, but also issues a safe word for those who want out immediately (and many do). San Diego’s McKamey Manor offers no safe word — and is known to last several hours, inflicting, by some accounts, real trauma on people who begged to be set free.
The traditional haunted-house industry frowns on this trend, Augusto said. “It’s not creative. We might have a prop brush your leg, and your imagination runs with it. But physical touch is something I’m not interested in doing.”
LaPointe agrees, noting that DementedFX also has a no-touching policy.
“I want to classically scare you without physically touching you. It’s a lot harder. If I wanted to scare the s— out of you, I’d bind you up, take you to the basement, and throw you in a hole. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to get a clean scare out of you without going down that road.”
Augusto is also appalled that clowns have become associated with terror of the not-so-fun kind, thanks to myriad sightings in recent weeks that have law enforcement on edge. “One of the guys in the industry said it best: ‘if you want to dress up and scare people, come see us, and we’ll give you a job, rather than risk getting shot or arrested.’”
To maintain safety inside DementedFX, cameras are positioned in every area, constantly monitoring and recording. But there’s a second rationale behind those cameras.
“It deters people from doing malicious things, but we also watch the scares. We see if they’re successful or not. And if they’re not successful, we’ll demo out the whole thing and change it all. Using this scare knowledge, it keeps getting better and better,” said LaPointe, adding that he and Spear plan on adding another 2,000 square feet of currently unused space to the walk-through next year. “I never want to get stagnant. I’m not going to change everything out, but I want to continuously grow, bigger and better.”
Spear recalled the ‘spider house’ from DementedFX’s first year in Easthampton, a room that featured a mechanized spider that came shooting across a table. “The concept was incredible — it looked real — but it didn’t scare a lot of people,” he said. “So we got rid of it and changed the whole room over. That’s why we have the cameras, to see if people are getting bang for their buck. If we don’t like what we see, we change it. That kind of sets us apart. We’re not going to throw something together and just be happy with it. We always want to improve and be better.”
LaPointe, who noted that he and Spear conceptualize and build many of the props and animatronics (others are purchased), said they’re not making money off the undertaking — all revenues, after paying the actors, security, and other staff, are reinvested into the attraction — but they expect to be profitable within a few years. Meanwhile, they hope this year, with the big move complete, will allow them a little more family time away from what is, essentially, a year-round enterprise on top of their day jobs. “I can’t tell you how many soccer games, dance classes, dinners, Saturday and Sunday nights we missed because we were here.”
McKenna said improving Mike’s at Night each year is his goal as well, and he attends the TransWorld Halloween & Attractions Show, an annual trade event, to learn about trends and gather ideas. He also encourages changes mid-season if something isn’t providing the necessary scare. “We trust our actors to improvise and adapt to different groups. If something doesn’t work, change it and try to make it scarier.”
LaPointe and Spear make no bones about their goal to scare every guest, and they don’t tone it down for kids — they simply discourage them from coming. “I’ve seen kids leaving, and they’re just traumatized, and I feel bad for them,” Spear said. “But we ask them up front, ‘do you really want to do this?’”
For most guests, though, scary equals fun. Traditionally, about 1.5% of DementedFX ticket buyers opt for the safe word and an early exit — the percentage is running a touch higher this year — but most crave the adrenaline rush of facing their fears, making it all the way through, and exiting into the chill October air with smiles and shouts of relief.
“People don’t come to haunted houses looking for problems,” LaPointe said. “They’re here to have a good time.”
Augusto has also spent a lifetime embracing the fun of the season. He grew up poor in Holyoke, he said, but it never mattered on Halloween, the one day anyone could be anything they wanted for a few hours. That love of the holiday stayed with him into adulthood, when he wanted to give people a richer experience than the haunted houses that proliferated in the 1970s, “just black walls and no fire safety and cheap rubber masks. But it was still fun to do.”
Many of the actors have worked at McCray’s each October for the past 15 to 20 years, and have become a sort of family — and appreciate being able to provide an experience and memories that will stick with the families who dare to be scared.
“Every year, we lose more and more Americana,” Augusto said, adding that he hopes haunted houses and hayrides don’t go the way of the drive-in theater. He is encouraged, though. “Halloween, every year, is gaining on Christmas. Christmas is still the biggest money-generating holiday, but Halloween is right there. You see more houses decorated than ever before. America’s embracing it.”
McKenna agreed, adding that families regularly drop $30 or more on movies and popcorn, and welcome something a little different.
“Here, it’s real; it’s in person,” he said. “I think it’s the nature of the human psyche — they want the thrill, and knowing it’s a thrill that’s safe.”
Well, except for that poor guy caught in the antique farm implement. He didn’t look particularly thrilled. Or safe. Sweet dreams.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]