Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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House Haunters

A season of scares expands as a billion-dollar industry employs more elaborate designs

By New York Times


OMONA, CALIF. » On a recent morning, Steve Kopelman stood inside a hangar-size building at the Fairplex event center here, drinking his third or fourth Diet Dr Pepper of the day and eyeing a giant inflatable goat skull. The skull had arrived by truck from Colorado two days earlier and had just been suspended above a plywood wall spray-painted black that had been hastily erected near the building's main entrance.

"This looks better than I thought it would," Kopelman said. He pointed to the spiky fangs and horns with their creepy decay and added, "I didn't like the color, so I had my painter go back and add cracks and stuff."

Kopelman is a professional haunted house producer and designer, or "haunter" in industry parlance. He opened his first haunted house 30 years ago in Phoenix and promoted it by driving a huge Frankenstein head around in a truck, making sure it broke down on the city's busiest corner during rush hour. ("I read P.T. Barnum's book," he said.) In recent years, he has designed or promoted multiple "haunts" across the country every Halloween season.


(Parental discretion advised.)

Nightmare at Dole Plantation: Visit "13," a haunted house with 13 unlucky plantation curses. Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. today through Thursday; 64-1550 Kamehameha Highway, presented in partnership with Nightmares Live. For ages 13 and older; $13;, (Discount coupons worth $3 off are available at Times Supermarket, Fujioka's and Shima's locations on Oahu.)

"The Evolution of Fear": Scare Hawaii's haunted house with "29 factors of fear," featuring graphic scenes, loud sounds, special effects, makeup and scare tactics, 6-9 p.m. today through Thursday, Windward Mall; $13-$20; 330-1600,

Haunted Plantation: "Real Haunt, Real Fear": 7-11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Hawaii's Plantation Village, 94-695 Waipahu St. (near the old sugar mill). Not for children under age 13; adult supervision required for children under 16; $15-$30; 677-0110,


A genial, salt-and-pepper-haired man of 56 who lives in Houston, he is not a big fan of horror films or Goth culture — or, for that matter, dressing up on Halloween. He sees haunted houses as a profitable business and likes the theatricality.

"I always had the dream of producing movies," he said.

He was at the Fairplex to oversee construction of Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare, a collaboration with the rock musician and horror-film director, based on the gory Rob Zombie oeuvre. The production, Kopelman said, is the biggest of his career: a $2 million budget; three haunted houses encompassing 33,000 square feet; a "Bloody Boulevard" outdoors; and 150 employees, including three seamstresses and "a guy that shoots you with CO2 as you go through."

Great American Nightmare may be the best example yet of the upsizing of haunted houses over the last decade, in the vein of "mega haunts" like Netherworld in Atlanta and The Beast in Kansas City, Mo., which have elaborate sets and are staffed by actors and the prop and makeup artists who have found themselves out of work in a CGI-dominated Hollywood.

There are now more than a 1,000 such large-scale attractions around the country, said Larry Kirchner, editor of, and haunting has become a sophisticated, $1 billion-a-year industry. Even the season itself has expanded: Many haunted houses open in late September and extend past Halloween to early November.

This year, the National Retail Federation's annual Halloween survey found that more than 31 million Americans plan to visit a haunted house, often paying $15 to $30 each.

Ray Kohout, who created one of the first large-scale, themed haunted houses in St. Louis in 1991, marveled at the evolution. "Now there's animatronics and realistic props," said Kohout, who franchised his project, known as Silo X, to nine cities at its peak before getting out of the business 10 years ago. "Back then, it was much more primitive and simplistic, a lot more about blood and guts."

For Rob Zombie, who remembers the lame haunted rides at carnivals in his '70s youth, the goal is a Disney-like level of art direction.

"Going into the Haunted Mansion as a kid, your jaw drops," he said. "The attention to detail at Disneyland is outrageous. That's what I want to be able to do here."

As with his movies, however, he wants visitors to leave with a vague sense of revulsion.

"My approach has been to create that weird, unnerving feeling that you can't shake," he said. "I like to screw with your head."

The most common trick haunted house designers employ is the startle scare: the man who jumps from behind a corner; the animatronic skeleton that drops from the ceiling, its jaw clattering; the sudden, bloodcurdling scream. Timothy Haskell, co-owner and creative director of Nightmare, a popular and long-running haunted house in New York, said startles are necessary but "ephemeral."

A veteran theater director, Haskell writes a 20-page script every year and "plays upon people's empathy," he said, to induce a more lasting bout of heebie-jeebies. Last year, for his serial-killer theme, he designed a set where visitors executed Ted Bundy. "They had to actually flip the switch," he said. "And feel in their hands the electricity pulsing through."

Ben Armstrong, of Netherworld, strives to incorporate new forms of technology, he said, which he often finds at the Halloween and Attractions Show, an industry trade show held every spring in St. Louis. Lately, he has been experimenting with projection effects.

"I found a particular material that you can see through, but it grabs light," Armstrong said. "You see the ghost, but you see past him to the background."

With Great American Nightmare, Kopelman has taken an approach that mixes high and low tech. The floor plan of one haunted house, for instance, which is based on Rob Zombie's movie "The Lords of Salem," is laid out with 60-degree turns, rather than the standard 90-degree, a simple way to create disorientation.

He has also repurposed the "scat mats" that deliver a harmless zap to housebreak cats and dogs, cheaply electrifying the walls. It's a devilish trick, considering that everyone who enters the Salem house will be hooded and groping in the dark.

"I got the hood idea from a haunt outside London," Kopelman said, smiling. "I'm predicting half the people won't make it through."

Elsewhere, he has installed superthin, transparent televisions to project spectral-looking images, domed speakers to localize ghostly sounds and "smell cannons" that blast people with foul odors: like that of decomposing bodies.

To build and prop out Great American Nightmare, Kopelman flew in a haunted house all-star team that included Jason Blaszczak, who owns Screamline Studios, an Ohio-based prop company; Jeff May, an artist from St. Louis who works with 3-D paint; and Trey Cottle, who operates a haunted house in Montrose, Ga.

Cottle, who also owns an auction company, spent months traveling the country buying antique furniture and props for Kopelman. He consulted old crime-scene photos to nail the details, especially in the House of 1,000 Corpses haunt, which, like Nightmare in New York, has a serial-killer theme.

Haskell, the Nightmare designer, lamented the difficulty of using anything but the most durable of materials. For instance, he would love to use the sort of charmingly crude cardboard props seen in the films of the French director Michel Gondry, one of his major visual influences. "I love the way that stuff looks," he said, but in a haunted house, "they wouldn't hold up after eight hours."

Perhaps the most obvious restriction is the site itself. To create a large-scale haunted environment inside a creepy old house is nearly impossible, Haskell said: "They aren't safe." He runs Nightmare out of a Lower East Side cultural center.

"I feel like we build the house in here," he said, and each detailed set is like "a house inside of a house."

Rob Zombie sat on a concrete wall outside the Fairplex building, denim-sheathed, motorcycle-booted and shielded from the bright sun by a floppy hat and sunglasses. It was three days before the opening, and he had just toured Great American Nightmare for the first time.

The haunted houses are based on his movies, which serve as a kind of blueprint, and he had left the execution largely to Kopelman, he said. But now he had a number of suggestions, starting with the entrance hall in the Salem haunt.

"Right now, it's blank black walls," he said. "But by the time it opens, it will have wainscoting and sconces and wallpaper, and look like an apartment building."

Most people, he knows, will not notice details like the flocked wallpaper. They are too scared to look anywhere but at the ground.

Still, he had learned from directing movies that "you don't see the detail when it's there, but you definitely see it when it's not there," he said. "You would immediately think, ‘Well, they just put a chair and table in there, and I feel like I'm on the set of a porno film' — like the bare minimum of what this needs to be considered done."

Rob Zombie won't be haunting his own attraction on Halloween night; he has a gig performing on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." In recent years, he has not even had time to decorate with cotton cobwebs or frighten small children at his own home, a farmhouse in Connecticut.

"Asking me what I do for Halloween," he said, "is like asking Santa Claus what he does for Christmas."

Curiously, however, the man who spearheaded what is being promoted as "3 Sick, Twisted Haunted Houses" apparently has limits when it comes to scaring his fans, or being scared himself.

Earlier, Kopelman noted that his partner had expressed doubts about a key element of the Salem house.

"I don't think Rob is totally convinced about the hood over your head. He keeps saying, ‘I don't get that one,'" Kopelman said. "But you go to a scary movie to be scared, and you go to a haunted house to be in the movie and be scared."


Steven Kurutz, New York Times

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