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By Craig Malisow
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It was a typical night at The Haunted Hotel in Houston. Owner Jim Fetterly was running around making sure everything was going smoothly. He had no time for foolishness -- that's why he hired actors.
A call came in on his walkie-talkie.
"Jim, come quick, some guy just crapped his pants," an employee said. Fetterly blew it off, thinking "nice joke," but they radioed him again -- and again.
"Jim, you have got to come back here! You can smell it all the way through the house." Fetterly decided to check it out. Although the poor fellow had continued on through the haunted house, the proof was in the air. Fetterly headed to the exit to make sure the guy made it through without leaving anything behind.
The 20-something -- who had brought a date -- was walking bowlegged toward his car, a look of defeat on his face.
"The guy was sweating and you could just tell that he was embarrassed," Fetterly says. "Maybe he had some diarrhea and he got scared and he just went, because it was nasty."
The scene that got him was called "Transformation." Patrons walked down a 40-foot-long, narrow hallway with a skeleton at the end. Lights and mirrors were used to create the illusion that the skeleton morphed into a creature. As they got closer, the skeleton reappeared and then -- boo! The creature, actually an actor, jumped in their faces, scaring them into the next room.
"Transformation" was used more than ten years ago at Fetterly's Haunted Hotel on Fannin. Since then there have been a lot of changes in staging and technology used to make a good haunted house. In order to keep the public lining up every October, owners -- or haunters, as they call themselves -- try to stay on top of what's hot. Every year exhibitions are held nationwide where haunters gather to view the latest developments.
But eye candy alone isn't going to bring in the crowds. Owners must have a solid marketing scheme -- without it, their haunted house will be empty. Each haunter spends thousands of dollars every year to tell the public about a six-week event. Haunters must convince the public their haunt is the most frightening experience in town.
Every haunter will say his haunt is the best and maybe why the other guy's isn't. Houston haunters face off against each other and each has his own way of playing the game. This can lead to disagreements about pricing, setup and marketing. For the most part, haunters stay focused on their own operations. Doors may open in late September, but planning for the season begins as early as January.
Every year each owner is after the only thing that matters: the perfect scare.
Leonard Pickel got his start in the haunted house industry back in 1976. He set up a haunt at Texas A&M to raise money for his dormitory. The house cost about $300 to pull together and Pickel charged 50 cents a head. He made $1,000 after two nights of business.
"That opened my eyes to the possibility that there was money to be had in the haunted house business," Pickel says.
At the time, haunted houses operated predominantly as fund-raisers for nonprofit organizations. After Pickel graduated with a degree in architecture, he volunteered for the March of Dimes' haunted house in Dallas. He chaired the event until he, like others, realized that haunted houses could be a legitimate business.
"It wasn't very long before the for-profit element took notice of the large lines of people trying to go into these places," Pickel says.
Pickel is now regarded as the godfather of the industry. He has developed a number of his own haunted houses and now serves as an adviser to other haunters. He is the editor of Haunted Attraction Magazine, president of Hauntrepreneurs Inc. and the owner of Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow & Convention (HAuNTcon). He is the accepted authority on how to make a living from scaring the bejesus out of people.
The increase in for-profit houses didn't phase out the nonprofit market. Randy Young is the former general manager of the Haunted Castle in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is run by the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America. Young himself is a scoutmaster and the Vice President of the International Association of Haunted Attractions (IAHA). He says the growing popularity of for-profit houses has resulted in an increase in the manufacture of the kinds of props and building supplies needed to put haunted houses together. This has made it easier and cheaper for nonprofits and smaller groups to make credible haunts with less hassle, Young says.
"Suddenly, rather than having to come up with how to make a black spider out of yarn, you can go to the local distributor and get online and you can buy a million black spiders -- whatever kinds of nature or amount you want, cheaper than yarn," Young says.
Most charitable haunts tend to stay smaller, but Young says there are a few larger ones still around.
"I think most of your haunts that have been around a really long time, like 20 or 30 years, they tend to be the charitable haunts as opposed to the for-profits just because of the staying power. They get volunteers. Whereas profit haunts, that guy has to make big money all the time. So, they will do it for a while and then they will give up for whatever reason," Young says. It's also easier for nonprofits that are not large ventures to stay under the radar when it comes to things like fire and building codes, which could save them money, Young adds.