By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
One of the most drastic changes in the industry, however, was not in-house, but Webwide. The Internet changed how haunted houses could market themselves.
"The Internet has made it to where people can travel to haunted houses from farther away. They can find haunted houses from farther away," says Kirchner. "Haunted houses can advertise farther away; you can advertise in a whole state now."
One of Kirchner's attractions, The Darkness in St. Louis, was rated #6 in AOL's top 13 this year. It has been featured in USA Today and will be included in a National Geographic special this month. Kirchner is the media spokesman and former president of IAHA and runs Hauntworld.com, a Web site that serves as a reference for every haunted house in America. Kirchner says haunted houses have developed a worldwide community made up of both haunters and visitors.
Hauntworld.com provides message boards and rating systems through which anyone can offer feedback about a haunted house visit. Kirchner says it's rare to find a haunted house these days that doesn't have its own Web site, but warns that haunts with sites that don't post videos and pictures or that have limited information about their attraction scream "buyer beware."
Nick Riegler was a home haunter. He started in his front yard with a small "haunted hallway" he built for his wife. The next year, the hallway started to grow. A year later, in 2004, his family moved to a new house, but continued the tradition. The neighborhood loved the house, but soon it took up Riegler's entire property.
"It was so big it was in my front yard, all the way down my driveway, into my garage, out of my garage, to the back of my house, around the pool, around the back of the garage, and it exited on the side. We were only open for four days including Halloween," Riegler says. "We had 4,000 people come through and we did it for free. We were spending $20,000 a year on Halloween." The following January, Riegler's home caught on fire and he lost most of his haunted house equipment. Instead of calling it quits, he decided to expand his operation and move to a larger location.
Young says many owners coming into the industry today start out as home haunters just like Riegler. Like nonprofits, they're benefiting from a more accessible industry. Home haunters are the ones who open up on Halloween for trick-or-treaters. They're the neighbors who have converted their garage or part of their home into a haunted house for kids and teenagers. As the years go on, their ideas get bigger and so does the space.
"Finally, several years down the road, they start charging people to come in and after they get so far along, and it no longer fits in their house, they start putting them in another venue," Young says.
This year Riegler runs Camp Fear, located about a mile from Interstate 10 on Mason Road and three blocks from his home. Camp Fear isn't just haunted houses; Riegler says he wanted to develop a carnival-type atmosphere where every age group would be welcome. There are concession stands, seating areas and, for smaller children, moonwalks. A large blue-and-white tent houses the main attraction, also called Camp Fear. Another one holds a 3-D house, and next to those is the only inflatable haunted house in Houston. The giant lies on its back and patrons enter through a bullet hole in its head. The haunts aren't as elaborate as at Screamworld, but Riegler hopes to reach that level some day and to eventually own the world's largest haunted house.
His first year in larger-scale haunting has taught Riegler some tough but valuable lessons. Camp Fear fills a large open field perfect for all its attractions, but this year's weather is causing problems. The second weekend of October, rainwater seeped into the haunts. That's why Riegler is looking for an indoor site for next year, maybe even one big enough to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Trial and error is a way of life in the industry. Fetterly says he and his partner, Mike Darling, didn't start out knowing everything and still have to watch out for ideas that just don't play out as planned. "We've made mistakes putting a scene in that we think would be good and it belly flops. If there is any haunted house owner out there that tells you they haven't had belly flop scenes, they're crazy."
Bob Wright, owner of Houston's Nightmare on the Bayou, says his biggest mistake was questioning the power of marketing.
"I didn't spend enough money on advertisement -- it'll whip your butt," Wright says. "I thought that I was at I-10 and Studemont, so people would come. They won't."
Today Wright has learned his lesson (the Houston Press is a co-sponsor of his haunt this year). His line trails all the way to Studemont some nights, with patrons waiting to see things like a girl trapped in a rat room. Wright says his focus is to find out what really scares people. He wants to create images that will make people afraid to close their eyes.