By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Wright started Nightmare on the Bayou about seven years ago. He owns Party Boy, a supply store for costumes and decorations, and says the idea for a haunted house came from his hobby of scaring customers. His wife did not approve.
"I'm someone who likes to scare people and I'm a big kid," Wright says. He started traveling around the country to see what the industry was all about, and even took advice from Pickel. Wright says people would be surprised if they knew how much money it takes to get into haunting, and adds that most owners don't make money for the first four to five years of business. In fact, Wright says if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn't have started haunting.
Fetterly and Wright run similar operations. Both stay under the $25 mark and use coupons and discounts to help lower their prices. Both have what is referred to in the industry as a multi-element attraction, which seems to be standard in the Houston market. Fetterly and Wright include all of their attractions on one ticket and customers go through them all at once. Fetterly says this decision came from listening to his customers. In his 12 years downtown with three separate attractions -- and therefore three separate lines -- he heard the same thing every year.
"The single complaint we had from people is they wanted to do multiple attractions, but they didn't like waiting in lines at every single one of them," Fetterly says. He says his setup now -- with all three attractions in the same building -- was the answer. However, even though Fetterly feels this was the best decision for his customers, some believe he and other Houston haunters are being misleading.
Not everyone gets along or operates the same way. Kirchner is critical of Houston haunted houses that he says cost too much, saying there is no reason any haunted house should cost $40 for a visit. He also believes some houses are misrepresenting themselves by saying they have, for instance, four haunted houses, when they actually squeeze four houses into the same building.
Phobia, Houston's second-longest-running haunted attraction at 12 years, is a house that charges premium prices. Its spokesman, Todd Reynolds, agreed that Phobia is the most expensive ticket in town ($40, $35 with a coupon), but said it was worth it.
Phobia's patrons aren't just left in each line, but are spooked even before they enter one of the five houses on the property. Chainsaw-wielding maniacs, demented clowns and monsters on stilts roam the property. Phobia says its costs of operation are higher because it employs more actors and managers than most other local haunted houses. Its motto: "We only offer premium entertainment for your scare dollar."
Not everyone is successful at haunted houses, no matter how well they do in other areas. The media conglomerate Clear Channel has haunted houses across the country but didn't stay open in Houston. They started in 2002 with Alice Cooper's Nightmare, then changed shows, but were gone after 2005.
"We were scared to death when Clear Channel came to town," Fetterly says of himself and other local owners. But their fears soon blew away when they realized that Clear Channel wasn't doing as well as expected in Houston. Despite repeated calls, Clear Channel did not comment for this article.
"They had a huge marketing campaign," Fetterly says. "I really think they had about $400,000 of 30- and 60-second [radio] spots." But he and other operators said word on the street from customers wasn't good.
Jim Fetterly and Mike Darling are sitting in their office, listening to screams. On the other side of their door is Screamworld, which just opened for the third week of this year's season. The two are being radioed every five seconds. It seems "The Draculator," an animatronic that pops out of a coffin, is not going off when people pass by its sensor. The credit card machines are down even though they were serviced last night. The ticket booth is in need of more $1 bills and an actor is missing from his scene. Once again, it's a typical night for the haunters. Fetterly and Darling have worked together for 16 years, since Darling was hired as an actor when he was 16. He worked his way up to a partnership with Fetterly, who says he is the artistic genius behind Screamworld.
The calls continue to come in, so the pair heads out to make the rounds.
Fetterly is confronted by a customer with a complaint. She says that her experience was ruined because her group caught up to another that was using a cell phone to light up the path and find its way through the house. She tells Fetterly she already knows his entire house and is disappointed about her experience this time. He offers to give her another walk through for free, but she demands a refund. Fetterly gives in and heads to the ticket booth. After handing her money back, he asks her when she visited the house before. She tells him this was her first time and walks off.
"She scammed me," Fetterly says, adding that claims like hers are just another part of the game. He shrugs his shoulders and remembers that it's time to fix "The Draculator." He grabs a flashlight and enters a maze of secret passageways and doors through Screamworld. He stops in a scene called "Jot the Dot," filled with polka dots and lit by a strobe. A group is met by an actor standing in the middle of the room, then the lights go off. When they come back on, the actor has moved inches from them and screams, this time startling the girls and their boyfriends. He does this continuously as the group moves through the room. He turns the lights off and back on as he pops up from all directions. The group shuffles through in a fit of screams. Fetterly opens up a wall and heads to another scene where an actor sits in a rocking chair. Approaching patrons look at him like he's a dummy and just before they cross his path. He jumps out at them, they jump back and then carefully inch past him with backs pressed against the wall.