A woman sprinted through the dark woods, trapped in a maze made of high bamboo shoots. The sound of chainsaws filled her ears, as their operators seemed to chasing her. Finally, the woman reached the exit, where two police officers and the owner of the maze, part of a haunted house in south Houston, stood. Despite their presence, the woman immediately pulled down her pants.
“She just couldn't control herself,” recalled Harold Lacks, the co-owner of that haunted house, Creepy Hollow Haunted House. He added, “The fear was just built up so much that it was like she was just trying to hold onto the end. And then when the end finally got there, she just let go.” (Don't worry, the police officers – who were at the “haunt” as paid security, in case anything went wrong – immediately helped the woman get cover.)
Yet while nights like that might make working behind the scenes at a haunted house sound thrilling, the reality is – aside from the occupational hazard of having grown adults wet themselves – that managing a haunted house isn't so different from working any other job.
When asked what people's biggest misconception about the haunted house business, there was one answer: “That we open up in October, take everybody's money and we just go on vacation for 11 [months],” Lacks laughed. “I'm out here working in July, someone'll text me, 'Why are you out there in July? Y'all don't open till October.' Well, we don't stop working.”
“They don't realize is we're here all year round doing things, whether it's rebuilding or just maintenance,” agreed Anthony Huynh, director of operations for ScreamWorld Haunted Houses, located near Greenspoint. He added, “I'm here 40 hours, sometimes more than 40 hours a week. And I have to work weekends sometimes and late nights. And sometimes I get random phone calls saying, 'Hey, this has got to get done, like right this second.' And so I'm here all year.”
At ScreamWorld, after the Halloween season ends, Huynh and his crew tidy up the “haunt” and take a vacation until December. (He's working 14 to 16 hours a day during the season, Huynh said, so he likely needs it.)
But when they return, the real work begins, as Huynh and his crew start planning for the next season: What set pieces, or “scenes,” in the house can they destroy? What new scenes can they build? That building process lasts months – punctuated by the biggest haunted house convention in the country, St. Louis's TransWorld's Halloween & Attractions Show, in March – as the entire house is prepared for another season. “Most haunted houses, everyone's always adding stuff. Nobody ever just lets it sit,” because it gets boring for the guests who come every year, Huynh said. Even a single “boring” season could be disastrous for a haunt: Though the Halloween season only lasts for a few short weeks, Huynh and Lacks said that both of their haunted houses survived almost entirely on the proceeds they make during the season.
The rest of ScreamWorld's senior staff arrive back in August, and they hold auditions for actors – the people who don costumes and do the actual scaring in a haunt – by the end of the month. Of course, every haunted house has a different production cycle. Phobia Haunted Houses, a haunt near Brookside Village, just wrapped up its hiring process this month, while Creepy Hollow is on the hunt for actors year-round. (However, unlike at ScreamWorld and Phobia, all of Creepy Hollow's actors are volunteers.)
Many of the people who work at ScreamWorld also hold down day jobs, Huynh said. His employees include IT workers, tattoo artists, lawyers and beer brewers. And they're not the horror movie-loving Goths draped in black that you would likely imagine working at a haunted house. They just happen to like to scare people on the side. Huynh said he finds putting that Halloween costume to be “empowering.”
“I think people like that chance of being able to go be something else,” Lacks explained. “It's good therapy for them. Like if you've had a rough day at work and you've wanted to scream at everyone all day long because they're getting on your nerves, you come out here and you get to scream at thousands of people all night long.”
Brett Baker, Creepy Hollow's other co-owner, said his work at the haunted house was “a way to reach self-actualization,” since Creepy Hollow allows Baker to have a creative outlet, through both building scenes and actually scaring people.
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In fact, like many of their actors, both Baker and Lacks hold separate, 40-hour-a-week day jobs that they refuse to leave – despite having to pour another 40 or so hours a week into rebuilding and running Creepy Hollow, Lacks estimated. But if they quit, then some of the profits from Creepy Hollow, which donates some proceeds to charity, would have to be diverted to paying their bills. “Is it going to come from our build projects? Is it going to come from the things that we do extra for our people?” Lacks asked. “I don't want to take any of that away.”
Yet Huynh, Baker and Lacks all said that no matter how many unappreciated hours they have to devote to their haunted houses, the creativity and camaraderie make the whole enterprise worth it. At the end of each night during the Halloween season, Creepy Hollow holds an award night for its employees, honoring people for getting in particularly good scares – like the woman in the maze's “steamer,” as they're called. (It's a haunt term borrowed from colder haunts up north, Lacks explained, where a discharge of bodily fluid might create…mist.)
“Everybody's screaming and cheering, and when people are winning those awards and everybody's pumped up, and you see the vibe that's here,” Lacks said. “It's just unexplainable… That's why we do what we do.”