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.
"A little commercial haunt that wants to start out, as soon as he's advertising, the fire marshal and the local people are going to be involved because he's out there making a profit and that's what they are looking for," Young says.
Larger haunts tend to conjure up enthusiasm that trickles down.
"They get people interested in going haunting and once people go to the big ones, they are always looking for someplace else to go," Young says. "So, they'll try a small haunt."
Pickel says the increase in for-profit houses marked the point at which everything had to get more fantastical. Owners knew that to increase the price, they would have to provide an experience that was scarier and lasted longer than ten or 15 minutes. At the same time, the dynamics of horror were changing.
"When I first got into haunts in 1988, it was a bunch of black walls and bloody props," Fetterly says. Hollywood was making movies with characters such as Freddy Krueger, Jason, Pinhead and Michael Myers which made it easy to see what scared people. Haunters knew gore and chainsaws would be an instant hit. But as movies became more innovative and video games entered the realm, haunters like Fetterly discovered that it was time for a change.
"I remember a couple coming out and saying, 'You know, there was a lot of gore and blood, but it wasn't that scary,'" Fetterly says. People were becoming desensitized in the digital age.
Fetterly went to a trade show similar to HAuNTcon to discover the latest scares. The answer was robots, scary robots. Animatronics became, and still are, an integral part of the haunted house industry. They fill the halls of Screamworld -- a girl in a bed will leap out at a passerby or a werewolf will fly out from a casket -- but none of it's real. Each year animatronics become more and more advanced and easier to use. Fetterly says that most of them are set off by sensors today, but that in the past each robot had to be paired with an actor who could hit its trigger.
As several operators found, however, animatronics alone are not enough. Fetterly got caught up in the wave of animatronics in the '90s. He thought they would replace actors, and decreased his staff.
"That was the wrong thing to do -- two-thirds of the way through the season I'm hiring more actors," Fetterly says. The importance of having actors.
Every haunter says animatronics can't replace the type of scare a live person delivers.
"[Animatronics] are impressive looking, but they're not really that frightening," Pickel says. "But they do do a great job of pulling people's attention away from where the real scare might be." Fetterly agrees and says an actor's ability to react to people differently is what makes him or her the most valuable part of a haunted house experience.
"An actor can adjust to whatever is going on at that moment -- unlike an animatronic -- and then pop out at the right moment and get in your face," Fetterly says.
Makeup, masks and prosthetics have all been upgraded to produce effects similar to those used in the film industry. Scars, deformities and horns seem more realistic and make for a better in-your-face scare.
The illusion of peril is key to a successful haunt. Real danger is another matter entirely. The last thing haunters want is a reputation that people can get hurt or killed at their attractions.
In 1984 at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, eight teenagers entered the park's attraction known as the Haunted Castle and never left. The "castle" was actually a series of connected trailers located on the property. During their walk through, it was reported by The New York Times, someone in the house ignited a lighter to find his way in the dark. The flame made contact with a piece of foam and set the entire attraction on fire. Although others made it out, the eight teenagers were burned alive.
Larry Kirchner, another big name in haunted houses, says a majority of accidents these days happen on haunted hayrides, which are more popular in the northern United States. In 1999 a 13-year-old girl was shot on a hayride at the Horror Woods in Ashville, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Tawyna Key died from a gunshot wound to the head fired by an actor who was supposed to be shooting blanks.
Last year an actor was killed in Lowell, Indiana during a hayride at Norm's Pumpkin Patch. The North West Indiana Times reported that 16-year-old Travis Duncan died after being struck by a tractor-trailer. Duncan was working for his third year at the attraction.
Pickel says the biggest mistake first-time haunters make is forgetting about safety and building codes. They see a line outside a haunt and think building their own would mean instant revenue.
"They'll count the number of kids that they see and multiply that by five hours a night by 30 days by the ticket price and think, 'Man, this guy is making a killing,'" Pickel says. They don't realize that attendance varies from weekend to weekend and don't prepare their houses to handle the fluctuating number of patrons. Pickel adds that most don't have an understanding of capacity or fire regulations.
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.
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.
"I love this," Fetterly says. He heads to "The Draculator" and after a quick repair has some fun. He keeps his secret door inched opened and as a group passes by opens up and yells, "Where you going?" Two guys jump back and then jump again as the animatronic gets them from the other side.
Kirchner says haunts beat a scary movie any day.
"A good haunted house is like a live opera mixed with a roller coaster ride mixed with a horror movie," he says. "A live opera because it's a live play right in front of your eyes, it's a roller coaster ride because it gives you that adrenaline rush and it's a horror movie because you should feel like you are in one. Why would anyone go to a horror movie when they can be in a horror movie? Where you are Jamie Lee Curtis, you're the girl in the shower, you're the teenagers that are having premarital sex and you're going to be killed. You are that person, you are the one that is the star and at the end, hopefully, you survive."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.