Magazine Bazaar

John Kennedy, publisher of Haunted Attraction

Sorry I missed your calls last week, I was at a haunted house convention.

Haunted Attraction was started sixteen years ago by two gentlemen, Leonard Pickel and Oliver Holler. I took over the magazine a year ago last April. I was interested in starting up my own haunted house, so I subscribed to the industry magazines and I contacted Leonard to see if there was any way I could get involved. Starting a venture like that, I wanted to know what I was doing, I wanted to get as much information as I possibly could. And we started talking, and — you guys, I’m sure, are familiar with the economics of magazines, how difficult it can be — so I told him that if he was ever interested in selling, I’d be interested. And he was.

I’ve headed my own software company, I’ve been an investment banker. Before that I was even an engineer in the Air Force. But this was something I’ve just always wanted to do. As a kid, I loved spooking the house for Halloween. We would make coffins by spray-painting cardboard boxes black and hide in them and scare kids as they came to the door. That was always more fun than trick-or-treating. And I was always into horror movies, I’m a huge horror movie buff. I guess I just got to a point in my life where I was ready to go for it.

Haunted Attraction is the leading magazine in the haunt industry. We come out four times a year, in the months just before the season. Haunt World is probably our biggest competitor, it’s been around about half as long. Fright Times was around years ago and then it had financial problems and just kind of faded away, but it was just recently revived, they’re doing one or two issues a year. And then there’s 13th Hour, which is more of a friendly competitor. We work together on the business side — they design my magazine, actually.

In the industry vernacular, “haunted house” denotes an actual house, “haunted attraction” or “scare attraction” refers to a trail or a hayride or anything Halloween-related that’s intended to frighten. A “scream park” is a collection of haunted houses. “Haunt” is the more general term. Some haunts are “high startle” or “high gore.” Some try to be creepy, but it’s hard to build suspense because so much depends on your audience’s response, which you have less control over.

A typical issue of Haunted Attraction has one or two haunt spotlights, where we interview a haunt owner, talk about why they think they’re successful, anything interesting or unique about their show. We have an artist spotlight, where we present artists from around the world who do dark or macabre art. The idea is to get exposure for these artists and to provide an image that could inspire a haunted house. We’ve had artists from Brazil, Poland. The next one is from South Africa — I found his work in a South African horror fiction magazine. We also have a section called “Truly,” where we present a true story, and the idea is to educate, inform, and inspire haunters, to present a story from real life that might provide a great backstory for a haunted house. For instance, the first guy we did was H. H. Holmes — you familiar with him? Possibly America’s first serial killer. In Chicago. He kidnapped mainly women, he had a maze built on the second floor of his house where he trapped these women, and he had chutes going down to the basement and acid baths and all this crazy stuff. It’s so absurd, it’s perfect for a haunted house. There was a haunt in Columbus last year where they basically used the story, just renamed the character and changed it up a bit. We usually do a product or vendor spotlight, too, and then there is always some type of business article, ranging from how to use Google analytics on your website to how to do off-season marketing and promotion.

What’s the scariest haunt? I think Dead Acres in Columbus, Ohio, House of Shock in New Orleans, and Chambers of Horror in Atlanta are probably the most extreme places I’ve seen. In getting up to speed with the industry, I traveled seventeen thousand miles last Halloween season. I saw 235 haunted houses in over a hundred scream parks. It was a good trip. I blogged about it every night, actually, it’s on our website. I wanted to go to one of those evangelical “hell houses,” like in that movie Hell House, because I’ve heard they’re extreme. Extremely extreme. I read about a couple of them on the web, but I couldn’t find one that was open. They’re probably not good for our industry, if they present themselves as haunted houses and then they’re extremely graphic and in your face with their message.

It’s funny how things work. There are certain subjects that most haunted houses will just never touch. Panic issues. I mean, for me personally, The Exorcist is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. And that sort of thing is still what tends to get to me, in movies. But, particularly the Midwest, if you tried to do something Satanic or demonic, there’d be a bit of a backlash from the community. And generally that’s really not good for business. What is good for business is if you can get your haunt officially designated as haunted. It’s not that hard to do, actually. There’s a lot of ghostbusting groups. You just call them up, and the more interesting your location, the more likely they are to come. So if you happen to be in a hundred-year-old hospital, they’d probably love to come and see it. [Laughs] But I saw a three-year-old warehouse in an industrial park that was supposed to be haunted.

You know, despite what I was saying about the taboo subjects, that place in New Orleans I mentioned, House of Shock? They take that straight on. They claim to be devil worshippers and they ask the crowd to shout out, “Satan, I accept you.” It’s very extreme. Actually I saw the high priest demon guy from the House of Shock at the convention I just went to. Like a lot of people in the industry, he is one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet. The opposite of his show persona. The House of Shock people are touring with Nickelback now, doing all their pyrotechnics. People do a lot of things in the off-season to make money. There’s a haunt in North Carolina called the Hollywood Horror Show that is run by two makeup artists from Hollywood. They spend about half the year in Los Angeles and then bring a lot of their prosthetics and props back and put them in their haunted house.

How much money can you bring in? It depends. A really good haunted house is going to get twenty to twenty-five thousand people a season. An outstanding haunted house — in Philadelphia there’s a haunted house called Terror Behind the Walls, which is in the old Eastern State Penitentiary — those guys do 112,000 people. So if their ticket price is $25, they’re bringing in about two and a half million in sales. But they’re in Philadelphia, which is a fairly wealthy demographic, and it’s a large city. Whereas I went to a haunt in Florence, South Carolina, where they had maybe ten thousand people, charging $7 a head, all for charity. So there’s a big range.

Every year, you’ll hear stories about someone who drives by a haunted house, sees the line, says “Hey, I’m gonna go make a lot of money,” and try to go do their own house. And then they get into it and they realize how much money it actually takes. These days, to open up a haunted house, you’re going to have to spend several hundred thousand dollars. You have to deal with security, legal, operations, actors, possibly food, gift store… and marketing, which will generally cost you $3 per person who comes in. And given that you’re only open on weekends, and the season is four or five weeks long, you’ve got between twelve and twenty-five days to make it all back. It’s a pretty strange business. Most of the good haunted houses have partnerships — whether it’s a husband-and-wife team or a business partner. There’s so much to do, and it’s an all-cash business, so it’s always good to have people you can trust. Your company will have two employees for most of the year and then during the haunt season you’ll have 150. It’s not easy money by any stretch of the imagination. Once upon a time you could just buy some latex masks, put some fliers up at the school, and start your business. These days your customers expect much more. So you have to be really tight with your money. Especially in times like these. Several vendors told us that they’d cut back on their R&D because of weak demand last year, so there were fewer new products at the trade show this time.

What kinds of products am I talking about? Well, the basic animation is a pop-up. Something pops up out of a barrel or a box or from behind something. There’s your startle-scare. That’s been around for years. But you can put different kinds of art on it, you can work the mechanism to make the action seem more lifelike. You can put an industrial horn and a large flashlight together in a box, with a trigger that an actor can pull and suddenly put a lot of bright light on you and blast you with an air horn, just startle the heck out of you. So it can be something as simple as that, or as technologically advanced as a CGI on an LCD flat screen that’s integrated with a water cannon and an air cannon. Say there’s a scene where someone gets shot, and you see the blood, and then an air cannon goes off so you feel a push of air, and you get sprayed with water — your eyes see blood, you feel wet, and the effect is like you’ve been splattered with blood. This one particular vendor had a CGI effect last year, where there was a little girl in an asylum, possessed or something, who came at you with an ax, and as she swung it — on the TV screen, which was set into the door so it looked like a window — indentations would pop up in the door. So, when she swung you would see the door move and see the dent. It was very elaborate, and very effective. But not as cost-effective as a light and a horn.

The industry is definitely global; we belong to the International Association of Haunted Attractions. The UK has been fairly successful in the past few years, and it seems like China and Japan have gotten more interested. I know of some in Mexico and Germany. Someone told me that the Japan scare calendar is different than ours, so I think I can get over there during their season. I really want to see what the other cultures are doing. There’re a lot of similarities in the US from haunted house to haunted house, and it’s interesting to see how other cultures approach it. The UK generally tends to be more theatrical and less gory.

It’s standard practice for the last room in an American haunted house to have a chainsaw. It’s a complete cliché, you always know it’s coming. And I swore that I would never put a chainsaw in my haunted house. But I can tell you that after making my way through 235 haunted houses… nothing scares people like a chainsaw. There’s just something about that guttural motor sound. I mean, the chain is off, there’s absolutely no danger whatsoever. Some people even know that, and they still get scared. It’s amazing. In Pittsburgh I went to a haunted mine where they actually shot the latest My Bloody Valentine movie, and the icon character was the miner and they had the whole outfit and everything, and I thought, This is going to be fantastic. The last room is going to have the miner, and it’s in the real mine. And you get there, and you see him, and he’s coming… and it just isn’t that scary. And then it occurred to me, There’s no noise! It’s a pickax! A pickax doesn’t make any noise! So you know, there’s a reason why the chainsaw is everywhere.

You’re based in New York? I went there during my trip. It’s strange to see how New Yorkers go through a haunted house. They almost don’t know how to do it. They just want to watch, to observe; they dare not get caught up in the moment. And I thought, If you guys went through a hardcore Midwest haunted house, you’d be in tears. Actually, Blood Manor there is really good — it’s going to be on the cover of our next issue. Those guys would definitely hold their own in the Midwest. I mean, they’re in New York City, so they don’t have twenty thousand feet like some of these guys do, but still.

Actually the strangest haunt I’ve ever seen is in New York. It’s just called Haunted House. You have to sign a waiver before you go in. Then they put a blindfold on you and you have to walk a little ways and sit down. Then they tie you to a chair, put a hood over your head, and leave you. [Laughs] And I’m thinking, This is going to be fantastic, these guys are crazy. And then ten minutes go by and they untie me and I walk into another room. And there’s a naked guy just standing there… and that’s it. A couple walked out behind me, so I asked them what they thought, because I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The guy said, “That effing sucked.” But the girl said, “That was a really different experience, I really enjoyed it.” And I thought, You know, you see all kinds of things all over.