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Sinister Visions

A Bit of History... or, Why I Do This for a Living

Listening to the inaugural segment of Haunt Topic during an episode of a now-defunct haunt industry podcast, in December of 2010, something said sparked a long-forgotten memory for me that made me realize I’ve been a haunter longer than I initially thought.

I’m estimating 10 years old because I know I was really young, but old enough to have some outside playtime autonomy, plus the haziness of the specifics, where I lived at the time, etc. This would be 1978-79. My grandparents lived in an apartment complex near us and we visited often. The kids that lived in the complex all hung out and played together pretty much by default (what else were we going to do?).

One particular summer day, one of the kid’s teenage siblings found a basement space under the complex that was supposed to be locked. We all gathered there, terrified and excited, in this subterranean no-man’s land, giddy with the fact that we were Somewhere We Shouldn’t Be, thrilled with how dark it was (it was SO DARK), and just generally being kids doing Something Forbidden. It was like a cave – dirt, rocks, full of spiders and webbing.

There were a few older kids that joined us that day, and they hatched what I considered to be one of the greatest plans ever hatched by anybody: We would all turn this place into a haunted house. A HAUNTED HOUSE! BRILLIANT! We wiled away hours over the next few days making plans and coming up with ideas for different areas of our haunt, until we realized we were lacking a few things like money, props, power, etc.

At that point in my life, I had amassed an astonishing collection of rubber monsters – the kind you get in the toy section of a drug store. I loved those things like you wouldn’t believe. C’mon. MONSTERS. MADE OF RUBBER! They were awesome. Well, in the spirit of Contributing To The Dream, I brought every single rubber monster I owned in a giant cardboard box down to that cellar space to use as props for our haunted house.

Can you guess how this ends yet?

The very next day, there was a shiny new padlock on the door to our haunted house, with my box of monsters inside. We couldn’t seek assistance from any grown ups, because that would mean admitting it was us screwing around in there.

And so, at age 10(ish), I learned a few lessons that many haunters don’t learn ’til decades later:

  1. If you don’t own the space (or, by extension, have an ironclad contract in place) in which you’re building your haunt, it might get yanked out from under you.
  2. Never put anything into the haunted house that you’re not prepared to lose, especially items of personal value or significance.
  3. Be very, very sure who your business partners are, or they might vanish overnight with all your rubber monsters.
  4. Never try to skirt the law (or fire codes, ordinances, etc.), or you might come to your haunted house and find a shiny new padlock on your door.

My next haunted house was a couple of years later. My sister’s birthday is October 26th. One year (I was probably 13-ish, which means very early ’80′s. SHUT UP! I’M OLD!) she decided to have a slumber party, and graciously gave me permission to turn my bedroom into a haunted house into which she would bring her party guests by twos. I got myself a few blacklight bulbs, draped my entire room in fabric, put on scary sound effects (Disney’s Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House – 1979 Version), propped the room with my rebuilt collection of scary rubber monsters and toys, and hid behind the door dressed as Frankenstein’s Monster. My sister dutifully led her little friends in a couple at a time, and they all (as I recall, anyway), screamed and giggled in equal measure as I chased them around the room before they fled back out the door.

Lesson learned this time:

  1. Scaring Girls = Awesome.
  2. Know the space you’re acting in. Some things will support your weight, and some won’t – having your desk chair collapse under you won’t scare anybody (other than your sister, for your safety).
  3. Traffic flow is important – don’t corner somebody. If they have nowhere to go, they’ll realize you’re a kid in a Frankenstein mask, and stop being scared.
  4. Don’t break character. It’s scarier that way. ALWAYS.
  5. Sound design is one of the most important aspects of your haunted house. If you let it abruptly stop in the middle of a scare, the magic goes right out of the room. Granted, I was a kid with a record player, but the lesson was learned all the same.
  6. Misdirection works every time. Give your victim something that’s not you to focus on (I don’t remember what it was – I just remember I set something up across from my door and lit it to draw focus, so I could emerge from behind the door for maximum shock value).
  7. Girls, At All = Awesome.

As a teenager, I got involved in the local Arts Center and was in a couple of plays, but what I was really interested in was the make up effects (to the extent that I minored in theatrical make up in college a few years later).

At 17 in 1986, as President of Immanuel Baptist Church’s Youth Council (Yes. You read that right.), I somehow convinced the church’s Powers That Be to let us (The Teenagers) do a combination Halloween party/haunted house in the newer lower level floor of the church, the area that housed the Sunday School and meeting space classrooms. I think the adults that should have been monitoring us learned a LOT more than we did that year – they didn’t really pay attention to what we were doing until the parents started screaming at them as we were doing it. >:)

So we all learned some things. They learned that when you have inexperienced, haunt-happy, exuberant teens involved, YOU SHOULD REALLY PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Mad Butcher scenes are incredibly effective at scaring patrons. However:
    1. Using real meat is a terrible, TERRIBLE idea. Yes, it looks fanTAStic at the time, but little bits of it get ground into the floor/carpet. Guess how it smells 24 hours later? 48? 72? We’re lucky we were minors.
    2. Dude, this is a CHURCH. Of COURSE they shut down the Mad Butcher room after 15 minutes – what did you THINK they’d do?
  2. If you’re doing a haunted house for a religious group or church, make sure somebody signs off on everything you’re planning BEFORE you do it.
  3. In the early ’80′s in Little Rock, Arkansas, KISS make up and a plastic cape were, apparently, REALLY scary to Baptists.
  4. When a church says “yes” to doing a haunted house, either they have a heavy agenda, the church has become so bureaucratic that they really don’t realize what they just approved, or THEIR idea of a ‘haunted house’ is miles away from YOUR idea of a ‘haunted house’.
  5. Now, as an adult thinking back on it, the lesson is that teenagers are a great resource for ideas, enthusiasm and energy. They are the Haunters of Tomorrow. However, because they have NO idea what they’re doing most of the time, they’ll either get themselves or you killed, arrested or at least in trouble if you don’t keep’em on a REAL short leash. Love’em, help’em, encourage’em – never trust’em.

Off I went to college after that. After trying a couple of colleges all over the country, I landed at the University of North Texas (just north of Dallas) in 1987. After playing at being a vampire in the local club scene in the wake of The Lost Boys for a couple of years, I discovered Haunted Verdun Manor (now Thrillvania) just east of Dallas, and my fate with the haunted attraction industry was sealed thanks to Lance Pope. He let me act at his haunted house, hang out in the off season while he built props, sets and masks, then had me create artwork and branding graphics for it (I know I have those somewhere - I plan to scan and post them here). In no small way, Lance is why Sinister Visions exists today.

This all happened in my first 20 years (I'm over twice that age now). No wonder I am the way I am.

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