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Haunted Houses: Public demand forces operators to add big effects

NEW YORK — He's not afraid of working in bloody environments, but Dwayne Sanburn can get squeamish when he thinks about the expectations he faces.

A nurse turned haunted house operator, Sanburn and others in the business of scaring people face a public that seems to want something bolder each year, all for a season that typically lasts only a month or so.

But keeping up with the Frankensteins isn't easy or cheap. Bedsheets cut to look like ghosts and stock sounds of creaking doors and heavy footsteps no longer suffice, big time haunters say.

"I see more of a demand from people to see a better show every year," said Sanburn, owner of the 13th Gate Haunted House in Baton Rouge, La. Sanburn, 39, credits the entertainment industry — everything from movies to theme parks — with creating a more demanding public.

"With the large haunted houses, it's not just for kids anymore," Sanburn said. "Ten years ago, all we had were teenagers that would come to the haunted house because they wanted to get scared and have a guy with a chain saw chase them."

His 40,000-square-foot facility, open from late September to early November, has 13 themed indoor and outdoor areas and on a recent Saturday drew a record 5,000 people. While he charges $15 a head, he spent $260,000 renovating before the season. Like many haunted house operators, Sanburn said by the time he recoups his costs he only makes a profit in the final days.

"You work all year for those last few nights," he said.

The numbers involved in running such an operation can be downright scary. Sanburn relies on a staff of about 120 people as well as hundreds of diamondback water snakes, a seven-foot boa constrictor named Esmerelda, an ample cast of rats and enough Madagascar hissing cockroaches to partially cover several apparently unflappable employees.

Larry Kirchner, owner of The Darkness and Creepy World attractions in St. Louis, spent about $175,000 renovating ahead of this season to add such amenities as a cave complete with two waterfalls, a bamboo bridge and a forbidding Incan temple.

"The customers these days expect what they've come to expect from anything in America anymore. You've got to think over the top," said Kirchner.

"When I first started back in 1994 we could put one on for $1,000," said Kirchner, 38. Like Sanburn, he has made a full-time job of running his facilities, which he expects will draw a combined 70,000-80,000 people during the season, which runs until early November.

Many haunted houses have adopted themes that change each season to give regular haunted house goers something new and to broaden their appeal to first-timers.

"Now you see original story lines, original themes. Nobody has Frankenstein because people would say that's too cheesy," said Kirchner, who is president of the Haunted House Association, a trade group.

Falling technology prices have made more things possible, such as computer-generated ghosts.

"Technology has caught up to where anybody can afford to do Disney-style effects," said Kirchner.

Overall, Kirchner noted, there are about 3,000 haunted houses in the United States that charge an average of about $10-$15.

While the price might seem steep to some, people are willing to pay for a good scare and some authenticity, said haunted house impresario Randy Bates.

Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in Glen Mills, Pa., uses real tombstones in his mock graveyard. Guests wander along a corn trail where costumed employees emerge from among the 14-foot-tall stalks.

"It's like live theater but you're on stage with the actor," said Bates, who now has attractions stretching over about one-third of his 82-acre farm on which he grows alfalfa, corn and Christmas trees, and raises livestock.

To elicit hearty screams, he estimates he spent between $400,000-$500,000 this year readying the haunted house — the Bates Motel — as well as the corn trail and hayride for the 24 nights he plans to be open this season. Given the tight timeline Bates pays a $2,500 premium for a $40,000 insurance policy for each weekend night in case rain keeps thrill-seekers away.

"I basically have one week in order to make my entire annual salary," he said.

The farm, not far outside Philadelphia, also has a mock strip mall where the scariest thing isn't paying retail, but stores like "Blood, Bath and Beyond" and "Aberzombie and Twitch." Actors, who make up about half his staff of 180, do their part to help scare wary passers-by on the hayride.

Bates, 49, has found the haunting business more lucrative than farming and now draws about 80 percent of his income from it. He estimates his attractions could draw a record 65,000-70,000 people this season.

"It's a family farm and we were looking for ways to supplement the income," he said. "I'm going to be able to give this farm to my kids debt-free."

But running a haunted house isn't a frighteningly easy way to make a buck, operators say.

"One of the misconceptions people have is you only work a couple months of the year," said Sanburn. "That couldn't be further from the truth. We were putting in 18-20 hour days right before we opened."

Sanburn, who has run a haunted house for 12 years, works on the 13th Gate about nine months of the year.

Indeed, there was much work to be done. This year, instead of walking over live snakes on a rickety bridge, visitors walk under a Plexiglas ceiling with the snakes above them.

The creativity they're pressed to summon takes a special devotion, Kirchner said. High costs and a scarcity of available spaces amid the recent real estate boom make it a difficult business.

Kirchner noted that in the mid-1990s many people tried to open haunted houses only to realize how much work they require.

"Just like not everybody can be a brain surgeon, not everyone can be a haunter," he said.

On the Net: The 13th Gate:

The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride:

The Darkness:

Haunted House Association: