Keith Newsom, aka Snappy the Clown, has been performing at local haunts for years. by Brian Kaiser

Dare to Scare

Editor’s note: Since it came to our attention there was a documentary made about local haunted attraction performers, we wanted to

do our own documentary work to accompany it. Rather than unmask the performers entirely, Brian Kaiser wanted to place them in their everyday lives, yet still in their night-job uniform. Unsettling? Unique? Yeah, probably a bit of both.

No one plans months in advance what to wear to a Christmas party. That’s why Halloween has quickly become the favorite holiday for those tired of turkey and averse to eggnog. The trend is more than seasonal—it’s cultural.

Horror movies are hotter than ever, and Netflix and Amazon are clamoring to greenlight projects that once would have withered. Originally an outlier, AMC’s The Walking Dead routinely draws more viewers than all NFL games combined. Even Jo-Ann starts stocking shelves in July with spiders and skulls long before the last of the fireworks fade.

Despite your costume cred, stitch witchery, and amateur pumpkin craft, haunted house operators are way ahead of you. For a few weeks a year, their long lines and theatrical thrills pack them in. But what goes on behind the scenes has largely remained an industry mystery—until now.

The indie documentary SCARE rips the mask off “haunted attractions,” the technical term for live performance venues that defy your sense of reality, and occasionally

control of your bladder. Columbus filmmaker Don Patterson “shot and chopped” the project over more than a decade, culminating with the final season of a local landmark of terror,
the ScareAtorium.

“There’s so much more to this than just building a haunted house. You’ve got actor training, and make-up artists, and scene decorators,” explained Kelly Collins. He and his wife Neena founded the Midwest Haunters Convention, the country’s largest gathering for operators and enthusiasts, bringing standards and insight to the industry. “There’s more to a haunted house than handing someone a mask and saying, ‘Here, go scream at people.’”

For those who still tremble from memories of Terror Park at the old Cooper Stadium, Frightmore Manor in Dublin, and The Northland Asylum and RIP’s 3D Funhouse—now better known collectively as the ScareAtorium—you can thank Kelly and Neena, whose fitting 13-year run is practically unprecedented.

“When Kelly and I first got together, I had no idea there was such a thing as the haunted attraction industry,” she confessed. “Don has footage in the documentary going all the way back to Terror Park. He’s been capturing it since the very beginning.”

Ask any performer whether screen or stage acting is more challenging and rewarding, and most would agree on latter. And there’s definitely evidence of that in the ranks of haunted attractions. From the high school goths who maybe never fit in to theater folk looking for a novel outlet for select skills, there’s a tribe here that starts to resemble more of a family from one year to the next.

“I got my start as the general manager of a campground, and every Saturday at noon I’d get on the tractor, take everyone up into the woods, circle this big tree and come back,” he recalled. “One day a bunch of kids hid behind the tree and jumped out and scared everyone.”

“There’s more to a haunted house than handing someone a mask and saying, ‘Here, go scream at people.’”

Instead of scolding them, Kelly recruited them—keeping the standard hayride by day, but creating a spooky hayride at night that proved wildly popular. That’s when he was approached by the local Jaycees to turn it into something more. They’d recently lost the lease on their haunted house and partnered with Kelly to create a haunted hayride. He was hooked.

“The Jaycees are credited with creating the haunted house industry,” he explained. “Many of the oldest haunts in the country were started or still operated by the Jaycees.”

Short for “Junior Chamber,” the Jaycees, like many long-standing service organizations, have struggled in recent years to attract younger members. But for decades, they operated haunted houses as both a fundraiser and a recruiting effort. Even I didn’t know the Jaycees created the concept of the haunted house, and I used to volunteer throughout high school at one they operated in my hometown in the storage barn of a creepy old train depot.

Ohio actually leads the nation in the number of haunted attractions. Lower lease and land costs are part of it, but so is the Midwestern work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. But it’s still a business.

“Even though we’re only open in October, Neena ran the business year-round. A lot of people who make the jump from home haunt to a professional haunt don’t last long,” he revealed. “Whether they decorated the backyard, garage, or basement, you can’t go to a bank to borrow that kind of money for a seasonal business that’s only open 20 days a year.”

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, aka Smiley Virus prepares dinner for her son and a friend. She’s been performing for eight years. By Brian Kaiser

That was the impetus for the Midwest Haunters Convention. Unlike private trade shows that mostly showcase cheap eeks and pricey props, the couple started a public convention to bridge the transition from passion project to profitability, offering classes on the business and art of haunted attractions.

“People sometimes get into it thinking they’re going to make money, but it typically takes three years to break even. They often fail for lack of knowledge, like not understanding fire codes,” Kelly noted, sharing the story of a haunt in an old school building that had to put $150,000 upfront into a sprinkler system before they could even open.

“Code standards are higher for haunted houses than they are for schools,” chided Neena. “People often ask us what it takes to run a million-dollar haunt and I tell them about $3 million.”

Neighbors can also be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re doing. Germain Amphitheater closed for lots of reasons. Competition, controversy, and crowd control killed it long before an invasion of Scandinavian furniture. But noise and traffic complaints from nearby homeowners were probably the final nail in the coffin.

“Having a haunted house in a former funeral home sounds great, until you consider the parking problem. There just aren’t enough spaces,” he explained. “We had three great locations, but with 10,000 people coming through a year, even we had to keep moving.”

Upping the adrenaline also requires keeping things fresh, which for the Collins required replacing roughly a third of the attraction each year, with construction on new rooms starting as early as March.

Fortunately, their rate of staff return provided the continuity many haunts lack and envy. They fostered talent with an audition process and informal mentoring from actors and artisans who quickly became more than just part-time employees.

“When we’d break for meals, I’d make everyone put their phones away. I was a dad like that to everyone,” Kelly confessed. “Of the 150 or so staff, we had about 85 percent return year after year. It really became more of a family. We cherished it,” Neena noted.

The Collinses recently sold their creepy creation to Thirteenth Floor, the nation’s premiere haunted house operator. Though the two are technically retired, and their haunt lives on under new management and through the documentary, it may not be the last we see of them.

“Kelly will still be consulting with the Midwest Haunters Convention and he may be doing some work with Shadowbox Live in Columbus,” Neena revealed. “Even in retirement, he’s busier than ever.”

13th Floor Haunted House, still Columbus’s largest haunted attraction, is located at 2605 Northland Plaza. For open dates, tickets, and group rates, visit 13thfloorcolumbus.com. To view a trailer for SCARE, visit youtu.be/teo0UHkCldY.

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