Twisted minds behind haunted houses share secrets of the trade

Twisted minds behind haunted houses share secrets of the trade

October 5th, 2012 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Students from Tom Liedel's shop class at Lookout Valley High School painted a hearse that will be part of Lake Winnepesaukah's halloween celebration.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


About a month ago, Lake Winnepesaukah reached out to students at Lookout Valley High School for a little help raising the dead.

Two years ago, the North Georgia amusement park purchased a 1982 Cadillac hearse to use during its annual Halloween celebration, Lake Winnepespookah. By the time it arrived at Lookout Valley, auto body instructor Tom Liedel said it was a charcoal gray mess.

"It had a severe amount of rust showing through, and the paint was peeling off of it," he said. "It was just horrible."

Over the course of three weeks, Liedel and the 40 students in his six classes painstakingly removed the rust before sanding, priming and painting it a vivid lime green. Along with its purple hubcaps, the hearse's new color scheme matches that of Lake Winnie's logo for Winnepespookah.

Equipped with a microphone and siren, the resurrected hearse now leads the charge during the nightly parade of horrors that kicks off the festivities at Lake Winnie. Afterward, it unleashes a horde of goblins and ghouls into the park, said spokesperson Talley Green.

When not in use during the event, which continues every Friday and Saturday through Oct. 27, the hearse can be seen parked near Lake Winnie's entrance.

The first time Rickey Kean was hired to join Sir Goony's Haunted Carnival as a freak named Gator Boy, the most terrifying component of his costume wasn't the alligator mask he wore. It was a T-shirt emblazoned with the reptilian mascot of the University of Florida.

"I'm not a Florida Gators fan at all," he said, laughing.

By day, Kean, 32, works at Walmart in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., but every Halloween for the last 16 years, he has worked as a "fear engineer" in the Brainerd Road amusement center's haunted house.

Kean describes himself as laid-back and easygoing -- a "people person" -- but over the years, he steadily has learned how to squeeze every startled gasp and scream out of visitors to Sir Goony's carnival of horrors.

"Don't always go after the person in the group who looks scared," he advised. "Go after the person who doesn't look as scared because that will be the person you're probably going to get."

The Haunted Carnival and other local haunts began opening Sept. 28 and will continue weekly through the end of October, giving scare tacticians like Kean plenty of opportunities to test patrons' continence as actors in grisly, carefully crafted story lines.

Dedication to the craft

Kean is one of only two cast members to return to the Haunted Carnival annually since its inception 16 years ago.

After his first turn as Gator Boy, which he described as more amusing than scary, Kean since has portrayed a variety of characters, including a clown king, jail warden and iconic villains from slasher films.

His personal favorite, however, was the Maze Master, the ghoulish overseer of a twisted labyrinth.

Since it required Kean to endure a three- to 4-hour shift standing on two narrow metal bars 20 feet in the air, the Maze Master also happened to be his most uncomfortable role, but he said it was worth the discomfort to maintain the illusion that he was cut in half.

That willingness to go the extra mile is a characteristic the masterminds behind local Halloween haunts said they look for in their actors.

All the fog machines and creepy organ music in the world can't make up for a lackluster performance by a human actor, said Todd Patton, the co-founder of Fear Connection, which took over management of Ruby Falls' Haunted Cavern in 2007.

Patton and his partner, Tim Green, carefully screen the auditions Fear Connection hosts because so much rides on the men and women behind the masks.

"We have animatronics and things that help our actors, but ... it's the actors that make it," Patton, 42, said. "That's why we hire such a huge team."

The 60-odd actors who populate the aboveground and underground portions of the Ruby Falls haunt come from a variety of backgrounds, from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga drama students and parents to veterans who thrive on delivering a good scare.

Actors selected for roles in the Cavern must undergo a training process that includes a five- to six-hour class at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, followed by several days of on-site training, Patton said.

The work is demanding and the pay isn't great -- usually minimum wage -- but many actors consider a paycheck as more of a bonus, Patton said.

"It's not like it's the easiest job you'll ever do, but it's more fun than working at Wendy's or McDonald's," he said, adding that he began acting in haunts at age 16.

"Watching a little girl scream is a lot more fun than asking, 'Would you like a shake with that?' " he added, laughing.

Great expectations


The following are tips covered in classes held by Fear Connection for actors taking part in Ruby Falls' Haunted Cavern Halloween haunt:

• Observe visitors' personal space bubble and get inside it, but don't touch them.

• Listen for people in a group to call each other by name and then use those names to make the fear more personal.

• Each group is different, so observe how they react to the situation and adapt accordingly.

• If you can't scare a guest, entertain them or add to the foreboding by warning them of what's coming next.

• When approaching guests, come in from unexpected angles, such as at foot level or head level.

• Don't rely on horror basics such as shouting or yelling "boo."

-- Todd Patton, Fear Connection

With more and more haunted houses competing for guests and an increasingly demanding patronage, crafting a successful venue is becoming harder and more expensive.

Patton founded his first haunted house in Memphis in 1999. He eventually sold it to a partner after relocating to Chattanooga to open a Halloween supply store, Spirit of Halloween.

Since he and Green took over the Haunted Cavern, the haunt was named one of Rand McNally's Top 10 Haunted Houses of 2010. Fear Connection recently signed an extended contract to direct the haunt for three more years.

Trying to one-up themselves every year is costly and time-consuming.

Each year's Cavern is built around a theme, which Fear Connection begins developing in January. The build for the cavern portion of this year's event, which tells the story of a town eternally cursed by a powerful witch, started in July.

The aboveground portion of the build doesn't commence until after Labor Day weekend, and the two weeks it takes to complete are usually a blur of nonstop activity, Patton said.

With an average annual budget of about $20,000-$30,000, Patton said he has acquired plenty of props, which he often tries to find a way to reuse in subsequent haunts.

Resourceful reuse of props is a haunt necessity, said Sir Goony's head fear engineer, Dewayne Gass, 52. Over 16 years, he has built up a collection that sprawls across five trailer trucks.

For this year's carnival of horrors, he has pulled out all the stops, stuffing four trucks' worth into Sir Goony's two-story haunt. With all the competition that's out there, he said, there's no excuse to skimp.

Gass said Sir Goony's was one of the first in the area to employ laser lights, a nightclub-quality sound system and 3-D images. When other haunts followed suit, he and Sir Goony's owner, Dutch Magrath, added new elements, such as odor packs to fill the haunt with the aromas of cotton candy, rotting wood and bone dust, which Gass laughingly described as "smell[ing] like your great-granddaddy's feet."

As the writer responsible for penning the carnival's story line, Gass said he's constantly pushed to innovate.

"Everyone is raising the bar and pushing and trying to do well," he said. "Our biggest challenge is to stay ahead of that curve. We like to see people duplicate our style and artwork the year after we did it."

Worth the work

The Early family of McDonald, Tenn., used to keep their Halloween celebrations private until Connie Early's sister-in-law suggested turning the family's barn into a haunted house 17 years ago.

Three years later, the family invited the public in for the first time, and The Haunted Barn snowballed in popularity.

To keep pace with other haunted houses, the Earlys have built up their barn from five stalls into an elaborate, 16-room house of horrors that preys on a variety of phobias, from snakes and spiders to being buried alive. Like many haunting specialists, they regularly peruse prop catalogs and attend trade shows to keep up with trends.

Knowing what people want is the key, Early said. Every year, she, her family and dozens of volunteers conduct exit interviews to gauge guests' experiences and adjust accordingly.

One thing that's never coming off the list? The maniacs who prowl the barn's pitch-black maze.

Early said the weeks of late nights getting everything ready are worth it when she sees people run out of the maze laughing or crying with the angry whine of a motor behind them.

"Everyone loves a chainsaw chase," she said. "I don't know why, but they do. If they don't get a chainsaw chase, they get upset."



• Where: Lake Winnepesaukah, 1730 Lakeview Drive, Rossville.

• Fright nights: 6-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in October.

• What's in store: Lake Winnie gets a spooky makeover while still retaining its family-friendly atmosphere. Attractions include haunted rides, eerie edibles, hourly parades and magic shows, a costumed parade and roaming costumed characters. Attendees are encouraged to dress up as well.

• Admission: $24. Includes gate admission, unlimited rides and all Halloween attractions; $10 ride pass for ages 1-2 and 65 and older.

• Phone: 706-866-5681.

• Website:


• Where: 5017 McDonald Road, McDonald, Tenn.

• Fright nights: 7:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday in October and Nov. 2-3; gates open at 7 p.m.; last ticket sold at midnight.

• What's in store: The interior of a family barn has been built out over the years into more than a dozen rooms themed on different phobias. After navigating the rooms, a pitch-black maze filled with chainsaw-wielding maniacs awaits.

• Admission: $17. Group discounts for one person paying for 20 or more (available only by calling before arrival).

• Phone: 423-396-9790.

• Website:


• Where: 10185 County Road 14, Flat Rock, Ala. (quarter-mile off Highway 71).

• Fright nights: Open at dark Fridays and Saturdays in October, and Oct. 29-31.

• What's in store: Flat Rock Volunteer Fire Department haunt begins with a 1.5-mile hay ride into a "dark abyss of winding twisting trails" into a century-old, deserted barn where fear becomes a reality.

• Admission: $5 most nights, $7 Halloween, which includes pass for meet-and-greet with Michael Myers. Portion of proceeds goes to fire department.

• Phone: 256-605-5932.

• Website: None, but search "The Barn of Terror" to find the Facebook page.


• Where: Grand View RV Park and Cabins, 2406 Gap Road, Altamont, Tenn.

• Fright nights: 7-9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12-13, 19-20 and 26-27. (Family night: Oct. 20. A less scary tour with no monsters, designed for ages 12 and under.)

• What's in store: About three dozen actors fill more than 15 rooms designed to prey on different fears, including movie villains (Jason, Freddy and Mike Myers), the electric chair, dinosaurs, snakes, spiders, pirates and a mad doctor's lab. Additional activities include hay rides, bonfire, vortex tunnel, cornhole games.

• Admission: $5.

• Phone: 931-692-3484.

• Website: