This is day 44 of our 61-day Hauntathon counting down to Halloween. Here’s one of the producers of Terror Vault The Immortal Reckoning, Joshua Grinnell to share more about the attraction, some of its history, and some of his history as well.
Tickets for The Immortal Reckoning are available online now. The show is open Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $60 for a 60-minute immersive experience, with a $5 optional add on “to become part of the show in a fully interactive way.” An important note, all attendees must show proof of vaccination to enter the building and masks must be worn at all times.
What Is Terror Vault?
Joshua: So, Terror Vault is a site-specific, immersive, haunted attraction, that’s really narrative. It actually is a haunted attraction with a script. I write a script for it that the actors all have. And so, very much my, and my business partner, David Flowers, love of growing up with haunted mazes, and haunted houses, mashed up with our more adult production experience of doing immersive theater and immersive events.
We created this show specifically to mash up our love of both of those things. So yes, actors will jump out at you, yes, there are dropped panels, but you also find yourself in the middle of scenes where actors are doing scripted dialogue and the whole show has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
What Is the Story the Immortal Reckoning?
Joshua: So, Terror Vault, the first couple years, had a very specific storyline, which was that the San Francisco Mint Building after the 1906 earthquake was secretly used by the federal government and the city of San Francisco as a prison. So, this was before Alcatraz was built, and so we created this sort of scenario where the mystery of the San Francisco mint building was that they were actually housing prisoners in the vaults. So, we built a haunted ghost story around that that storyline.
This year, because of the pandemic and because of wanting to shake things up and having more time, David and I decided to switch gears and try to do something a little different, which then ended up being a lot different because we created a whole new storyline. Which is that, later in the history of the San Francisco Mint, the Blackwell family, who owns the largest collection of a cult artifacts in the world, was utilizing the mint to store these expensive and powerful items. You are invited, as the guests, to come and see this collection.
Of course, one of those items causes things to go haywire, alongside one of the characters in the show, and a portal to another dimension opens up, and you as the guest go through this dimension and must actually go on an adventure in order to basically make it back before time has run out and the Immortal Reckoning occurs.
How Was the Experience Designed for the Guests?
Joshua: I think that the challenge for us has been, how do we create an experience that is an elevated version of the haunted maze, the haunted house, that we loved so much as children? And how do we make it so that it’s both entertaining to the people who want the shit scared out of them, as well as people who are really interested in the storytelling and immersive components of the show?
We’ve designed it so that there’s even stuff available to you before you get to the Mint. So, you as a guest, buying a ticket to this museum walk can actually learn about some of the items on our website. If you’re not interested in the storytelling and just want to come and have a chainsaw thrown in your face, we’ll do that too. We really are trying to walk the line between satisfying, both. For us, it works really well. It’s the kind of show that we want to see happen, so we made it happen. Luckily, for our audience, our demographic, especially in the Bay Area, this seems to have been a correct decision.
What we found is people look at our ticket price, for example, and if they are assuming it’s a haunted maze experience, our ticket price looks quite high to people, we start at $50 and go up from there. But when folks come to the show, even if they’re skeptical about the ticket price, what we really love is that nobody complains about the price after they’ve been through the show. And that to me is, “okay, we’re doing our job, right? No one who reviews the show questions, the ticket price.” So, we delivered, but the challenge for us is to convince people it’s a 60-minute theatrical attraction.
There’s a Mini Show Inside of the Immortal Reckoning
We’re not only doing the new show, The Immortal Reckoning, but there’s a part of the show this year that centers around a storyline which is a vampire bar set in the eighties. We’re actually creating the vampire bar at the mint, which will be open to the public. In addition to the Immortal Reckoning, which is our full show, we’re also doing this whole immersive pop-up vampire bar experience.
So, in The Immortal Reckoning, there is this whole section that’s built around this character, Eli Barnaby, and Eli. Barnaby’s this old queen who’s a vampire who has this eighties, new wave, goth club that vampires run, and then certain nights it’s vampire only, and you have to have a password to get in, and this is all woven into the show.
So, inside the show The Immortal Reckoning, you get to meet these characters. Outside of the show, we decided why not create our bar to be Fang Bang. And we’ve created a bar experience with actors, with a story storyline, so if you come and you drink at the Fang Bang there will be vampire DJs, vampire strippers, vampire go-go dancers, vampire bartenders, and you may get wrapped up in some of the vampire drama.
We will have things specific to the folks that actually opt in and purchase a red necklace. So, when they check in for their show, they’ll get a red necklace, a red glow necklace, so that when they’re drinking at the bar, our actors actually know like, “oh, that person’s game.” I don’t want to give too much away, but we do have experiences like, a vampire pulling you back to a private dressing room and having a moment with you, let’s just say you might come out with teeth marks on the side of your neck and you may get locked in a coffin, or you may get a lap dance from a vampire in a room where other people can watch, you know?
Guest Feedback on the Fang Bang Bar
“When one of the characters grabbed me and pushed me away and took my place behind the person in front of me and scared the crap out of the girl in front of me, I laughed for 20 minutes with her. I had to apologize to her for laughing so hard, but she was laughing so hard too. It was like, we loved it.”
“Of all the haunted places I’ve ever been to and gone through, I have to tell you the performance level here is incredible. The storyline itself, that gets you involved from the minute that you walked past the black curtain and you’re entering, to the second that you leave, you’re part of the show, it never stops, they’re constantly going, and it’s very well done, extremely well done. There’s some portions of it where you’re walking through and you’re like, “okay, like this is fun. I’m walking through a museum tour of an old historic building,” and then, the next thing you know, you’re being rushed into a back alley where you have to know a password to go to a vampire party. What could possibly go wrong going to a vampire party?”
Joshua’s Background in Film and the Haunt Industry
Joshua: Both David and myself, as the two creators, come from very different backgrounds, but both of us have been interested in creating immersive experiences. So, David actually comes from a night life and a haunted attraction business that he was doing in Province town on the tip of Cape Cod, and doing it very well, and designing and creating giant immersive events.
I, as a drag performer, I’m best known as Peaches Christ, who is a horror loving drag queen, I’ve made horror movies. Even when we did my feature film, All About evil, starting to Tasha Leone and Elvira, and I took it on the road, it was very inspired by William Castle, the experience that we did. The audience came in, they were meeting characters from the movie, I hired actors who went on the road with me, who played the Natasha Leone character, who played the ushers of the movie theater, because the movie takes place in a cinema. So, we would turn these movie theaters into the scene of the movie. That, for both David and myself, has always been something we love and have executed in very different ways.
So, when sitting down and deciding, okay, we’re going to do this, we’re going to create a haunted attraction for San Francisco, and we have the coolest space. You know, The San Francisco Mint building is so old, it’s so haunted, it’s big and Gothic and scary. Like, we’ve got to make it site-specific, we have to use the mint and then what story can we tell? That being said, we don’t necessarily love the idea of the extreme haunted attraction. However, if it ties into the story, and the audience wants it, our actors and folks are trained to know if a guest is opting in for more interactivity. It’s very hard to know what everyone wants, because they all want something different. So, we try to gauge it so that the experience satisfies people in different ways.
Philip: Talk a little bit about how you came to haunting. What were you doing before you started this in 2018?
Joshua: So, most of my career has been accidental. Like I did drag as a hobby when I moved to San Francisco, and I became Peaches Christ as a sort of angry, punk rock form of expression. I really was pursuing being a filmmaker, I studied film production in college, and I was just a horror loving kid from the time I was tiny. But when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, I did haunted attractions, my mother would sell tickets at the box office, my father would take the chain off the chainsaw; this is back in the eighties, and they were successful. And it was my first real experience as a director, as a leader, as a manager, creator, producer, and it was life changing.
And so even though my young adult life took the direction of being a drag performer, my shows, my midnight masque movie events, were very much a version of my haunted attractions; they involved the audience, they had scares, there was interactivity. So, it’s that thing where, I think for me, it’s always been a dream to have a haunted attraction.
But it was hard. I have to say to, to get it off the ground, to find a space in San Francisco, the business side of it is so challenging; especially when you’re working in a very expensive city to work in. I been wanting to do it for years. It just took a while.
Philip: Do you think your studies in film impacted your view of immersive entertainment?
Joshua: I definitely think my studies in film have helped with the haunted attraction, because my primary focus, regardless of what I’m doing, is that I’m a storyteller. So, I’m an entertainer, I like to think of myself as an entertainer, more than an artist. If other people want to call me an artist, that’s great. I have taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, I’ve done those things, but I think of myself as a show person who likes to put on a great show, and part of putting on a great show for me, my method has always been to tell a story.
Vault of Terror’s 2020 Pivot the Screaming Telegraph
Joshua: I think when we’ve realized that 2020 was a bust, obviously, and we were so bummed, I was looking around and realizing that delivery services were actually still able to work. My partner is in the restaurant business, and so I was watching and going, “oh my God, deliveries are through the roof. People still want to have, an experience coming to them from outside of their own homes.” My business partner, David and I, talked about what could we do? We just started to advertise that you could hire one of our scary clowns to show up at your friend or family member’s home, and we would have them fill out a form including questions like, “what would humiliate them? What would horrify them?” So, the clowns would work these sort of secret stories into their monologues. In some of these things were horrible, it could easily have backfired,
luckily it didn’t, most people were very amused. We did have a few doors slammed in faces, it was a hoot, and I’m glad that we did it, and I wish we could bring it back this year. But because we’re overwhelmed with the new show… So, we’re just a little overwhelmed. We actually built the Immortal Reckoning believing that we were going to open it in 2020, we really did. So there were things that were designed into the show that have carried over, things like automatic screen boxes for the actors, we have a lot of prerecorded moments in the show, we have a lot of screaming and noise and triggers that we would not normally have done, because we did not want, the droplets flying through the air, and we knew the actors were going to be wearing masks. But I actually think that keeping those things is a way to move forward, and regardless I think they’re going to enhance the show and actually make it easier for the actors to do their thing.
What Changes Have Been Made to the Experience?
Joshua: We have, so we’ve lessened the groups, the group size. In our first year we would put through groups of 12, we now are limiting it to groups of 8. We cannot do a conga line type show because there are scenes, the pacing of the show is very crucial. So, by lessening the size of the groups people can spread out more in the rooms. We’ve also instituted a new policy of all guests and all cast members, and all crew must be vaccinated. So that’s a new challenge that we are learning about as we move forward, which means we’ve had to hire more security and create different scenarios. Before we didn’t worry so much about whether or not people went through the show with strangers, now it’s more of a concern.
Is Terror Vault Having Issue With Staffing?
Joshua: Knock on wood, we actually have been really fortunate. It has not been nearly the crisis that I thought it was going to be. In fact, I would say that probably 85% to 90% of our cast for the Immortal Reckoning are returning cast members who are already on payroll for, Into The Dark Productions, which is the name of our production company. So, that’s quite lovely, because as you know onboarding people is a whole thing, it’s very costly, and just learning the building. The building itself is a labyrinth before we put up mazes.
I’m really glad that we have so many returning cast members. And then the other thing that we’re doing, for the first time ever, is we’ve always hired out and partnered with outside clients and companies for things like security, and even our bartending staff and things. But we’ve decided not to this year, and we’ve taken over operations of everything, put together our own licensed security team. And I’m really excited about that because I just feel like a lot of my frustrations were unfairly directed towards guards in the past who were just being hired randomly. I want the guards to feel like they’re part of our team, I want everyone to feel like they can sit in the same green room and see each other and know each other. So, the bartenders, the guards, the actors, the crew, we’re all in this together.
Philip: Did you have to adjust compensation at all?
Joshua: We did. You may know that, I believe, our minimum wage in San Francisco might be one of the highest in the countries; it’s over $16 an hour. So, we just rounded up and all of our actors, performers, crew, everyone makes a base amount of money at $17 an hour this year which is a huge hit for us financially in 2018.
We were paying people, a nightly performance fee, 1099ed, and the budget for our show was a lot easier to manage, but with this new law and having to put everyone on payroll, and in San Francisco they can no longer 1099.
It’s a lot, and I mean, to hire quality security guards we’re paying $35 an hour, and so I expect quality service. But you get what you pay for, right? If you cheap out on your security or your actors, especially in a big city, you’re going to get what you pay for.
Philip: Yeah, and that’s my next question. Like, how did you adjust the show for that? Is it just that you’re going down further into the quality experience where, now that everybody is an employee, they’re all on payroll, you’re able to really home in on the quality? And so that makes the show a higher price point because there’s much more quality? Was that you’re thinking on it?
Joshua: Yes, and no.
Philip: Because you couldn’t be like, “let’s double the throughput,” cause it’s a restricted building. So, there are only so many ways you could adjust your business model to compensate.
How Has Terror Vault Compensated for Higher Staffing Costs?
Joshua: You’re right. Honestly, In the second year it was a lot harder for us to make our net back because of that extra expense. And so, what we did was we got creative, knowing that we had to spend a lot more money on payroll. What we ended up doing was looking at all of our assets, everything we had, what could be recycled, how could we repaint these things, what new story could I tell? So, we just did a lot less buying. Like that first year at Transworld, we bought a lot of props, and we were a lot freer with our spending for the spectacle and buying things that were already created. That second year with the payroll, we had to go more in house and do some cheap old school illusions and things like, which I have to say, I actually think being constricted financially sometimes leads to the best creativity.
Philip: The old school effects are very potent, and especially with an intimate environment that you’re creating like that with a guest experience.
Joshua: Yeah. I mean when I made All About Evil, one of the things that the producers kept suggesting to me was more CGI, because we are in San Francisco, there were a lot of people willing to produce effects for us. And I kept arguing, “this is a movie inspired by Herschel Gordon Lewis.” Like I’m wanting practical everything, I don’t want CGI anything. Does it look as realistic as maybe a CGI effect? No, maybe not. But somehow, I think we believe it more, we want to believe it more.
Philip: Because it’s a real physical thing.
Joshua: I feel like it sells better, and we use the same sort of approach in the show. All the lighting, all of it’s there to enhance performances, it’s all there to enhance the storytelling, we very rarely have just a spectacle or an effect that isn’t working in conjunction with an actor.
Joshua Talks About Ticket Sales The Red Necklace
Joshua: We’ve only had two years in the past, so we really did an early push to our existing fans on newsletters and things. And ticket sales are fine, I think we were hoping that they’d be amazing. They’re very similar to what they’ve been in other years. In fact, we probably sold more tickets, I just think that our expectation was like, “oh my God, we’re going to sell like crazy.” And both David and I, luckily, in other parts of our career have events that sell that way. So, we have been moving tickets for sure. I will say this, so we actually decided to charge for the red necklaces for the first time ever this year, because with the vampire bar experience, we want the vampire actors to hone in on the people that want the immersive experience, but also the customers that bought tickets to our show and are like buying. So, we had other reasons for charging.
If anything, we have more people opting in for the red necklace now that we’re charging than we did when it was free. It’s hilarious. We’re like, “wait this is a whole ‘nother…” and it’s $5 a pop. When you do the numbers and do the math for something that we were not monetizing at all, we were really missing out on something.
Philip: So, if it costs nothing, people think there’s no value to it.
Is the San Francisco Mint Haunted?
Joshua: Yeah, I definitely think the mint is haunted. I’m not one of those people who thinks much is haunted, in fact, I’m probably a skeptic, and horrible things happened at the mint. Like in 1906 when the earthquake happened and the city was on fire, the mint employees were instructed to shut all of the metal shutters, and they were instructed to do that, to protect the gold, but also, they had to keep the walls wet from a central well built in the middle of the building’s central courtyard. And the story is pretty well-documented that people were burning alive, begging to be let in, because it was one of the only standing buildings left and the city was on fire. So, of course it’s haunted.
So, my experiences have definitely been things like noises that can’t be explained, doors shutting on their own, seeing things, you know, is your mind playing tricks on you or did I? Especially when you’re walking through your own haunted attraction, it’s hilarious how effectively scary it can be? I built all this, I designed all this, why the am I terrified walking through this thing by myself? But my mind can go there, and I can convince myself that someone’s watching me. So, I’m pretty sure it’s haunted.