Moving into new territory with the installation of a haunt at a historic site in Canada
I was thinking this blog should probably be called A Scott After Opening Dark, because it’s all about my first experience in Canada opening a new haunt in Edmonton, Alberta, called “Dark.” For this blog, my plan was to get interviews with some of the co-creators and actors, but, as we all know when opening an attraction—especially when it’s never happened before—things get a little wacky and crazy. So, no interviews with those people, although I did do one with myself, which we’ll get to in a bit. I’ve got lots to tell you about this haunt experience.
The Genesis of “ Dark ”
Basically, Dark is a three-haunt experience that takes place in Fort Edmonton Park, which is an outdoor museum similar to Colonial Williamsburg here in the States. They’ve replicated different streets to represent particular areas and times in Canadian history and, specifically, Edmontonian history. There’s a main fort, which wasn’t a military fort it but a trapper’s fort; and areas themed to 1885, 1905, and the 1920s.
I began working on this haunt last March, and there have been many, many different iterations, many different versions of this project. We finally settled on me being the writer and consultant for the installation of this three-haunt Halloween experience.
The folks at Fort Edmonton Park have done Halloween experiences before. They did a more family- and kid-friendly Halloween experience called Spooktacular, but, for this past year, they decided they wanted to ramp up things and make them scarier with an eye to audiences 14 years and older. They contacted me, and I helped them write out three different storylines that utilized their assets—the historic buildings, the historic streets, the wagons, and as much stuff on site as possible. The cool thing for me was, I love a challenge, but I also liked the opportunity of having all of these incredibly detailed and themed buildings and sets that we didn’t have to build.
Three Dark Stories
The first of the three haunts was called Slaughter Pack, which involved a fictional look at Edmonton’s history. The story, which took place in 1885, tells the tale of when werewolves came and inhabited Edmonton and how the village townspeople tried to fight back any way they could. Of course, the Church said the influx of werewolves was because there were too many sinners. The doctor said it was a scientific issue, so he was performing these godawful experiments on the werewolves. Finally, the townspeople rallied and decided they’d all come together and find everything they could that was silver and attack these werewolves. Well, guess what. The werewolves won. So that was one of the haunts.
Another one was called Dead Wedding, because I wanted to provide as much variety as possible. We did a romantic sort of love story that took place in 1905 and went horribly, horribly wrong. The bride, groom, and mother of the bride all showed up dead right before the wedding was to take place. The haunt itself was sort of a ghostly retelling of the story.
For this haunt, the buildings weren’t in the right order as far as the way I wanted to originally put the story together, so I decided to make it a sort of nightmarish retelling and have the characters appear at different places telling different pieces of the overarching story. It was non-linear, but it gave you the whole linear story by the time you got to the end. That seemed to work out really well. Based on what the guest were saying, they got it.
The third haunt in Dark was called A Taste of Eternity. It was all about a contemporary cult that came to Edmonton, set up shop, so to speak, and tried to get converts. They were promising people eternal life, but the way they were guaranteeing that wasn’t necessarily that people would live on in their own bodies but rather as the food for the immortal core of this cult. When you have a cult that’s all about immortality, you don’t really need converts. All you need is food, and that’s what that haunt was all about.
In addition to the haunts, there was a centralized location called The Dark Circle. This was basically a beer garden with culinary opportunities and, of course, a little bit of liquid courage. It featured some really cool contracted acts that were out there performing and having a great time. There were some of the most beautiful Day of the Dead stilt walkers there—which I wish I could take full credit for, but I can’t. They did just a beautiful job.
Working (Mostly) Remotely from Another Country
Based on the opening two nights, when I was there, Dark was an absolute blast. It really captured what Halloween means to me. The nice thing too, for me, is this wasn’t just my first haunt in Canada but the first haunt I’d worked on outside the United States. There were some unusual challenges because I was doing much of it remotely, sending ideas and talking to people via text message and email and phone calls and that sort of thing. I did go up to Canada three times during the course of the process—once to do a site walkthrough, once to do a final pitch meeting for the senior leadership team, and, of course, a nine-day visit in which we did training and prepared for the opening. At the pitch meeting, we did the casting for the event. It’s odd to say I did pitch meeting and casting in the same trip, but we had to get the final sign-off and the last thumbs up, so it worked out well.
The Joys of Collaboration and Making New Friends
During those days of training and helping them open, we talked through some logistical issues and challenges. As different as it was being in a cold climate and being in a different country, there were also some of the same basic challenges that any sort of theme park, outdoor park, or museum has in getting everybody on board. Communication is one of the hardest things in any event that has multiple disciplines. These guys at Fort Edmonton Park came together very quickly and very well, and, as exhaustion started to hit, I was thrilled to see nobody’s tempers got out of line. Everybody pitched in, made changes on the fly, and made things happen. The actors that are part of this event were so kind, and they all developed this immediate kinship with each other, so the actors in each of the houses was like a little family. It’s so neat to see that happen, and it happens everywhere with haunts.
Another great aspect of the process was how much fun it was to work with a whole new team and make super-fast friends. I didn’t realize how quickly we’d become friends and how deep those bonds went until I had to actually leave. It was really sad to say goodbye, and I didn’t even get to finish the whole haunt season. It was just a great experience, and it’s nice to see haunts in Canada. Installing them there is similar to installing them in the United States—they have the same challenges, and they have the same great outcome. When you’re designing a haunt for an outdoor history museum, you don’t have to go scrounging around for great scenic, you don’t have to replicate walking into the woods because you are walking into the woods. That made it really fun and very exciting.
My Interview with Myself
Next, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Edmonton. This is from the interview I did with myself as I was walking about the city during my time there installing Dark. I stayed in a little Air BnB just off White Avenue, which is this fun, hipster, main drag that has lots of restaurants, shops, and such. In the other direction is the North Saskatchewan river, which I’d cross to go into downtown or the place where all the high-rises are. Edmonton has a wonderful river valley that apparently came about because of a flood. So, this beautiful green space is the result of a flood that happened in the early 1900s. It’s a great place to walk.
The people in Edmonton are so welcoming and so kind. So, if you have a chance to visit Edmonton, whether it’s for a haunt or not, do it. I think you’ll really like the city. It’s a great place to drink Tim Horton’s Coffee and have a wonderful time with some wonderful people.
A Visit to Deadmonton
I also had the opportunity to experience another haunted attraction in Edmonton, which is called Deadmonton. Whenever I get a chance to see somebody else’s haunt, I’m going to go, because I want everybody’s haunt to be good. You’ve heard me say that before, and I won’t get up on that soapbox again. We went, we experienced it, and it was a blast. It was just so much fun, and very, very different from what we were doing at Dark, which was great.
Deadmonton had an infection theme. There was some sort of infection, and the military had taken over. It’s in a big, old warehouse, and you can tell it’s a labor of love because it’s all parts and pieces that have been added throughout the years, which is what so many of you haunt owners out there do. They had a green-laser swamp that was really well executed, and the performer in that space did a great job of rising out of the laser swamp. For those of you who don’t know what a laser swamp is, it’s basically a green or blue laser that’s used through fog or haze to create what appears to be a liquid or a moving environment or surface.
There was also a scare I really enjoyed—and the people with me enjoyed even more. I was walking through, and I had my hat on, since it was cold. There was a scare performer overhead who, without me feeling it or even noticing it, knocked my hat off and scared the people behind me when I went to pick it up.
So, if you’re in Edmonton during Halloween season and you have the chance, visit Deadmonton, because it’s also an excellent haunted attraction.
The Hidden Track
I thought I was at the end of my blog, but it turns out I’ve got more to say. Some of you aren’t old enough to understand what I’m talking about, but, if this were the ‘60s or ‘70s and this blog were a vinyl record, what I’m about to talk about would be called the hidden track—this is a track that isn’t listed on the album and comes after the last track has played. It’s the one that everybody always thought was cool because it was assumed to be something special or it didn’t fit with the rest of the album. This idea has been reinvigorated by Marvel movies, so if you’re significantly younger than I am, this is like that scene after the credits, the purpose of which is either to provide a tease about something that’s coming up, share a little bit of information, or just get you to hang out a little bit longer.
The real purpose of what I’m adding here is that I have something I want to talk about real quick. I went back to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa last Halloween. I’ve gone every year since I left. At first, I thought it was going to be difficult to go back and see it again, because I wasn’t involved. I went as a guest, and I had so much fun. I had such a blast, and that made me think about how we all need to continue to support these haunts—whether we still work for them or not.
It also made me realize how proud I am to have been a part of the formative years of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa. I was there for the first 15 years of it and got to work with thousands of wonderful people. After I left the company in 2014, I’ve been to every single Howl-O-Scream, but I was a little bit disappointed. I don’t know whether it was because the quality of the event dwindled a little bit or because I was looking at it through a more critical eye because I wasn’t there anymore. Either way, this past year was very, very strong. Kudos to those incredible people who’ve taken up the mantle of Howl-O-Scream—the entertainment department, all the haunt actors, the designers, the teams that install the houses and the scare zones, the audio and the lighting, the people who put together the shows. The entire Howl-O-Scream team and the management team at Busch Gardens in Tampa deserves a huge pat on the back for keeping something that’s obviously very near and dear to my heart alive and well.
While I was there, I ran into quite a few folks I’d worked with before, and so many of them were asking, “Do you feel bad you’re not here anymore?” Others were saying, “We miss you.” Of course, I miss the people who were part of my very first after-dark family and, if any of you are reading this, my love goes out to you. To those of you I didn’t get a chance to work with before, I want to say I’m so proud to see this event continuing to grow and continuing to find new technologies that didn’t exist when we first started this crazy thing, what, 19 years ago?
I love the fact there are new house ideas and new scare zone ideas. It’s not the same event as when I was there, and I’m glad it’s not the same event. I’m glad it’s gotten a breath of fresh air, and it’s on the upswing. From what I could tell, the crowds were significant. So, it appears to be a continuing, viable element that’s part of the Busch Gardens brand, and I’m so excited.
It’s sort of like when you’re a parent and you watch your kids grow up. They go through a period of behavior you may not necessarily approve of, but you trust you’ve set a really good foundation and they’ll find a way to make themselves better than you ever anticipated. That’s what’s happened with Howl-O-Scream.
I was looking back at all the hard work and all the challenges and say, “Gosh, you guys don’t have any of those challenges,” but then I was talking to Ben Dewitt, who’s pretty much the guy in charge now, and he said to me, “We have new challenges,” which I totally understand.
I know everybody talks about Halloween Horror Nights, which is also an excellent event, but I have to admit I’m biased toward Howl-O-Scream, simply because I was part of it and it was part of me for so very, very long.
So, this little hidden track, this little hidden gem, this little post-credit scene isn’t here to do anything other than give my faithful listeners and readers—all you true believers out there—a little extra Halloween present—especially my friends who are working at Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa. I want to say, “Great job, and thank you so much for an incredible night.”
“What’s Your Favorite House?”
Of course, when I was with Howl-O-Scream, everybody always asked me, “What’s your favorite house?” As the creator or producer, I could never pick a favorite, because you have to recognize all your family members as viable. This time was no different. People asked me as I was leaving and on social media, “What was your favorite house this year? What was your favorite experience?” All of them had really wonderful elements to them. They all had really powerful things happening. There were some great performances as well as some of the same challenges we had back in the day.
But, now that I don’t work there anymore, I can actually pick a favorite. I’m sure this would change if I were to go again, but, based on my experience this past season, I’d choose “Insomnia.” Insomnia was beautiful, and it stands out as something unique within their overall show package. Insomnia, as the name suggests, takes place in a sleep-disorder clinic, and it plays off of all the nightmares you could possibly imagine. It was written by a very dear friend, an absolute genius, a gentleman by the name of Claude Smith. It was, of course, installed by the Busch Gardens team and all their external contractors. The actors in there were great.
All the other houses were great, but I absolutely loved Insomnia. Then, of course, the oldest house, which I still had a little bit of a hand in working on, is still there and still going strong. That house is bayou-themed. I’ll just leave it at that. It’s a great house as well.
Now that I can finally break my silence and don’t have to be the person who remains neutral, I can say Insomnia was a tremendous addition to the overall product of Howl-O-Scream. But the entire event was amazing. And yes, I bought my own ticket, so this isn’t a paid advertisement. I just want to say thanks to all of Howl-O-Scream team for giving me a really fun night of haunt in Tampa, Florida.
So, now I really am done with this blog.
For information about next year’s Dark at Fort Edmonton, visit the website for the haunt. On my Scott in The Dark page, I’ve posted a couple of images and some news reports that were done on the Dark.
After doing the Dark, we’ve garnered significantly more Canadian listeners for my podcast, so if you happen to be in Canada, please join our Facebook group, so you can become part of the Scott in The Dark community and share your thoughts, ideas, your successes, your challenges, and, of course, your suggestions for upcoming episodes of the show.
This is Scott Swenson from A Scott In the Dark, saying, “Rest in peace.”