Haunts across the country are rolling out the blood-red carpet to welcome couples for a Valentine’s evening of treats. The first haunt open was The Haunt in Atascadero. Coming up, we’ll go on location to experience their Valentine’s Scary Tales Revisited. The haunt in Atascadero will run their Valentine’s Scary Tales 5 select nights through February 14th.
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How Did Chris Towers Start Haunting?
Chris: My name is Chris Towers. I am the owner and director of the haunt here in Atascadero. We just finished our 6th Halloween in there and we just got our lease extension for three more years. We started maybe 10 years ago out of my house, and when we got to the point where we’re cleaning all the furniture out of our downstairs and walking people through we said, “alright, this is too much.”
So, about seven years ago a friend of ours let us borrow a commercial building for the first year. We’re like this is amazing, but you don’t realize how much work is involved with setting up an entire building to run for a couple weekends, taking it all down, putting it in a trailer. So, fortunately, we found the building we’re in now. They’ve also allowed us to start to charge ticket sales and actually get the ticket sales to where we need to be to pay for it. So totally, a labor of love. You’re never going to make $1,000,000 doing this, but you’re going to have a hell of a lot of fun.
Philip: It’s February and you are open. Tell me about that.
Chris: We decided that since we sold out during October there were a lot of people, regular fans, we had to turn away. So, we decided to try opening in February so that those people would get a chance to come back and actually experience the haunt. We re-theme every year, so every time you come you get a different show, but that also means if you’ve been coming for the last six years and you missed the show, it kind of sucks. So we thought we’d tried this Valentine’s Day event, and so far it seems OK.
What Is The Story About?
Chris: So this year we decided to do what we’re calling Grim Reapers Fairy Tales. We took your favorite fairy tales as a kid growing up and we twisted them in a dark and evil way.
We start off by walking through our typical bayou scene where you’re greeted by our swamp creature who then brings you into Hansel and Gretel’s hut. In Hansel and Gretel, the witch is going to put you into our oven, which actually doubles as an elevator where we drop you down into our basement. Once in the basement, you come out of the elevator and into the mermaid area, so the fishermen have actually caught the mermaid, are in the process of tearing her apart. We go into the Mirror Mirror room where we’ve got a spirit that appears to greet you. Then we go into the gingerbread room where the gingerbread man has taken over, taking the chef out, and he’s torturing him. Then we go down into the Rapunzel room where, instead of having Rapunzel letting down her hair, the Evil witch is scalping everyone and stealing all of their hair. Then we push you up into the Snow Queen room where the Snow Queen has done a few little mischievous things to our prisoner to scare you all the way out.
Philip: Something I thought that was unique when I went through the haunt was how there were so many effects in each scene, and there’s just really a lot of show control happening on here. So can you talk a little bit about that and why you made that artistic decision?
Chris: Years ago, when we first got into this, we tried to do just actor-driven and it’s very hard when you’re running an all-volunteer cast. Then we got talked into going to more of a show control entire show, and that doesn’t work. You’re crowd and your audience is just too hard to predict. So, what we’ve tried to do is a very balanced show, if you will, where we give the actors some control and the computer control some. So, you get that animatronic side for the consistency, but then the actor still gets free reign. So, instead of having two distinctly different types in their room, now you’ve got a cohesive environment where they each support each other and it makes for a really, really good show.
Philip: But does it make for a good show? I went outside and asked the guests what they thought of it.
Guest: Thank you, you so much. That is amazing.
Guest 1: Thank you, you guys doing an amazing job. There is nothing more wonderful than getting the crap scared out of you. Why does it have to just be October?
Philip: You really figure out who the person is when you take them through the hothouse right?
Guest 2: Right on.
Guest 1: Yes, I learned so much.
Philip: They open also next weekend, so what would you tell people that are like, “haunted houses in February? What?”
Guest 1: Oh, do it! Do it! What are you going to go do? Buy a bunch of candy or go get the crap scared out of you and laugh your ass off? Yeah, come on.
Guest 2: Yeah, it was so much fun. It was a blast.
Guest 1: Yeah, and they totally knocked the doors off every time. I am always just absolutely delighted, so I knew it would be a good time.
One Fun Feature In Valentine’s Scary Tales
Chris: One thing that we do is a simulated elevator. The elevator itself is actually on airbags, so when you walk in, there’s a sliding platform you walk through, and then you go into the elevator. So as the car doors close the elevator airbags will descend to drop the actual car you’re in. Meanwhile, the roof is on a winch system, so the roof actually rises up to the ceiling of the building as we dim the lights. Technically the elevator goes down about 5 inches, but the ceiling adds another six feet of movement, plus dimming the lights, you really feel like you’ve gone down a 30 foot elevator shaft. Then by the time the elevator gets to the bottom and the car door is open, the sliding platform outside is shifted so now you’re in a whole different environment than you went in. Now they’re less focused on what’s real and what isn’t real, and their mind is in that scene we’re presenting them.
We do design and build everything ourselves, and I literally designed our own circuit boards for our show control, had them sent to China, they come back, and then we put it all together and make all this work . It’s just so much fun. I do that for the electronics, but then we have people that do that for costumes. It is such an amazing thing to be around such good people with such talent. I love it.
Staffing For Valentine’s Scary Tales Doesn’t Seem To Be A Problem, Why?
Philip: Right now I feel like it’s everywhere, you’re looking at staffing shortages and people struggling to open. But yet here we have you running a volunteer event and you have enough actors to operate in the middle of February. So what do you think explains that?
Chris: I think it really comes down to we run this as a family. I’ve got friends in here that are 16 to 68, and they are the best people I’ve ever met in my life. We hang out all the time, we play games, we have game nights, we go to the movies, and what’s fun is everybody brings something different to the table. I am terrible at everything but the electronics and the building. But I’ve learned to sew from the people here, I’ve learned a little bit about latex and makeup. It’s just so much fun to be able to tap into other people’s skills and learn with them.
Philip: It’s one thing for the owner to say that their volunteers feel like a family, but what about the volunteers? Do they feel like a family? I stopped two of the team members to ask their thoughts.
Mo: Mo Lang Staff is my name, and I helped with costumes and design and acting, and I have an absolute ball here. In this particular project, I got to be Hansel and Gretel witch.
Trevor: My name is Trevor. I’ve been doing this for about 6-7 years now. I started off as an actor, but then got involved in the production of its, creature characters are my strong suit, so they usually put me in those positions where I’m down on the ground or doing things that usually don’t require a lot of talking. I’m more just making noises at people
Mo: They welcome those opinions and listen to us. The first room I did, he said, “well, what do you want to do?” I was like, “well, alright,” and we make it work. It’s really phenomenal, and particularly over the summer there’s a wide variety of people that come and help, and it is kind of like a family. Trevor and I were just talking about that.
A lot of teenagers that come here over the summer, it gives them an opportunity to be doing something with their time. The skills that Chris and Trevor teach, as far as using tools and paint and construction and everything, it is a lot of fun. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It is definitely a group effort and a family.
Trevor: It always helps to have multiple angles of viewpoints to kind of help refine something into something that not just one person will appreciate, but everyone will appreciate. We put such a prevalence on including not just a couple people’s opinion on what the show should be, we listen to like all of our parts of the show. That sense of inclusion-ness, I think that’s why a lot of people come back, because they feel like they’re including the process. They have a sense of, “this isn’t just something I’m doing. This is something like I was a part of and I helped put together.”
There’s a lot of people that just generally have a good time when they come through and it just makes you feel good at the end of the night.
What Does The Future Hold?
Chris: So we decided to go with vampires for next year, and we’re going to get together in about 2 weeks and we just start going room by room. Someone will throughout an idea and then it’ll trigger somebody else, and it’s like a giant brainstorming session, and it just grows and grows. Which is great for us, because that excitement level builds, and as that excitement level builds, the ideas get better, people get more involved, and it’s just amazing to see what we come up with. When people bring their parents through their family, their wives and it’s like, “I built this. This is my thing.” When it’s in the light, you don’t appreciate it as much, but as soon as the show lights come on, the fog comes on, or the sound effects come on and that whole room comes to life, it’s like there’s no words to describe that.
Philip: Why do you think that you and the team do this?
Chris: For me it all started because I just love to build things, love to tinker, love to experiment, want to make things move, and so that’s how I got it started in this. But then as time went on you start to see people coming out and they say, “thank you. Thank you.” I will never forget, I was at the grocery store in line and this guy comes up to me and he goes, “are you the guy from the haunted house?” I was like, “yeah, absolutely.” He goes, “I gotta tell you I brought my wife in there, your actor scared the crap out of us so bad she ended up reaching behind me, grabbed your actor, dragged this actor halfway through the haunt thinking it was me, saw was the actor she had grabbed, and lost her mind.” That was a memory that that guy is never going to forget, his wife won’t either. I really affected those people, and I gave them that memory they’re going to hang on to. That for me kind of did it. It’s like, we’re not just doing something to scare people, we’re giving people something they’re going to remember. They’re going to talk about that when they’re at home for years, they tell their friends, it’s just it’s a thing now.