The general manager of Haunted Mayfield Manor talks about the great hurricane of 1900 and women in haunting.
This blog is based on episode 191 of our Haunt Weekly podcast, in which we talked with Shelby Rodwell, the general manager of both Pirates Legends of the Gulf Coast, a very cool pirate museum, and Haunted Mayfield Manor, a year-round attraction in Galveston, Texas.
I, Jonathan, do most of the talking, and I’m ably assisted by my sidekick and podcast co-host, Crystal.
How Shelby Got into Haunting
I asked Shelby to tell us how she got started in a life of haunting.
“As far as how I got into haunting, we saw all the classic movies growing up—The Exorcist, The Omen, Scream, and a whole bunch of other ones, and I watched them until I couldn’t sleep for a month. I went to my first haunted house when I was four, in Clear Lake. We went through one of our neighborhood haunted houses, and it scared me really bad. I thought I was being a wimp because I was a kid, and then I saw my mom and dad and realized they were scared, too. This was in somebody’s garage, and I remember crying on the way out. Then I asked if we could go again,” she said.
“I like being scared. I don’t know why. I get scared really easily. I’m probably the easiest target in a haunted house ever, but I love it. It’s so much fun. And I like making stuff to scare other people, which has been a really interesting journey.”
I asked her how long she’s been with Haunted Mayfield Manor and how she got started there.
“It’s been almost six and a half years, and now I manage it. I’m the boss lady. I’d applied there during Spring break. I thought it was such an interesting concept, because the haunted house isn’t like most haunted houses—blood, guts, and terror. It’s based on fear. And I love history. I’m an absolute nerd. Once I went through it, I absolutely fell in love. I told them they couldn’t get rid of me, and they haven’t. I’m still there,” she said.
“There’s something about being able to get into people’s heads. Everybody does it differently, and they adjust it based on the group. It’s more interactive. Sometimes you can get really, really dark, and sometimes it’s funny. It depends on the mood the actors and the crowd are in. That’s part of what made me fall in love with it,” Shelby explained.
“I’ve been lucky to find the people I have, because they’re all—and I hope they don’t get mad at me for saying this—a little crazy in their own way. We’re a little bit crazy in the haunt industry, and I somehow found the crazy ones with talent. I lucked out on that.”
Crystal then asked Shelby what she thought was the best thing about running this haunt year-round.
“The biggest thing for me is the creative challenges. Right now, my office is littered with fog machines that are being torn apart. There are many things for which I have to use creative problem solving. I’m a painter, and I love challenging myself. In a haunt, there are different challenges constantly. I’m training one of my guys to do the tech stuff, because, right now, I do all the tech stuff, and I’m not a tech guy. I’m not very good at it. I have to learn as I go and create different solutions to things that probably an engineer wouldn’t do. They’d fix it right,” she said.
“I’ve been learning everything as I go, but I’ve always been an I-won’t-take-no-for-an answer type of person. That’s how I got into the management side of this, which is probably my most favorite thing. The other thing I focus on is our guests. The way we advertise has drawn in the correct crowd. Some people come there, and they expect the blood and guts and intensity, which I also love in a haunted house, but we’re different. Now that we’ve pinned down our demographic, we get people that absolutely enjoy themselves.”
I asked Shelby about her target demographic and how she’d define it.
“The main group of people that love it are usually age 25 and up, but primarily between 25 and 35. Teenagers and people in their early twenties are more into the surprises and don’t get into the theatrics, the acting behind it, and the psychology.”
“Are these folk older than your typical hauntgoers?” I asked.
“We get people of all ages that come in and scream and have a fun time, but the people it really speaks to identify and appreciate the different psychological things we put in there. They go online and write reviews about it.”
Crystal jumped in and said this makes sense, because Galveston is a tourist area, a destination for families, for people on vacation, and for older people that want to get away. I suggested that tourists are different from the local teen-haunt crowd demographic. You’re not trying to get kids from the high school. You’re trying to get the tours coming through.
“That’s one reason why the original owners designed it the way they did. It was designed to be more interactive so we can cater to many different audiences. Of course, the actors prefer to get really intense and do whatever they want, but they’ll adjust that if there are kids or somebody much older who doesn’t want to be scared as much and is more interested in the acting. There’s a lot of leeway.”
Next I asked Shelby about the biggest challenge in running a year-round haunt.
“Figuring out how to fix everything—constantly! Anybody who runs a haunted house knows that actors are designed to break your set. This is almost a compliment, because it means they’re getting into their character, but there’s constantly something breaking, and I’m constantly having to figure out how to fix it. Luckily, my dad is a savant when it comes to mechanics. He can just look at something and say, ‘Oh cool. It’s the actuator solenoid radiator.’ I just made that up. Whereas I go in and say, ‘Blue wire, red wire—let’s test them both.’ That’s probably been my biggest challenge, but I’ve also learned quite a bit. That sounds like I still don’t know what I’m doing. I do know. It just took years and years and years, and there’s always something. I’m sure it’s like that with every haunt. There’s always something that pops up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s new. How do I deal with that?’”
Crystal jumped in and said, “Operating a haunt on a daily basis instead of just 30 or 45 days out of the year is a lot different on the wear and tear. If something breaks two days before Halloween, you may just shunt that into a closet and come back to it on November first. But in a year-round haunt, you don’t have that luxury. It’s gotta be fixed because you’re open all the time.”
“Yup, and that’s why there’s so many fog machines torn apart and sitting in front of my desk right now. One year, our compressor died in the middle of the summer in one of the busiest weeks. And I was like, ‘Well, guess who’s not sleeping tonight.’ It seems that with every larger maintenance thing you have to do, it takes twice as long as you expect.”
Crystal asked Shelby if she could discuss the history of the Manor.
“The rooms are based on scenes in movies. It’s like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Ed Gein. The building is one of a few that were used to process, store, and identify dead bodies after the hurricane in 1900. Which, for those who don’t know, was a massive hurricane that hit Galveston before we had the seawall, and it killed a minimum of 6,000 residents. It’s likely the death count was more than 8,000. They used different buildings on the Strand as mortuaries. The harbor used to touch the back of the Mansion. It was a sail-making shop,” she explained.
“So, the building stored a few thousand dead bodies. That’s something it’s great to think about if you’re there by yourself. All the islanders had to help process and identify the dead. One of the things that drew me to that place was that the people who died in the storm don’t get talked about much, and the people who survived even less. I think, because Galveston has become such a tourist destination, this is something that isn’t advertised, but it’s what made Galveston what is is…and Houston,” she said.
“Houston only became the big city it is because of the great storm. The channel in Galveston was down, so they opened the channel to Houston. Maybe I’m a little sadistic, but I love it when people come into the Mansion who are having a great vacation and I get to remind them that thousands of people died there.”
I next asked Shelby if she thought there should be more year-round haunts and, if so, how we’d go about doing that.
“Well, since I just started learning about taking over the marketing, my initial response is, ‘No, we want a corner on the market!’ But the haunt lover in me in me thinks we absolutely should have more year-round haunts. For me, a haunt is a stress reliever. It’s something fun, and it can be used as a team-building event. It’s something unique to the community. There definitely should be more, but I don’t know if the impetus for that would start with the haunters or the public.”
I wondered how Galveston was different on-season and off-season.
“We have two different on-seasons. Our Halloween on-season is still off-season for greater Galveston. It’s still nowhere near as busy as it is during the summer, and it’s mostly a local crowd. We have the Lone Star Rally down here, which, this year, starts on Halloween. That’s a challenge I’m not too excited about. This is the nation’s largest biker rally that happens right here on Strand. Our off-season is boring during the day, but we get to do all the fun, creative stuff behind the scenes in the haunt. During summer, it’s more about maintenance, whereas during off-season, it’s more about creativity and coming up with new ideas.”
Compared to large-scale haunts, Shelby’s working with a very tight space. From a square-foot standpoint, it’s not big. I asked her how she addresses that.
“I lean on interactivity—sometimes to draw out the walk-through time and sometimes to give a bigger experience. From the time people walk into the house, our goal is to keep them entertained in some way—whether it’s overhearing a pirate telling a really corny joke to a kid or listening to the actor give a spiel in the lobby. That’s the big goal. The videos in the beginning and the first room are as packed full of entertainment and interaction with the actor as we can get. That’s what sets the tone. Otherwise, even though we have some pretty creepy props in there, it would just be walking through a slightly animated haunted house, and that’s not as much fun.”
Crystal asked a staffing/personnel question: “Do you ever have more than one actor working at a time?”
“It depends on the time of year. During Halloween, people want more intensity, more blood, more ridiculousness, so we’ll add anywhere from five to eight extra actors,” she said. “That’s one of the problems with a year-round haunted house. You have to think about what’s cost-effective. It’s better not only for the business but for our actors to have only one actor in the haunt. This gives them more hours, and we can afford to be open year-round while still making a profit and being able to pay our employees. Backtracking to the question about how to get more year-round haunted houses, I think you’d see more like ours—more of the smaller, one-to-two-actor haunts.”
Crystal then asked Shelby if there have been any specific challenges related to being a woman in the haunter community.
“In the community of other haunters, you could almost forget about your gender. It’s open and accepting. People say, ‘Oh, you love haunting? So do I. We’re friends now.’ However, from the public, I get questions like, ‘Is your boss here?’ I haven’t faced any challenges personally with the haunt community. I’ve seen a lot of women who run haunted houses or who are in the upper management of the big haunted houses. It’s the general public that doesn’t expect a woman to be the boss—especially a young woman. There seems to be this idea that women can’t handle the scares. I’m like, ‘It’s a woman that’s coming up with them!’ Managing a haunted house has nothing to do with whether you’re brave, and whether you’re a man or a woman has nothing to do with whether you’re brave.”
And, on that note, we ended our conversation with Shelby Rodwell.