Confessions of a Haunted-House Owner
For someone who grew up learning how to make people scream, I’d consider myself a relatively normal person. Just because my family owns and operates two haunted attractions doesn’t mean we’re psychos. We’re actually very nice people, but we do know how to make all your nightmares come true.
As part of the family that runs Indiana Fear Farm in Jamestown, in western Indiana, I get a lot of questions. Like these:
How did Indiana Fear Farm start?
Well, it wasn’t exactly a “Mommy, when I grow up I want to own a haunted house” kind of thing, but it’s been an adventure nonetheless. My family calls it their “light bulb” moment. You know, those times where something just clicks, as if a little cartoon bulb pops to life over your head. Jump to 15 years later, and we now make our living in 18 days out of the year. It wasn’t always this serious or risky; my family and I often reminisce and laugh at how we used to run our attractions. Imagine this: 12 people literally running through the woods, while shedding layers to the next costume, passing a hay wagon full of customers to beat them to the next scene, and you’ve pretty much got the picture. There might have also been a brief period where my 10-year-old self was repeatedly pulled out of every wagon—to the horror of customers—by a chainsaw-wielding butcher, only to “escape” and jump back in at the end of the ride. Our standards of safety are blessedly higher now. It wasn’t until 10 years ago that the Slaughter Barn became a permanent and stable structure in our old horse stables.
Working one month out of the year must be really nice, huh?
It is popular belief that every October rolls around, IFF (Indiana Fear Farm) flings its doors open to the public, and that’s the end of it. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. More money, more problems, is actually quite accurate. Each year at least 25 percent of each attraction is changed, which means new ideas are bounced around in March, and building begins in June. Twenty-five percent doesn’t sound like much, but IFF is a family-owned business, so what you see is what we built. It’s hard for some people to comprehend why it takes us months to open both attractions, but changing just one scene goes a little like this:
- Budget talk.
- Deciding if our imaginings can actually be brought to life: “No, you can’t drop someone over the wagon Mission Impossible–style.”
- How to design a scene to entertain or scare. We’ve created some really cool-looking scenes that ended up being worthless as they couldn’t scare or entertain well.
You have to be there to understand. Believe me, I would be delighted to spend the other 11 months isolated on an undiscovered island, sipping mai tais. But the to-do list never ends.
Do you hire people to work there?
In order to open the doors of IFF, we need 50 of our core people and 75 to 150 total actors for both attractions. When I say “core people,” I mean mostly family and friends who have been with us since the beginning. The other 75 to 150 actors? They’re local high school groups that fundraise with us each year. Given the choice between drowning in cookie-dough sales or scaring the daylights out of customers all night, I’d probably choose the latter, too. Our system is a little unorthodox compared to other haunts, as we staff, costume, makeup, and teach scare tactics to different high school groups each night. Words such as “boo,” “rawr,” and “help me,” are forbidden words at IFF. It’s a two-hour process, but it’s also part of what makes us unique.
What’s the hardest part about running two haunted attractions?
Quality control. We can build and advertise ’til the cows come home, but if our customers don’t have a great experience, they’re not coming back next year. There are numerous moving parts every night we’re open, and if one of those parts goes amiss, customers can have a bad experience. A wagon full of 25 people can damage a reputation if they want to. For example: A zip line flyer didn’t get hooked up in time, an explosion never went off, or there’s a flat tire on Wagon 2—the list of things that can go wrong in four hours has proved to be endless. To avoid this, we encourage positive and negative feedback, and strive to right any glitches that may have tarnished our customers’ overall experience.
Where do you draw your ideas from?
Anywhere and everywhere. I am a huge fanatic of Pinterest; I believe there’s nothing you can’t find on that site. Obviously, new and classic scary movies are a huge pool to pull from, and customers expect them to be included. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get rid of our “Thriller” or Beetlejuice scenes. The TransWorld’s Halloween & Attractions show is probably the most helpful, though. It’s a national convention in St. Louis where haunt owners and haunt vendors collect together for a weekend in March. It’s certainly not an appropriate place to bring children. In fact, two years ago, some genius coordinator thought it would be smart to put the TransWorld and Lego shows in the same convention center—at the same time. There were a lot of traumatized children and outraged parents that year. However, it’s the perfect place for us! Owners have a chance to see all the new toys and ideas for the year, and can also attend educational seminars, including how to better run a haunt. Vendors sell anything and everything imaginable, including fog, animatronics, marketing packages, and entire completed scenes. Yes, for around $60,000, owners can take home a completed room if they wanted to–which we do not.
Does owning two haunted attractions mean you never get scared anymore?
For my family? Yes. For me? Absolutely not. I’m pretty much the shame of the family because I get scared so often. In the off season, I refuse to go over to the Slaughter Barn by myself, and I prefer not to watch any scary movies. Oddly enough, I still contribute plenty when we bounce around ideas in March. I know what scares people; I just prefer not to watch it all the time.
This 2016 season marks Indiana Fear Farm’s 15th year. I can’t imagine there’s a very large percentage of people who live the way I do, but I wouldn’t trade this adventurous, demented lifestyle for the world.
Indiana Fear Farm is open through this Sunday before closing for the year.