Rocky Point Haunted House was one of the greatest haunted houses in our industries history. Sadly this attraction closed after nearly 30 years of operation in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rocky Point closed after Halloween season of 2006. Below is an interview with the attraction owner Cydney Neil.
It’s been a long road for you in the haunted house industry. How did you get into the business, give us some background history.
A: I grew up wanting to be a model, a dancer, an actress, and I was doing all of those things. I loved beautiful things and surrounded myself with everything glamorous. I do remember creating a haunted house inside of our family home every year. And the Munsters, the Adams Family, the Twilight Zone and Nightmare Theatre were some of my favorite television shows growing up. In spite of that; as an adult, Halloween or anything haunted held absolutely no interest for me. In the beginning, I thought my involvement in this industry came by accident, default. However, I no longer believe in accidents and I have come to understand that this has been more about fate. I realized some time ago that I had a purpose to fulfill, a mission to accomplish, and that where I was, was exactly where I was meant to be. And now, after feeling I have truly completed my “assignment”, I will look back on my “long road” over the past twenty years in this business as some of the most valuable of my life.
Early on did you think you’d stay with it that this could be a career for you?
A: Not in a million years! I went back to Utah for what I thought was a two week stay to help my father with our family building, I was horrified to find a haunted house taking place there and tried to shut it down. But instead of closing it, I found myself taking it over! Frankly, early on, it was like a nightmare for me that I couldn’t wait to wake up from! As many people know, I tried to get out of it and away from it for many years. It took me a long time, but once I finally accepted it as where I was meant to be and began giving it my heart and soul, things changed drastically, for me, my business and everyone involved. It was an amazing transformation that taught me a lot about the power of our attitude and perspective. I came to find out that my unconventional business provided everything I ever wanted and much, much more. So, did I become a star? No, thank God. My tiny taste of fame has taught me that I would never have been happy with that. I feel very blessed as I believe I have experienced and created something far more valuable. I have had the opportunity to make a difference in the world, to help change people’s lives, to contribute in ways I never expected, to work harder than I ever could have imagined and to create something far beyond what I even knew I was capable of. Ironically, as I now understand, in order for me to grow in the ways I needed to, it had to be within a business that didn’t appear to suit me. And the kids I believe I was called to serve could only be found and gathered in the dark, seemingly rebellious atmosphere of a haunted house. So I guess you could say, don’t judge a career by its cover! It may have hard for me to understand in the beginning, but in the end, my haunted house career was perfect for me!
Considering almost ALL haunt owners are men, have you ever felt out of place either from the industry or locals who think its crazy that a woman owns a haunted house?
A: I don’t believe I have felt “out of place” because I was a woman. I wasn’t raised to believe that men and women couldn’t do the same things. My business was my own, I didn’t answer to anyone or have to prove myself to anyone and being a woman in this business has actually had several advantages. The press never tired of the story of a glamorous woman in a seemingly unglamorous industry. I was able to make a lot of connections and gain a lot of support because I wasn’t who people expected to see when they scheduled a meeting with the owner of a haunted attraction. And to have a woman’s ability to create a home, with a heart, I believe was the biggest advantage. My haunted house ended up being a home of sorts for many people and my entire cast and crew became a family. Few men appreciate the power of love in a business. But as a woman, love was the foundation of my business, and consequentially its success. I have, of course, been painfully aware at times of the challenge it has been for the men in this industry to accept me and especially in the position I assumed. Men are naturally competitive I think, and can compete with each other pretty civilly. But I don’t think they like to compete with a woman, we play by different rules and frankly, I always feel competing is a waste of time. Honestly, I wish it would have been different. I believe that attitude, the fear and the egos cost the industry dearly. I expect there are more than a few men happy to see me retire!
From what I understand you’ve never liked horror, Halloween, or any of that stuff. So how is it that you ever stayed in the haunted house industry this long if you don’t have a love of the industry or holiday.
A: One of the big lessons I needed to learn in life is that the cover, the façade, the outside of anything or anyone can be deceiving and to look underneath the surface to find true meaning and beauty. So to learn that lesson, it makes sense I would be placed in a business that appeared so different on the outside than what I felt I wanted and who I thought I was. I stayed in it so long because underneath the surface, I discovered it held everything I loved and everything I wanted. I could utilize every one of my skills from acting and make-up to costume and set design in creating the event. Creatively, because of its darkness, it became far more interesting in its textures and depth than the beautiful things that compared, now seem almost boring. I could use my marketing, pr, my organizational skills and even my accounting skills to establish the business aspect, an area that has been essential for my long-term growth and success. I also had an opportunity to get to know and associate with thousands of kids, most of who I needed to look beyond their surfaces to appreciate who they are. I ended up finding some of the most beautiful people in the world who I have been inspired by, humbled by and changed from knowing. I am grateful for the wisdom and foresight of God who understands us and what we need far beyond what we ever could. I have learned that lesson well, along with many others that will no doubt be determining factors in my future and how I look at the world from now on.
You’ve had the privilege to have many professional make-up artists work on your show. From my understanding Michael Burnett had a major role in the early years of RPH. Tell us about that?
A: Michael Burnett was introduced to me in 1991 by a friend who was the entertainment director of Knotts Berry Farm. I was looking for skeletons and corpses and Michael was making some really nice kits for both at the time. We became friends, he loved haunted houses and I brought him to Utah to teach some make-up effects classes to my artists. He came up for about 3 or 4 years. At the same time, Chris Hanson, who lived in Utah, was dabbling in special effects and after an introduction to Michael, Chris quickly moved to Hollywood and started working with Michael. Chris then went on to work for nearly every major effects studio in LA, including Rick Baker. Once Chris had honed his skills, I hired him to head up my make-up effects department for my show. We continued my training program for local artists and through the years have watched several talented people realize their own dreams of going to Hollywood. I have several friends in the industry, Brian Penikas is another who comes up every year and does a workshop. But as far as having “many make-up artists working on my show”, that’s not the case. Chris and I design all the main make-ups and then we work with a group of talented, eager to learn people who apply the 100 plus make-ups our show requires every night.
From my understanding many of your set pieces, props and other items come from real Hollywood movies or television shows. The façade on your haunt was the façade in a real television show. Tell us more about how you acquired so many awesome props.
A: I have been very fortunate to have many dear friends in the film industry and they have been very generous in donating to me hundreds of movie props through the years. Some of the props I have used in my show, but most I have sold to raise money for charity. I have used props and set pieces from Disneyland, Universal, The Mummy Returns, Flatliners, Bats, Hellraiser, and many more. The façade of my Haunted Mansion set came from the television show, Promised Land that was produced in Salt Lake. We actually took a section of it and rebuilt it to fit our set. Its really beautiful. Recently, I heard someone say that sure, if they had connections in Hollywood they could have a “killer show” too. Obviously, that person has never seen my show. My connections are more of personal friendships and while its true, I have movie props scattered throughout my sets, it hardly make my show what it is! I really haven’t needed to bring Hollywood in to create my show. My crew and I are basically from that industry and work at that same level. And actually, my film friends who have visited are far more impressed with my show than much of what they see in Hollywood!
Back in the old days you had two RPHH. What happened to the other one and why did you consolidate down to one?
A: Both shows were growing so rapidly and I didn’t have a permanent location for either. It was way too much work having two shows that had to be torn down and rebuilt and managed each year. I lived in Salt Lake and I wanted to concentrate my efforts on one show closer to my home. I sold the props from the Ogden show in 1999. The Ogden show had been going 20 years and within two years after I sold it, it had closed. On the other side, the first year after I sold the Ogden show the Salt Lake show produced the same income the two had produced combined. It was the right move.
For years now you have been speaking about getting out of the business, specifically Hanf-o-domas aka Rich Hanf has been predicting for years you’d say you’re quitting only to return another year. Why have you said for so many years the next one will be the last one, and never quit but finally did.
A: Regardless of all my insight into the value and purpose of what I was doing and all the lessons I was learning and the contributions I was making to the community, it remained a business that I just didn’t feel connected to. The “Queen of Haunts” is not who I am. It was kind of like being in school and feeling like a school kid who wants to graduate. It was interesting that as soon after I totally surrendered to and accepted the possibility that this may be a lifelong calling, I began to feel like that calling was coming to and end. As much as we feel want to control things, God’s timetable is not our own. It was a longer process than I ever could have imagined, but looking back, I am grateful for every minute and wouldn’t have wanted it to end any sooner. But you also have to let go when you’re told its time. Its time now. Its complete. I guess as much as it has bothered me that Rich and others have made a joke about it, I knew they couldn’t understand, nor did I feel inclined to defend myself or explain. It was a spiritual journey I was on. How could they have related to that and would they have made a joke about that too? It’s likely they still will. But that is a reflection on them, not me.
I know you have some very specific views on our industry both positive and negative. What are your views both negative and positive about our industry? What do you think is going right and what is going wrong?
A: Well, the positive side is that I feel the industry, and I mean everything to do with Halloween and Haunting, is just beginning to take shape, to become what it will, that it has tremendous potential on a global scale to become a massive industry, much more so that it already is. Those people who have positioned themselves as professionals and who have developed a business and created quality products will very soon begin to seriously reap the rewards. I was just getting to the point where my show was not only running perfectly; it was making a lot of money. In many ways it is the worst time for me to exit, but I have never been motivated by the money and my purpose in my own life and in the lives of my staff has been served. I believe that as long as they establish a solid foundation of quality and safety, even the small haunts also have much to gain and can ride that same wave to tremendous success. Ultimately, it is the theme parks I predict will be the leaders as they just have the ability (the real estate!) to handle the growth and they have the budgets and the organization to sustain that growth long term. The negative side of this or any industry is when egos have the opportunity to supercede excellence. In my opinion, this industry has been crippled and damaged by this problem and its growth rate has been much slower than was necessary as a result but again, the positive side is that ultimately, in the end, excellence always wins out!
Has it ever bothered you that from time to time you’ve been perceived a certain way in the industry, and or mentioned by Hanf-o-damos countless times? Who is the real Cydney Neil and what do people have wrong about you?
A: Again, their opinions and remarks have always said more about them than me. Confidence, experience, professionalism and a commitment to excellence has been perceived as arrogance, and once again, that attitude has not benefited the industry they say they care about. What people don’t know about me I guess is that, first, I know how to do more than just sell sponsorships! In fact, that is probably my weakest area! I am a designer, a producer, a manager, a creator and I have designed and created everything that makes up my haunted house from the sets to the sound, the make-up, the costumes, to all of its programs. I have an amazing support staff who are my hands, who I give so much credit to, but my haunt was my creation. My spiritual side is something few people in this industry know about me, but then I still don’t feel comfortable sharing much of that in this forum. But if Halloween is not who I am, my spiritual side is who I am.
You’ve done a fantastic job of finding sponsorships to your haunted house. For those not on your level what advice can you give them?
A: First, to realize that sponsorship is a small part of your overall puzzle. That it should be looked at as a marketing tool and possibly some budget relief, but never counted on to take the place of a great marketing plan and or a sufficient budget. Sponsorship has changed over the years. Ultimately, if you can sell someone’s product, bring them customers or in any way, show a return on their investment, that is what they are looking for. Few sponsors care much about logos being placed on posters and t-shirts. Know your market, know what your product is and what you have to offer, research suitable sponsors based on your own event and get creative in how to create win-win situations. My advice on many levels is to first establish your business and create an amazing product. Sponsorships are much easier to sell with your own foundation in place!
What advice can you give a haunt owner who desires to have a haunt on your level?
A: Start with a good sound business plan, you are in business. Think twenty years down the road, buy property, establish a foundation, know you have enough budget to do it right, prepare to work very, very hard for a long, long time, hire quality people with integrity who are team players and then treat them really well, put on your best suit when you attend meetings, be professional, gain the support of your community, find a way to give back from the beginning, make friends with your inspectors by doing everything they ask you to and then some, make safety a priority, always think quality and strive for excellence in every area, be honest in your business, always pay your bills on time, learn how to write, follow through on your commitments and don’t plan on having a successful personal relationship at the same time! Just a few things off the top of my head!
You’ve always had a unique operation in that you run your business as a charity. Can you tell us some pros and cons and how this is set up? What are the benefits and do you suggest others follow your lead?
A: My set up is actually quite unique and involved, but there are many different ways of creating win-win situations with charities. I spoke about partnering with a charity years ago, but few people understood what I was talking about or even wanted to listen. My philosophy is more about a way of life, rather than an actual business strategy, although in the end it has been a great one; believing that as you give, so shall you receive. As a result of that belief, my business has made a lot of money over the years, and at the same time we have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity and established an incredible youth program that has changed literally thousands of kids lives. I have given much but in the end, I have received much, much more.
What would you consider some of your most costly mistakes or failures? And what do you consider to be your greatest successes?
A: If I would have known I was going to be in the business twenty years, I would have done nearly everything with that in mind from the beginning. I would have purchased property I have spent a fortune leasing, I would have purchased equipment I have spent much more renting over the years. I would have established a business from the beginning instead of putting it together piece by piece or years thinking each year would be my last!
Although I am extremely proud of what I have accomplished in every area, there is no question that the youth programs I established and the people’s lives they have affected will have the most lasting value and ultimately, along with my own life changing lessons, what the past twenty years has been about.
Tell us exactly how many people visited RPHH over the whole run? How many combined ad dollars did you spend, sponsorship dollars you raised, even some odd and end figures to blow our minds, much like McDonalds (20 billion served). LOL!
A: Well, it hasn’t been 20 billion, although some nights it felt like it! In 2006 we put through 65,349 people. In the four or five years previous, we put through between 50-60,000 people, always increasing every year. I actually have the records but I will guess that we have “served” nearly a million people over our 27 year run.
Will you miss this?
A: I am not normally a person who looks back much or misses things. There is always too much to focus on in the moment and look forward to in the future. But then, I have never done anything so wholeheartedly for twenty years so I don’t know exactly what to expect. I guess I will find out down the road…I believe that when you give something everything you have, when you couldn’t have done any more or done anything differently, when you have no regrets and have so much success to look back on and momentum from that success to move forward with, there isn’t much reason to look back or miss something. I am feeling like it as complete in every way, so there isn’t anything missing.
If anything, I will miss the kids, who I love as my own children. And I may miss creating on such a grand scale and pushing myself to my limits. I guess if I miss it, I can always start again!
In the future will you still be involved with the haunt industry? Will you attend TW or other haunted functions? Will you do consulting? Just will you do?
A: I have been asked to do some consulting and I expect I will try to assist others as much as I can while my experience is still fresh. I have learned a lot over the years and I would like to share that before I completely disappear. But since Haunting is not really my love, I am really looking forward to beginning again, in an area where I feel like I belong.
I am still very focused on my business and the kids and finishing this chapter of my life, so I haven’t started thinking much about or writing the next chapter. I am kind of looking forward to life surprising me again as it did with this!
In a big way though, I am retiring from work as I have known it. I want a personal life, I want to spend time with my boyfriend, my friends, my parents and family, I want to golf and ski, go hiking and put some miles on my motorcycle, go to dinner, travel, read and write; all of the things I have set aside to in order to see this mission through. It is important to me that I have truly earned this time in my life and I am going to enjoy it!
Will it hurt to finally see your haunt torn down and auctioned off knowing its gone forever? How much of your heart is in this attraction?
A: I think I have prepared myself somewhat. I cried for weeks after I made the decision to close. I couldn’t imagine someone else having any of it. I guess that is still nearly impossible for me to imagine. The industry may not have had much of my heart but my haunt has had all of it. This is the first question that got me all choked up. Thanks Larry! It will be one of the hardest things I have ever done to tear it all apart and I am not looking forward to it. I will do it though as I know it is the right thing and the right time and they are all just things in the end. We can’t take them with us when we go so we probably ought not get attached to them while we’re here!
Over the years you’ve met a lot of industry people and been considered a giant in the industry. Who are some of your favorite people in this industry and why? Tell us any of your favorite moments with others in this industry?
A: I’m glad you asked this because I have talked about my heart not really being in the industry and I have been afraid it would sound like I meant the people in the industry. It really is the whole horror genre I don’t relate to. But I have met many people who I have enjoyed getting to know and feel privileged to have met.
Larry, in spite of everything, you remain one of my favorite characters. If I were writing a screenplay about the industry, you would no doubt be one of, if not the main player! Your ego is both your worst downfall and your greatest asset! Unlike mine, your heart is and always has been in this industry and you have contributed a great deal to it. I think in the end, being a father will prove to be your greatest teacher and achievement. Congratulations on your success in both areas.
Of course, there are so many others in the industry who I have met and gotten to know, some of whom are now very dear friends who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I wish I had more time to spend with all of them on a more personal level. Perhaps now I will!
Tell us some of your strangest stories from operating your haunted house.
A: I guess if you consider ghost stories strange, which I don’t, my experiences with many different spirits in my buildings have been strange, but actually pretty amazing. One year I brought in a person who channels spirits as I had a dark energy in one of my rooms that I was keenly aware of but couldn’t seem to clear out myself. She walked through my entire haunted house and in nearly every room she encountered entities who all had stories about when they came to the haunt and why they were there. It was pretty fascinating. She ended up finding the dark spirit exactly in the room I felt him in and began to tell me his story. To this day, I wish I would have recorded her that day. It would have made an incredible movie. I have had a few strange customers over the years, fans, well, stalkers to be more accurate! And strange people who seriously get so scared by a fake chainsaw they pass out! Okay now that’s just
Over the years you’ve loved showing off your haunted house to others in the industry. Why?
A: First, because it is my creation and I have been extremely proud of it, the same way parents are compelled to show you a wallet full of their kids’ pictures! And second, because I knew it wouldn’t be around for long and I genuinely wanted to share it with others as a means of possibly inspiring them to reach to another level, to give them ideas and to ultimately help the industry improve the quality of their shows.
You love to do themed area’s in your haunted house, what has been your favorites and why?
A: Always hard to pick a favorite as once again, they are all like my children, every one different and unique. But I have to say that the Pirates of the Scare-ibbean sets we built for our 2006 show are pretty incredible. They will be our best effort yet and one I was very happy I spent the money to create. I also love the original Texas Chainsaw sets with all of the bone furniture just like in the movie and our Creature from the Black Lagoon set is really beautiful. Of course, although my customers love all those sets, their all time favorite will remain the entire Psycho Circus. There is just something really creepy about clowns, especially in 3-D!
What will you miss most about the haunted house industry?
A: It’s uniqueness, it’s edginess, it’s dichotomies. No matter what I do in the future, I don’t think I will replace the amazing mix it has been for me of spirituality and darkness, of fear and love, of beauty and horror, or the depth of creativity required to do great rotting and blood and decomposition. I will miss my employees and seeing the kid’s light up inside when they achieve their goals. I guess I will miss more than I think. Thanks again, Larry! Okay, no more what will you miss questions!
Would you ever consider opening another haunted house in the future? If so how would it be different than what you do now? I can’t honestly answer that for certain. I don’t have any plans for it, but if I decided to, the next level of what I would do is already created in my head down to the tiniest detail! I guess time will tell, but right now I would say no, I am not considering it.
What has the biggest key to your success?
A: Being skilled in every area of what the business required and an unwaivering commitment to make it not only successful but the best.
So now that it’s over, what are the final plans for RPHH? Are you having another event, auction or selling it out right?
A: I am planning our last Scream Break for March/April of 2007, which will be our very last shows, ever. I am still not certain where the show will end up.
Any final thoughts?
A: Just to say thank you to you, Larry, and to the entire industry for all the support I have been given and shown over the years. It has been a journey that I will forever value cherish as my most challenging and consequentially, cherish as my most rewarding.