Our company (Halloween Productions, Inc.) has done a lot of work in the Niagara Falls area. A few years ago, a guy named Ron Doherty showed up at my haunted house from Buffalo saying he wants to open a haunt someday. Ron was very hopeful of learning more about our haunted house and the industry. We gave him the tour even though we had never met him or heard of him before. Over the next year, we received some phone calls from Ron in Buffalo who told us that he was making tombstones and props. We developed a friendship over the next couple of years and even had Ron and his partner, Jason (Jay) Anderson, help us install Spiderman and Hulk in Niagara Falls.
After several years of visiting haunts and going to the TransWorld Show, Ron and Jay finally made the plunge. Despite the fact that I personally visit the Buffalo/Niagara area several times a year, I never had a chance to visit their haunted house, FRIGHTWORLD. Ron and Jay invited me time and time again to stop in and take a look. The last time I was in Buffalo we planned on getting together and hang out. I overslept and kinda blew the opportunity, but Ron graciously kept calling me. Exhausted, I remember looking at the phone and thinking to myself, “Don’t answer; go back to bed,” but I picked up the phone instead, and I’m very glad I did because Ron picked me up and took me over to his haunt. Ron and Jay gave me the grand tour, and I was blown away to say the least.
To be honest, I was thinking, “There’s no way these two guys, who have only been in the business a couple years, build a haunt this detailed.” But I remembered how Ron and Jay had visited over 100 haunted houses, been to TransWorld several times, attended seminars, bought videos and more. These guys did their homework, and they built a great haunted house, all based on the industry knowledge they had accumulated. Ron and Jay took their time, learned as much as they could, and when they finally built a haunt they blew the doors off! I had actually talked to Ron many times prior about doing an article to discuss his many haunted travels. Finally, we have that, PLUS they can now talk of their own amazing haunted house in Buffalo, New York.
Ron and Jay, please introduce yourselves to us starting with some background information on you guys.
A: Well first off, on behalf of myself and partner Jay, let us thank Hauntworld for the opportunity to tell its readers how we started and where FRIGHTWORLD is going. I hope we can teach some of our success to everybody reading this article.
My name is Ron Doherty; I’ve been intrigued with Halloween and Haunts as long as I can remember. I started when I was a kid. My parents still remind me of the time I brought bags of leaves and branches downstairs into their newly remolded basement for a haunted maze for family and friends. I was only 8. From those days until now, I have always been associated with some sort of Halloween event. My partner, Jay Anderson, and I established our friendship in high school and later into college. We’ve known each other for over 15 years.
This business was a huge endeavor, and I couldn’t have done it without Jay, so I quickly approached him with an idea for going into business together. That was over 6 years ago. Professionally, it was my best decision. With my business and creative study degrees and Jay’s carpentry, design talents, and will to learn, we complimented each other extremely well and made a great partnership. Jay builds and I detail/paint every set and prop we’ve ever created.
We were home haunters for three years collectively up until 1999. Our haunt started off as an attraction to Jay’s annual Halloween costume party. We than started our first company in late 2000, Graveyard Tombstones (graveyardtombstones.com), making high end tombstones to the haunt industry. Our next business endeavor was Eerie Productions, (eerieproductions.com) producing detailed props and sets, and later designing haunts and offering consulting. Our first professional haunt was at the Erie County Fair in the summer of 2002, followed by the debut of FRIGHTWORLD in October 2002, and we’ve been running both ever since.
When did you two decide you wanted to build a haunted house and why?
A: Well, back when we were home haunting, we eventually opened to the public. One of our local news stations set up camp at our event showcasing it with interviews and live news for each of their newscasts that day. They alone helped propel us to entertain over 3500 patrons during a four day span. At this point, we knew we had something special. Unfortunately, the amount of people at a residential setting is just not safe. We felt it was in the best interest of everybody that we would then pursue other options for the future seasons. We had a love for Halloween and a determination to go pro and nothing was going to get in our way.
What were the first steps you took to get into the haunted house industry?
A: First thing we did is research, and then more research, and then, yep you got it, even more research. We sent over 2500 emails to individual haunt owners introducing who we are and what our intentions were. We asked questions like “How do you start?” “How do you raise capital?” and “Can it be profitable?” We actually only received a handful of responses from haunt owners. We also bought books and read everything on the net. From day one, we treated this as any other business. We planned and wrote a business plan. We were fully dedicated and always willing to do what it took to make this plan succeed.
I understand you both toured many haunted houses for a couple years before taking the plunge. What haunts did you visit, and what did you learn? Additionally how did touring haunts help you when you finally decided to build your own attractions?
A: Well we visited more haunts than we can list, actually over 100 haunts during the 2000 through 2001 seasons. We went all over the country, Florida, Canada, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio to name a few. Some of the haunts that stood out were The Darkness (St. Louis), The Beast and Edge of Hell (Kansas City), Terror in Tallmadge (Ohio) and The School House (Ohio).
All of these haunts had something in common. They were highly detailed, and the owners knew how to organize and market their events. These events had the least gore and had the most patrons in line. Their target markets were expanded from the norms, meaning they targeted a wide range of audiences. We really learned what worked and what didn’t. For instance, timing is everything to an actor, lighting and sound makes the show, and signage is crucial for your customers.
We also learned not to invade a patron’s personal space, no extension cords hanging everywhere, no slides, no crawl spaces, no uneven floors, and definitely support your walls well. We talked to the other haunts’ customers and listened to their opinions and reactions after the shows. Those were some of the comments we heard.
As haunt owners, we have always looked at our event from the customers’ point of view and that’s exactly what we did during this time. Visiting these attractions was one of the best learning experiences. We found that a quality attraction was hard to find.
Did you meet haunters who would help you along your way? How did this impact your education into the haunted house industry?
A: We meet some remarkable haunters along the way, and made some great friendships at the same time. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their support and help. One of the few haunters during our touring that actually spent the time to talk to us was Rodney Geffert, owner of the 7 Floors of Hell. Rod and his lovely wife, Melinda, have been awesome. Rod was there from day one, and we’ve been great friends since. His willingness to share his knowledge of the business to us is something we will never forget.
Another haunter that has been there from the beginning is you, Larry. You have seen us from the early home haunt days, during the Graveyard Tombstone days, and the past four FrightWorld seasons. Larry and Jim have always been gracious to show us around their attractions. Larry has always been there to talk to us when we have a question and never afraid to give us an answer. We personally thank you for everything.
We met Mike and Carrie Geoff of Lima, Ohio at the 2001 TransWorld Show. They offered to take us in for a night and learn what it was like to actually run a pro haunt. This experience was really hands on and prepared us for what was to come. We thank them for a great time and wish them the best.
There have been many people including our families and friends that have helped us a long the way. We contribute all of their help to our success. We have found networking to be one of thebest tools to bettering your attraction.
As I understand, you purchased a lot of videos, books and went to seminars. Would you suggest these types of resources to others who aspire to be haunters? Does it really help you and if so, how?
A: Absolutely, grab everything you can find. The information has been priceless. Learn from others’ mistakes, so you yourself will save tons in the long run. I can’t imagine another company being as prepared as we were to enter the industry. We had every magazine, every book, and every video ever made. We had binders of internet how-to’s, and spent days at the library. Eventually, we reached a leveling-off point and felt we graduated and were ready.
So after learning about everything you could from others in the industry, when you finally decided it was time for you to build your haunt what were the exact steps that you followed to launch your haunted house?
A: Well, after the 2002 TransWorld Show we decided this was it and moved forward with our plan. We decided to run a highly detailed, multi-themed event. Since this was a huge step, we decided a good test run would be at our local fair. The Erie County Fair is the 2 nd largest county fair in the United States with an annual attendance of over one million plus; it runs in late August.
We contacted the fair and presented them with a 5000 sq. ft. two haunted house show. At this time, we had nothing and felt this would be a great learning experience. We really thought this would be a great transition since there would be little marketing. After all, a million plus were already attending. The fair loved the idea, so we went forward building. During this time, we also needed to secure a location for October.
We quickly found doing a haunt indoors was going to be practically impossible with our budget, so an outdoor show under tents was our solution for October. Well, in Buffalo, that wasn’t the smartest idea, but we’ll get into that later.
We debuted at the Fair, and it was a hit. The buzz of our arrival was in the air. Another plus to the Fair was the opportunity to market our October venue. October quickly approached. Our idea of three attractions at 8000 sq. ft. under tents seemed to work out quite well. Our good friend Rodney had been running under tents for years and been successful, so we felt this was the greatest solution for us.
Our marketing plan was in place. Our sponsors were on board. We had a great location. Employees were hired, and the show was amazing, especially considering it was under tents. We were advertising on four radio stations, running full colored ads, promoting a celebrity appearance, and circulating over a quarter million coupons . These steps should have propelled us to achieving our goal.
As we all know it’s very difficult to finance your first haunted house. Please tell us how hard this was and what methods you used to get your haunt off the ground?
A: Let’s see…We were fortunate enough to raise capital with our two companies. Most of our advertising budget was paid after the season. Most of our labor for set-up was donated from our family and friends. We are a production company, so we built all of our own sets…This is one of our competitive advantages. And finally, we read all the right literature on running a profitable show. Our Fair experience really solidified the rest of our capital needs.
So you saw tons of haunts, bought the videos, went to the seminars, started producing props, and now you’re running your own haunted house. What were the major things you learned from actually doing it the first year?
A: We did our part researching and preparing for our opening. We read all the directions. Then, it came time to put it together and turn it on. One major learning experience would be this: The business is unpredictable and full for surprises. We learned the importance of customer service, which is a mainstay at FrightWorld. We also learned how to teach, manage and organize employees. We always looked at our venue from the customer point of view. Exit polling and surveys became tremendously important when making year-to-year decisions. Listening to your customers and employees should be a daily routine. We learned that our event is never done…What I mean is this: We always continue to work it until the day we take it down. We’re constantly changing scares, adding props and making the overall experience better than the day prior.
What was the overall success level of your first season?
A: Well, let me just say this… U sing tents in Buffalo… What were we thinking?... Snow!! I can’t say it was that bad, and Buffalo is a great place to live and operate. However, Buffalo is known as the snow capital of the country, but honestly it isn’t. We had an unusual season that year with weather. From heavy rain on the weekends to wind-storms and an extremely early snowfall our last week of the season, it was bad weather. When we were shoveling five inches of snow off our tents, we quickly realized our decision for an outdoor venue was extremely risky.
We budgeted and planned for a realistic 10,000 patrons, we came short of that goal by 4,000. We were fully aware that was a high number for a first year, but felt confident with our plans, research and motivation. We felt it was attainable.
We analyzed the season (both during and after) to figure out why our numbers were so down. Our thoughts were weather, other haunts opening that year, and the appearance of a tent show all contributed to our dissatisfaction with the year. We lost a ton of money that year, around $50,000, and we were looking for answers.
Going into year number two and three, what did you modify or change to put your haunted house over the top?
A: We started working the day after take-down for the 2003 season…planning, budgeting, and already designing. We felt that an indoor event was essential, along with an expansion that would over double our size. We settled at a mall, which had a 45,000 sq. ft. vacancy. It was a beautiful building with tile and rug, elevators, escalators and multiple offices. We had the support from the mall and doubled our advertising budget. We also tripled our actors and built two new shows.
By learning from our exit interviews, we knew what the customer wanted and gave it to them. We changed the existing show completely, and gave Buffalo a truly unique experience…five stand-alone haunted houses at a very, fair fifteen dollar price tag. Our website was overhauled, our hearse was revinyled, and we acquired more sponsors and ran more promotions than the year before. All of these changes almost tripled our attendance and made us a mainstay in Buffalo. That year, we had two full-page, full-color stories in the local paper and a multitude of news appearances.
Our 2004 season, saw just as many changes. We sold and set up one of our past attractions in China. We replaced that attraction with a new one. We added additional vendors, revamped our existing attractions, and brought the show size up to around 20,000 sq. ft. We saw a 25% growth that season topping us at over 21,000 customers. However, some nights became a bit chaotic. We came close to closing the show, because as a haunt owner you have a responsibility for thesafety of your customers and staff. We knew then that we needed a change.
Our past season had the same success with growth. We out grew our mall location and moved to a 60,000 sq. ft. building right next door, with 50 ft. ceilings and an abundance of space that we had no problem filling. Our show size now is close to 25,000 sq. ft., and with a newly opened Dave and Buster’s in our old location, it is truly the number one entertainment destination for Buffalo.
Our success was mainly a combination of listening to our customers, giving our repeat customers a reason to come back year-after-year, and truly giving them a fair price for five individual stand-alone houses (not one house broken up multiple times).
You have a multi-themed event with several attractions. Please tell us more about the set up of your haunted houses.
A: All sets are made prior to set-up. We have over 2,000 wall panels, 700 sheets of detailed luan walls, and trailers upon trailers of props. We build a small city in three weeks time. We build our show like a permanent attraction but with a temporary time frame.
Every year the floor plan is completely different from the last year, which keeps it fresh and exciting. When it is complete, there is over a mile of walking to experience FrightWorld.
We choose to theme each attraction in order to give our customers a unique and different experience. Each attraction has a different entrance and exit with a façade designed around the theme of that show. When customers enter our event, they’re amazed at the presence of five shows indoors. There’s two to the right, two to the left and one straight ahead against the back wall. There’s a large concession area and two 20 ft. projector screens playing custom videos. Actors are trained and managers are in place for each show. Queue-line entertainers are a must in the large, open center area. Efficiency and organization is a key for a successful multi-themed event. We really give our customers the ultimate Halloween experience!
What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of a multi-themed event are?
A: Some of the advantages are that they have five options, giving the customer a choice. They can choose when and which attraction to go to. This enables them to wait in five lines instead of one; this splits their wait time and builds anticipation for each show. At the same time they may not realize they waited over 2 or 3 hours in line total. They also encounter five ticket takers that reinforce the rules and greet them to FrightWorld and that specific attraction. It also gives an opportunity to purchase merchandise and relax at the concessions, which means a greater opportunity for additional revenue. Picture opps are huge, and the media loves the camera friendly atmosphere.
The disadvantages are limited, but they do exist. Some customers may not like a particular theme or have come accustomed to a traditional haunted house. Multi-theming is a tremendous amount of work each with very complicated design.
You had a pitch black maze, which seems to be envogue right now but you had some interesting twists inside your black maze. Tell us about them!
A: Everybody‘s been through a black maze, the philological fear of darkness is more than we could ever create. So again, to impress and to give our customers a unique experience, we took our 3000 square foot dark maze and added a raised platform for our actors. This platform set off the ground two feet and went the entire length of the show. There wasn’t a turn in the show that any actors couldn’t get you from above. The walls went up around this platform at six feet, to fool our guests, when running their fingers against the wall, that there was nobody there. We carpeted the platform so there would be little if any noise and ran a dimly lit rope light guiding our actors where to go. This with the additions of strobe lights to reset vision, Bose speakers, and a few sets with timed lights made this attraction an awesome experience.
Your graveyard was incredible. Tell us a little bit about your background creating graveyards.
A: Our graveyard sets have just as much detail as our entire show. This is our dedication to the customer and our plan of excellence. A graveyard starts with its tombstones; we have some great experience in our background with Graveyard Tombstones. We started that company because there was a void for very realistic, detailed, durable tombstones. We needed that realism for our show, and found a niche in the industry at the same time. We studied movies, visited cemeteries, and collected books/pictures of cemetery sets all before creating.
In our graveyard, there are two 400 gallon swamps on each side of a bridge. These are nothing more than pond liners configured in irregular patterns, with four by four constructions. With about two inches of water, proper lighting, a soundtrack and some cattails, we successfully made a believable swamp. We also added bushes, trees, branches, dirt, and stones. We added two 3000 watt strobes to the lightning system, bass kickers under the bridge, and two double 18-inch subwoofers to add believability of being outdoors. We added scents and have scenic lights strategically placed to showcase our sets. By adding a low lying fogger and actors in ghille suits, we fulfilled the illusion of being outdoors in a scary, swampy graveyard.
Two of your haunted houses shared the same graveyard. How did that work to your benefit and tell us more about how you brought in an entire dump truck load of dirt to create a very realistic graveyard.
A: One of our attractions is called House of the Dead , a themed haunted mansion, and the other is Castle of Fear, a dark castle with an outdoor cemetery. They do indeed share the view of the cemetery.
We like to design our attractions interactive and put considerable thought in them. The cemetery is a very large and impressive set, and we wanted viewed at multiple locations/angles. This enables a sense of what is to come. It’s efficient, and it adds value to the customer. The House design sends patrons outdoors on a decrepit porch that over looks the cemetery in the backyard. There are also windows inside the house with a view to the cemetery. In the Castle, you view thecemetery three times before meandering through the actual cemetery set.
The cemetery itself is around 3000 square feet. To fill this area, it took four entire dump trucks of dirt. We did this for the commitment to realism, and it enabled us to have more flexibility in creating rolling hills, grave ditches and coffins rising out from beneath.
What are some tips you can offer haunters out there for creating the ultimate graveyard?
A: A cemetery is a very easy, affordable, addition to your haunted event. It brings the outdoors in. However, when you bring anything organic inside, I encourage you to check with your inspectors. They approve them if they are treated with a flame retardant. We recommend spraying up to three times to be safe. Remember, they will do a flame test, and ultimately you are responsible for the safety of your customers.
Now that you have branches, the task is making them free-standing. To do this, simply use cider blocks or weld a plate with a one-foot length of pipe to the middle. Slide your branches in, and now you have a free standing tree.
Make sure you cover your black walls with branches. This fills the void and adds character to your set. We use some branches and have other walls with custom painted cemetery backdrops for that extra impression.
Add smells if possible and the best sound you can afford. Sound is very crucial to a professional haunt, as well as lighting. You also need props. For example: crows, spider webs, skeletons, coffins, and possibly a hearse. Detail with an abundance of Spanish moss, camo-net and spider webs. We have a ‘67 Cadillac hearse as a prop, and it adds to that realism. When all these elements are assembled, you too will have a great addition, and very morbid set.
Q18: You used a lot of bed mattresses in your haunted house and carpet on certain walls. Why?
A: We use a lot of flame retardant automotive carpet. This deadens the sound and helps protect our customers from splinters in all the dark areas. This also cushions, the walls to protect them fully. We also have a safety mattress at the end of our chainsaw set. It is secured to the wall and covered to protect the patrons that flee too fast. These simple measures help protect and enhance the safety of everyone.
You have five haunted houses that make up FrightWorld. Tell us how different each attraction should be to have a successful multi-themed event.
A: Each attraction should be just that…an attraction. Each of ours is around 5000 square feet. Each has their own logo and storyline. When advertising, this helps you get a competitive advantage, and your perceived value is higher than your ticket price. If you don’t, your number of returning customers will diminish.
Each attraction is different. There are detailed shows around different themes, a 3-D show, a techno chain-link maze and a pitch black maze. Each has their own character and unique experience.
Tell us more about the Buffalo haunt market. You seem to have an unusual market because there are several haunts in nearby Niagara Falls open year around. How do you think that affects haunts opening in Buffalo seasonally?
A: In our experience the Niagara Falls market doesn’t affect our core attendance. By listening to our customers and examining our exit polls, around 3% of our customers go to the Falls. The Niagara Falls region has roughly 9 haunts opened year round. We feel that these are tourist attractions catering to the tourist crowd.