Asylum of Fear: The Creative Process Behind Haunted Attractions

haunted attractions

These haunted attractions will bring your worst nightmares to life.

As I moved deeper through the rooms of the house, they became less familiar. The darkness was obviously creeping in, to the point that I didn’t want to keep going. When I had to leave the bedroom through the girl’s closet, I knew trouble lurked in the next room…the attic.

Pushing open bookcases, opening trunks and moving through the house in between the walls is not something you can prepare for before entering the HellsGate Haunted House.

I love haunted attractions and all the fun, creepy things about them. As an October baby, I grew up celebrating birthdays with a haunted theme. I even created my own “haunt” in the basement, complete with eyeballs (peeled grapes) and brains (spaghetti). I enjoyed amusement parks with fun houses or the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, but my absolute favorite haunted attractions were the local ones that sprang up during Halloween season.

Statesville Crazy Man - haunted attractionsStatesville Haunted Prison tries to keep their inmates in… Photo courtesy of Statesville Haunted Prison.

Haunted attractions have evolved over the years from black hallways leading to rooms with some sort of horror scene to what they’ve become today: in-your-face, bloodcurdling-screaming nightmares loaded with fake blood and horrific environments to navigate. Seasonal haunts showcase some of the best creativity and passion of haunted attractions. One prime example is a haunt called Statesville Haunted Prison® where the prisoners have released an ancient demon who turned the prison into its own hellish playground. The gates to the prison now stand wide open, beckoning you to enter as prey for the hungry beast.

It all started in 1996, when Siegel opened a black maze and hayride on his farm. Then, in 1998, he met John LaFlamboy.

LaFlam boy Hells Gate - haunted attractionsStoryteller John LaFlamboy in his newest creation, HellsGate Haunted House. Photo by James Tampa.

LaFlamboy created his first haunted house while in college to raise funds to attend the Southeastern Theater Conference. Experiencing instant success, he decided to make a living of developing haunted attractions. He wrote his thesis paper on the topic and developed a business plan.

In ’98, LaFlamboy pitched the idea to Siegel to upgrade his maze and hayride to a high-concept interactive haunted attraction. Siegel offered to let LaFlamboy transform a building on his property into the experience he envisioned, and thus was born the Statesville Haunted Prison we know today.

Working with Siegel at Statesville, LaFlamboy learned new ways to frighten, impress and keep people on their toes. After 18 years there, LaFlamboy decided to realize his decadelong dream to build his own haunted attraction: HellsGate Haunted House in Lockport, Illinois.

I had the chance to visit with LaFlamboy at HellsGate and got a special preview of the house, an adventure experience set to premiere this month.

HellsGateHauntedNightHellsGate Haunted House. Image courtesy of Zombie Army Productions.

The adventure begins outside HellsGate Haunted House after I get my ticket. I start walking on a trail in the woods toward the graveyard and up to the house. The whole house is designed like a movie, so as I progress, I learn more about the story and experience more of the horrors within.

“This is what happens when you collect some of the best artists in storytelling…”

LaFlamboy is first and foremost a storyteller, and he focuses most on developing the story and characters. Once he has polished those from start to finish, he moves on to creating concept drawings and presents those strong ideas to his team during a creative night for further contributions. He then proceeds to building the haunted attraction using Legos. “I’m creating a three-dimensional model that I can help communicate my ideas to all of my artists before we move on to CAD drawings,” says LaFlamboy. When he’s happy with the Lego design, he gives it to his younger brother, Kyle, who translates it into a CAD drawing. Then the build can begin.

LaFlamboy has brought to life a specific vision for his haunted attraction. “I wanted to resurrect the legendary HellsGate, bring back the multilevel mansion hidden in the woods, the haunted house you had to walk through a cemetery to get to, the haunted house with the giant slide, the haunted house that’s so cool you can get your money back.”

The whole house took over a year to build from the ground up, and every hallway, room and secret passageway is finished with extreme detail by the artistic director, Tresa, and her team of artists. Visitors moving through the house will take its secret passageways from room to room to avoid the creatures lurking in the hallways. They’ll witness all the terrors the twin daughters have created within the darkness. And eventually they’ll take the slide to the basement. Along the way, they’ll see an extraordinary amount of passion displayed, from the props to the finishings, layout and actors.

And, yes, by finding a special key, they can win their stay for free.

hellsgate girls room - haunted attractionsThe little girl’s room inside HellsGate Haunted House. Image courtesy of Zombie Army Productions.

Lines of sight and lighting and audio design (Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has been stretched out for 24 hours) are key components to the overall success of the haunt. Taking what he learned from Statesville, LaFlamboy has made HellsGate a Haunted Mansion on steroids. “This is all original. This is the handiwork of Zombie Army Productions, and this is what happens when you collect some of the best artists in storytelling and building, scenic painting, propping, costuming and makeup and you bring them all together and build a place for haunters built by haunters. You end up with a place like HellsGate.”

Basement of the Dead sign - haunted attractions

Another must-visit haunt, the Basement of the Dead, is located in a 100-year-old+ basement below a popular restaurant in Aurora, Illinois. Brothers Jason and David Seneker built and operate the Basement.

Jason’s passion started with a home haunt, which grew to the point that people told him he should make a career of building haunted attractions. After speaking with several friends, he found someone who happened to be selling a haunted attraction. Now seven years later, the Basement of the Dead continues to be an experience like no other.

Seneker - haunted attractionsOwner Jason Seneker and friends inside Basement of the Dead. Photo by James Tampa.

Every year, the Seneker brothers try to outdo what they’ve done in previous years, and this season is no different. “There are staples in every haunted house,” Jason says. “No one is doing a house that’s like, ‘Oh, man, every room in there, I’ve never seen before.’ There are hospitals, butcher shops — but what sets you apart from other haunted attractions is how well you execute those rooms. That makes you different. Because it’s all the same idea. Everyone has these rooms in some way or form.” This year the team will execute a brand-new experience in one of the brothers’ fresh room designs that’s sure to frighten.

The brothers keep the full experience in mind when they design sets. “When it comes to set design,” Jason says, “we look at where the scares are and where we are going to put a prop that people will look at. And then all of a sudden, we’ll have an actor in your face. Our design is immersive, and we try to think about how to surprise the hell out of people.”

When developing a new room, the brothers always keep their actors in mind and work with them through the design process. Jason says, “I know my actors are going to be great in that room, but how do I help my actors get themselves into situations where they can scare people easier?”

BotD_grinder - haunted attractionsA custom meat grinder in the Basement of the Dead. Photo by James Tampa.

In addition to carefully crafting sets and actor interaction, the brothers use the lighting design artistically to reveal only specific areas of the rooms. While a room may have many interesting props, the Basement team may want the visitor (aka victim) to move through the room to see a particular section and feel dread or panic.

Sound design is also extremely important. Ray, the Basement’s sound engineer, creates original audio design for each room using multiple layers of sound effects to set the proper mood. Ray created the audio in the church room with bits from Monty Python and the Holy Grail played backward, girls laughing, and church bells ringing in slow motion. The combination evokes an uneasy feeling. In some spaces, such as the boiler room, the audio is natural background noise for that setting, such as steam whistling and pipes banging. The sounds work in harmony with the environment and with the actors’ interactions, telling a well-rounded story.

When all is said, done and buried, it takes a vast amount of passion, storytelling, creativity and talent to develop these wonderful local haunted attractions. I encourage you to experience at least one haunt in your area this season. If you don’t know where the nearest ones are, you can find them through Haunted Houses Onlineend

I’d love to hear about your favorite haunt in the comments below!

Watch these exclusive interviews inside HellsGate!

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