These fright fests, at roughly $30 a ticket, can take a year of preparation.
Amber Arnett-Bequeaith will scare you.
At 41, Arnett-Bequeaith is the third-generation owner of Full Moon Productions, an expanding fright empire that includes four haunting attractions within a four-block radius in Kansas City, Mo. In the two months leading up to Halloween (30 working days), the complex attracts about 100,000 visitors and generates nearly $2 million in revenue selling tickets for $25 a pop.
In the off season Full Moon employs 15 full-time set designers, managers and marketers. When October comes, the crew swells to 300 actors, ticket-takers, makeup artists and dancers (who perform Michael Jackson's Thriller video every 30 minutes around the houses).
"Not everyone scares the same, so it's difficult to create a show that works to make everyone terrified," says Arnett-Bequaeith.
To wit: The four-story Edge of Hell building is designed to bring on claustrophobic reactions by forcing visitors to crawl through tight spaces and until they escape through a five-story winding slide. The Chambers of Edgar Allen Poe recreates the poet's living quarters and graveyard inside a house. The Macabre Cinema puts visitors insidetheir favorite horror movies, which play on a big screen while nearby actors and props make the action seem all too real. And The Beast features a dark, panic-inducing maze.
"We used to fire our actors if they ever broke character and told people how to get out," says Arnett-Bequaeith.
Full Moon Productions isn't the only haunted-house proprietor that goes to such great lengths. Big reason: Audiences don't seem to outgrow this stuff.
"Most places like Chuck E. Cheese lose kids as they get older," says Patrick Konopelski, president of the International Association of Haunted Attractions. "Haunted houses keep people coming back for decades." Larry Kirchner, a haunted-house owner and curator of Hauntworld.com, estimates that nearly 3,000 spooky establishments exist in the U.S.
Sites that that generate tens of thousands of visitors spend months preparing for the Halloween season. "In the age of Twitter and Facebook, if we put on a lame show, we would never get anyone in the door," says Todd James, owner of Cutting Edge Haunted House in Fort Worth, Texas. "We need to spend the whole year working to make it scary and interesting enough." While James generates at least 90% of his $400,000 to $500,000 in annual revenue in the two months leading up to Halloween, he says he's trying to market his fright fest as an option for birthdays, Valentine's Day dates and even weddings.
Here are a handful of other top-shelf haunted houses across the U.S.
7 Floors of Hell
Cost: $23 (for access to three locations)
This isn't one haunted house with seven floors; it's seven houses, each with its own scary theme. The Gas Chamber features a "frightening fog." In the Mausoleum, elaborately made-up corpses chase visitors through the attraction. Owner Rodney Geffert also runs Nightscream Productions, a haunted house supply company serving Ohio and the Midwest.
House of Torment
Welcome to a post-apocalyptic city where you'll be greeted by animatronic headless horseman, pawed by puppets and startled by explosions and aerial stunts. The complex also houses a "4-D theater" that mixes 3-D horror movies with in-theater physical effects. Those too scared to make it through are duly shamed by having their photos posted outside.
St. Louis, Mo.
Cost: $20 per house
Larry Kirchner built a media empire that includes three haunted houses, all within a few miles, and a trade magazine, Hauntworld. The houses include The Darkness, a dark maze inside a large warehouse; The Lemp, an underground brewery cavern with caves; and Creepyworld, a collection of seven, well, creepy edifices.
This haunted rave club, complete with blaring music, features decrepit carnivals, smoldering ruins and ghost-hunters (of the real and animatronic varieties). Visitors donning 3-D glasses are treated to a dancing hamburger man with fangs.
The Dent Schoolhouse
According to Ohio lore several children disappeared in this schoolhouse in the 1940s and 1950s. Bodies were eventually found, and the janitor blamed. Proprietors of the Dent Schoolhouse say the children's ghosts still linger. Watch out for the actors dressed up as the murderous janitor!
(Maureen Farrell, Forbes.com)