Five questions whispered to mayhem-keeper Dwayne Sanburn, in a haunted place where there be monsters (and ghostly things), on a crisp Autumn night, in-between the screams of horror and delight...near the 13th Gate...
Why is a Haunted Halloween important?
I guess you could say Halloween is in my blood. I got bit by the Halloween bug at a very early age, when life was a bit safer. At a time when you could go trick or treating in the dark and take candy from strangers. You would get a sack full of popcorn balls, candy corn, homemade brownies, and enough sweets to give you a stomachache for a week.
I remember watching scary movies at midnight and being scared out of my mind, but laughing all the while (well, at least until it was time to go to bed). Once I wore a towel around my neck each night for a week after watching Dracula. I was convinced it would keep me from getting bit while I slept.
I remember making cut outs of witches and bats and decorating the house, carving jack o lanterns, and telling scary stories in a tent in the backyard or under the sheets with a flashlight.
I always looked forward to this time of year, back when Halloween was innocent fun and the real horrors of the present weren't even conceivable.
Now the world has changed and everything is regulated for our safety. Trick or Treating is done at the Mall between the hours of 5 & 7. Candy must be store bought, in a sealed wrapper and is examined and x-rayed before being rationed out. Some communities have even banned Halloween activities all together and many schools have decided to have a "Fall Festival" in the place of anything Halloween related.
I’m not sure that most kids would understand or appreciate the Holiday I knew at all if it wasn’t for the fact that Haunted Attractions compensate for what is now missing by bringing back some of the mystery of Halloween.
I have this great love for the Holiday that makes me fight to keep it alive the way I remember it. There is a certain time of year, right around the end of September, that the weather changes here in Louisiana. You can hear and smell Halloween coming and it always reminds me of my childhood fascination that somehow decided to turn itself into my adulthood obsession.
Several years ago, one busy night at the haunted house, a small girl came up to me and asked, “Did you start this”. I said yes, not knowing what was coming next. With complete sincerity she stared at me and said, “Well, thank God for you” and walked off. That meant more to me than all the money I could ever make. She loved Halloween as much as me and understood exactly what I was doing.
I suppose I am preserving the past, like a caretaker of an historic building. Most walk though and enjoy what it holds even if they don't understand the motivation behind it, but every once in a while, someone comes along and appreciates the history and all the dedication and hard work it takes to preserve it.
What elements make an ideal Haunt Attraction for you?
The most important element is, of course, fear. People pay us to scare them (and we do our job very well, thank you). A lot of haunts approach scaring people a lot of different ways. For us, we like to create realistic environments, so set design is extremely important. After that, strong actors in good makeup and costume. Then we wrap everything up neatly in a terrifying storyline.
Our main objective, like a good movie, is suspension of disbelief. If we can make you forget that you are safe in a haunted attraction surrounded by actors and have you start thinking instead that you are in a real asylum, or real graveyard, or real slaughterhouse, then you probably won't feel so safe when the crazy maniac with the chainsaw bursts through the barn door in front of you.
To enter our haunt, you must first get on our Elevator (the Helevator), an old service elevator that has a nice simulated malfunction and subsequent 13 story drop to it (we like to weed out the chickens right in the beginning).
One night I got on the Helevator with a large group and it was a bit crowded. It's during these times that I always enjoy mentioning that I am sure we are over capacity for such an old elevator. A young teenage girl was immediately freaking out and said quite enthusiastically that she was claustrophobic and she wanted off and out "NOW"! A string of expletives followed and I was half inclined to grant her wish but it was already too late, since the elevator button had been pushed and the doors had already closed. For the brief ride on the elevator, the lights went out and the girl, who was still screaming her head off, went curiously quiet.
When the lights came back on a moment later, I found her passed out on the floor (oops).
I called for staff and we carried her to the exit where we had a small air conditioned room with water, a couch, and more importantly, my ammonia inhalant vials (ok, so this wasn't the first time someone had passed out in the haunt). I quickly broke one and waved it under her nose.
Surprised, I waved the ammonia vial under her nose again and again she instantly opened her eyes, looked straight at me in horror and passed out again!!!
After the forth or fifth time of repeating this behavior, I gave up and called EMS. After they arrived a few minutes later, they broke another ammonia inhalant and, just as I did, waved it under the girls nose and she awoke instantly. This time she stayed awake and shortly thereafter walked out of the haunt on her own (to the nearest therapist, I'm sure).
It wasn't until later on that evening that I remembered that I was wearing my black theatrical contacts. I guess the girl probably thought she was staring at the devil each time she came to.
Describe your first Haunt Attraction experience and why it scarred you for life (in a good way)?
Jaycees, 1977 or so. It was in an old fire station. I had to crawl through an old refrigerator box, put my hand in a box of worms and eyeballs (spaghetti and grapes), there was a guy in a coffin, spiderwebs (string) hanging from the ceiling, the wolfman, and an old woman in a rocking chair that terrified me. It's all quite stereotypical and cheesy now but back then I was scared to death. It seemed like I walked for a mile and it would never end.
I drive by that old fire station occasionally (it's a museum now) and wonder how they packed such a big haunt in such a tiny building.
What's the one Haunted Halloween question you want to be asked and what's your answer?
Question: You are a member of America Haunts, tell us what that is?
Answer: America Haunts is a group of some of the most successful and well known Halloween Haunted Houses in the World. These Halloween Attractions are long standing events famous regionally and nationally for running safe, fun, and extremely scary shows sure to terrify the most jaded horror or haunted house fan!
The group of Haunted Attractions in America Haunts has been extensively honored by their peers and media outlets everywhere. Most of these events at one time or another have been on Hauntworld's Top 13 Haunted Attractions list (a major haunt industry publication) and have also been featured in AOL's yearly Top Haunts list. They have been covered by many TV shows including The Travel Channel, CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.