Dark Magnetism: Rob Johnson of Darksyde Acres

Founded in 1828 Jonesville, Michigan is not a booming population center. Officially listed  as a village, Jonesville had a total population of 2,258 people at the time of the 2010 United States Census. It would seem on paper to be an abjectly boring place, but the theater of life doesn’t play out on the uniform black and white pages of government documents. A mere glance will not reveal the hidden gem that lies therein; peer a little closer and you’ll find that here is a place that cast a lure into the night and hooked many wayward travelers. Here, there exists a parcel of land, an epicenter of dark magnetism simply known as Darksyde Acres.

Rob Johnson grew up in Detroit, Michigan and it was his love of Halloween that led him to create the special FX and makeup company, BodyBag Entertainment, in 2002. For a period of five years his love and dedication to the holiday spurred a home haunt so wildly popular that it often required the attention of local law enforcement. As fate would have it, Rob would soon field a phone call from an old friend — it was a conversation that would lead him to a pig farm in Jonesville, Michigan.

Since 2008, Rob Johnson and his crew have been building a reputation as one of Michigan’s premier haunted destinations. His team has done this by transforming a former pig farm into an altered reality populated by perverse clowns, witty wenches, and a cabal of vivacious vixens. The experience at Darksyde Acres is fueled by a wanton disregard for the status quo, and indeed it is that attitude that has cast a glow upon Darksyde Acres in a veritable sea of haunted attractions.

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Horrorlust recently conducted an interview with the owner of Darksyde Acres — what follows is the first in a two-part series.

Horrorlust: What motivated or inspired you to get into the haunted attraction industry? How did Darksyde Acres come into existence?

Rob Johnson: I’ve always loved Halloween much like all children; I looked forward to it every year, and would spend months trying to figure out what I would become on that wonderful night. There was an old man in the neighborhood I trick or treated in and every Halloween he would set up a simple homemade casket and passed out candy dressed as a vampire. I looked forward to seeing him every year and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to do the same.

In the same timeframe, there was a Saturday afternoon TV show titled Sir Graves Ghastly and while dressed as a vampire (the real vampires of yesterday, not those glittery, shimmery vampires of today) he would show vintage horror movies with in between campy skits of wacky characters. One of my favorite things he did was an art gallery where the young viewers would send in artwork of monsters; as an aspiring young artist, I would send in my offerings every week, sometimes as many as ten drawings at a time , hoping to see one of my monsters on the show. Persistence paid off and soon my art work had its own 4 drawing scene during the gallery portion of the show. I was in the big time!

I was invited down to the station to meet Sir Graves Ghastly, I practically had to beg my grandfather to take me to the studio and on the big day dressed in my best, I went to meet my hero, who I met however was an actor named Lawson J. Deming dressed in a turtle neck and tweed sports coat. After a quick tour of the set and a few autographs later I was on my way home, saddened by the experience of reality. The awesome sets I had watched for years on Saturday afternoons were nothing more than cardboard cut-outs and the vampire I had idolized was nothing more than an old man in a sports coat. I would like to say that I continued watching the show, but the illusion had been shattered for me. I learned a valuable lesson that day, that I incorporate in everything we do at DarkSyde Acres Haunted House. The lesson? You can create any illusion you want with proper set design and lighting and more so that all characters are to remain in character.

Years flew by and life has a way of sidestepping ones dreams from youth, but I never outgrew my love for Halloween or forgot that old man in the casket, and soon I was creating my very own home haunt. My house was a favorite destination for kids near and far come Halloween night, and everyone said that I should be doing this stuff for real. One year I took the leap and created BodyBag Entertainment, my very own Horror FX company. I focused on realism and detail so as never to have to hear some wise guy saying, “That ain’t real” and soon we were showing at all of the big haunt conventions — Transworld, Hauntcon, Midwest Haunters Convention, where we were regularly told, “You can’t do that”. Apparently we were doing something right; if our work could offend haunted house owners, we were on the right track.

After a few years of doing the shows, I grew tired of all the politics within the industry and wanted to do our own haunted attraction, when as if by design I received a phone call from an old friend wanting to know if I still did that “Halloween stuff”. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 years or so and he had no idea of what I had been doing, other than he used to make fun of me for my love of Halloween. Turns out he had picked up a 40 acre pig farm and everyone told him he should do a haunted house; his thoughts turned to me and DarkSyde Acres was born.

Horrorlust: How did you decide on the nature or type of haunted attractions that would be featured at Darksyde Acres?

Rob Johnson: I always knew that I wanted DarkSyde Acres to be something unlike anything the Haunted House industry had seen before. I wanted to create an illusion that would envelop our guests and transport them into our altered state of reality. From the very start I decided that we would be an actor based type of attraction; animatronics are cool to look at but offer very little in actual scares. A good actor can not only adapt to each group, a live person offers something no animatronic can… the fear of the unknown. I knew in the beginning that I wanted to cater to an older crowd, less typical of most haunted houses and planned on using beautiful girls to distract and disorient our guests. This was influenced by the fact that 99% of horror movies have attractive girls and everyone loves seeing them mutilated. However the slight spin we utilize is that rarely are our girls “victims”. We have a very rare problem at DarkSyde Acres that has never been seen in the haunted house industry, I will dwell on that later in the interview.

Fast forward five years and our original goals have changed to meet the desires of our guests, we created an outdoor family friendly environment to draw in larger crowds. You may not know this but apparently blood, guts, gore and more doesn’t actually appeal to the general market…who knew? The outdoor events consist of a non-scary hayride, a non-scary outdoor maze, the original Zombie paintball, and new in 2013 our DarkSyde Carnivale midway show featuring a bonfire, midway actors, jugglers, fire breathers, a fortune-teller and more. We still continue to push the envelope within the 3 indoor haunted houses, and go even further on our 18 and older nights.

DarkSyde Acres Haunted House has been berated within the industry as nothing more than an over glorified whore house and I was personally accused as single-handedly destroying the haunt industry, and yet what was once frowned upon by all has become a staple within the industry with haunted houses hiring scantily clad models covered in blood to promote their attractions. I heard that you can’t be everything to everybody, and that you can either be extreme or family friendly but we had to find the line and separate the extreme indoor haunts and yet still be able to cater to the family friendly market, and I think we have done a good job with it.

In addition to the outdoor attractions, DarkSyde Acres has also been working on community relations through family friendly events throughout the year geared to the much younger guests, such as our Easter Eggstravaganza and friendly monster days. This past Easter we had our largest crowd ever at DarkSyde, nearly 1,000 guests came to partake in our activities.

Horrorlust: The cast at Darksyde is a rare, twisted assemblage. What qualities do you look for in prospective haunted house actors?

Rob Johnson: We look for different qualities in each actor and shoot to identify and bring out the best in each and every one of them. Some people show up for auditions and are a natural, others show up and struggle through auditions with little to no chance of making into a spot for season. One girl in particular surprised me so much, I would like to share the experience with you. She showed up for the 2011 auditions, looking like Justin Beiber, small , frail, quiet as a mouse, unable to perform a single task presented to her. We gave her a shot in the Catacombs Haunted House that opening weekend to see if per chance she would step up her game.

I was doing a security walk thru, the first of the night, following a group through the haunt when we turned the corner to her area, she hit her first scare spot so hard that the guests threw themselves into the wall across the way, then as they scrambled to get away she busted through a hole in the lower wall attacking them on her hands and knees then leapt into the air and smacked into the wall behind them as they turned the corner in their getaway, growling and snarling all the while. It gave me goosebumps to see this little imp of a zombie terrorize group after group all season.

With that said, we look for actors that have initiative, the ability to think on their feet, and comedic traits, due to the fact that you cannot scare everyone, but everyone has the ability to be entertained. During auditions we always ask if there is something that they can do that no one else can. One gentleman proceeded to take out his eyeball, then followed that up by dropping it on the ground and almost losing it in the sewer system, but he wasn’t done yet, he then in turn hit one of our staff with a big stick…weighing the positives with the negatives, he didn’t land a role at DarkSyde, as much fun as it would have been with the gross factor of pulling out his eye and chasing people around with it, the liability of him actually whacking someone with a big stick due to him being legally blind outweighed the novelty of the eyeball pluckage.

The number one thing we ask out of our staff at DarkSyde Acres Haunted House is to RESPECT one another, we treat all of our staff like family and ask them to do the same. To date we have nearly 50 core members of our acting staff, they return year after year and each year accept more and more responsibility to ensure we have a great show. Lets face it, you can build the world’s scariest haunted house, but without good actors it can quickly becomes the world’s lamest haunted house. I’d like to give thanks to our staff at DarkSyde Acres, without them we wouldn’t be here.

Horrorlust: What kind of instruction are the actors given in regard to interaction with guests?

Rob Johnson: DarkSyde Acres acting staff are giving a wide range of liberty regarding guest interactions. Some actors are limited to their spots and limited interaction is required, most of these actors are new comers, not yet earning their stripes until they prove worthy of a higher spot on the food chain. Some never rise up to the challenge and usually don’t last very long, others stand right up their first year, go above and beyond and become core members their first year, and in turn are allowed to have more interaction with the guests.

All staff are instructed to know their target audience, meaning common sense dictates that you probably aren’t going to treat a family of four with a toddler in one arm and granny in the other the same way you would treat the two teenagers on their first date. During our 18 and older nights, DarkSyde Management is hesitant to enter the haunted house, due to the no questions asked policy, to this date my anal virginity is still intact, primarily because I’m faster than our damn clowns.

Seriously though our staff is trained throughout the year, by the wife of one of the partners at DarkSyde Acres . Katie Lane is a haunt industry superstar, doing multiple seminars within the industry during the year, teaching acting, costuming, basic make-up and more. She has guest acted at many of the top rated haunted attractions across the nation. You will never meet a more sadistic, depraved, twisted individual as sweet as Katie Lane. Above all else our staff knows that the entertainment value is equal to the scare value within the haunt, and if they cannot scare the guests, they make them laugh and the overall mood is one of a good time.

Horrorlust: Old Man Cox is a character featured in much of your social media and advertising; how did he come about?

Rob Johnson: Character recognition is a huge effort at DarkSyde Acres Haunted House. Many of our characters have fan clubs and are a solid staple to the DSA lineup every year. Old Man Cox is a gentleman fashioned after a serial killer by the name of Robert Pickton who murdered prostitutes on his pig farm. One of the original DSA partners last name was Cox, and he could be a bit crotchety at times so I created the red underwear wearing , foul-mouthed, butt farting, combat boot wearing character to honor him. Old Man Cox and his storyline quickly became a crowd favorite, and local legend supports the fact that he was a real person and that the buildings are actually haunted by his victims. To this day many of our staff believe the legend.

Old Man Cox as you may or may not know is quite the ladies man, and has been requested for personal appearances throughout the year for many events, including Bachelorette Parties. It’s sad to say but many a poor groom has been left at the altar after his bride to be ran off with Old Man Cox. Other well-known characters at DarkSyde are Bodybags, our resident maggot infested, brain juice slurping, bone gnawing zombie. Richter Mortis, a rather dapper yet cynical zombie who awaits you in the Catacombs Haunted House with his hoard of zombified minions, and of course there’s our all time favorite — a pole dancing tranny, who brings a whole new meaning to the RustHole Haunted House. Between Tranny and her lineup of cage girls, they keep you guessing and definitely make you wish we’d turn the lights back on. The Dark Abyss is stuffed full of icon characters as well, as it was designed to be our premiere attraction and one not to be forgotten. From Captain Carcass to Lady ChopChop, the Dark Abyss is full of personality.

Creating recognizable characters helps build a personal relationship between the staff and guests. Many of our guests come back year after year just to see their favorite character and interact with them.

The second part of the interview with Rob Johnson will be posted next Friday.

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2 Responses to “Dark Magnetism: Rob Johnson of Darksyde Acres”

  1. Thank you HorrorLust for including our lil Haunted house in Michigan in your 2014 Haunt Interview series. Rob from DarkSyde Acres Haunted house and Attractions. 🙂

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