Dark Magnetism Part 2: Rob Johnson, Darksyde Acres

Last weekend the haunt community was shocked to learn of the untimely passing of Adam Ladd. Adam was the owner of Ladd’s Evil Acres in Hillsdale, Michigan and by all accounts was a man with a big heart and lots of friends; among those friends was Rob Johnson. As you’ll read, Rob spoke highly of Adam Ladd during our interview and emphasized the positive partnership that Darksyde Acres had forged with Ladd’s Evil Acres.

I hadn’t meet Adam myself, and yet I am saddened just the same because I know that a kindred spirit has departed this mortal plane. I’d like to extend my heartfelt condolences to all that knew and loved him; may his family find peace during this time of grief.

-Joel

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Horrorlust: What kind of obstacles/criticisms have you faced from community members, local officials, or even patrons?

Rob Johnson: Honestly, we have been blessed at DarkSyde Acres, before I made any commitment to build the haunted house I spoke with many of the local officials and residents surrounding the property to let them know my intent. I was met with the typical, “You’re gonna do what?” type of response, but overall the feedback was of a positive nature. There was a semi-local haunted house in a neighboring town, The Homer Mill, and everyone knew that and assumed that was what we had in mind. Heading into our seventh season, they all know now that we are not that type of haunted house and see us growing every year by leaps and bounds. Side Note: The Homer Mill burned down to the ground in 2010, destroying the haunted house and taking a historic local landmark with it.

We really haven’t faced a lot of criticisms at DarkSyde Acres, the majority of any negative press comes from other over enthusiastic haunted house staff trying to support their haunt by bad mouthing others, People that have never even visited DarkSyde and the occasional ex-DSA staff members that couldn’t follow the rules, and were asked not to return. From time to time, we will get a jealous girlfriend upset that her boyfriend was ogling the stripper on the pole in the RustHole Haunted House, until we point out that, we have no strippers at DarkSyde Acres and the girl on the pole is actually a boy and then the conversation goes to a whole new level. Typically we go out of our way to ensure that all of our guests leave with a positive memory of their visit to DarkSyde Acres, however as any haunted house owner can tell you, it is physically impossible to please 100% of the people.

Horrorlust: Are there any haunt operators who you look to for advice or with whom you actively engage in cross promotion?

Rob Johnson: Early on, I spoke with lots of haunted house owners, their advice was simply to not open a haunted house. Wait, what? That’s not what I wanted to hear, of course I’m going to open a haunted house, It was my dream after all — looking back I understand what they were saying. What once had brought me years of enjoyment quickly turned to work and frustration now that we were trying to make a living at it. I quickly learned what worked for other attractions across the country simply did not work for us out here in the boonies. I had to start from scratch and redesign the mouse trap.

I have always been of the belief that cross promotions are the way to go, and have tried to promote that within our industry. I would much rather cross promote with someone rather than compete with them for the limited market we have. Its a proven fact that most people who attend Halloween attractions, visit more than one a year, many visit more than one a night. Unfortunately, many times promoting another attraction can have a negative outcome, when the attraction you are actively promoting is in turn doing their best to turn guests away from your attraction, which we have found to be the case nearly every single time. Nothing stings more than having personal friends contact you to let you know that the haunted house you insisted they go to, told them that your haunted house sucked and was a waste of money. Hard to believe, but true.

There are many haunted houses that we recommend to our guests when we are asked about them, we highly encourage our guests to visit them and the few haunted houses that have not been quite so friendly toward us — we simply say that we haven’t been there and haven’t heard anything about them, be sure to let us know how you liked them, if you decide to go there. We have a strict policy at DarkSyde Acres never to bad mouth another attraction. We have one local attraction that goes out of their way to destroy our billboards, vandalize our actor’s cars, steal any advertisements they see and so on, we instruct our staff to be the better person and say nothing regarding them. Side Note: It makes me happy knowing that our lil’ ole crappy haunted house way back in the sticks terrifies the big scary haunted house.

Early last year we were contacted by a fellow that had a haunted hay ride nearby, and asked if we could give him a few pointers in regards to marketing, seeing that everywhere he looked he was seeing something referencing DarkSyde Acres. I explained to him that while I would love to be of assistance to him, I couldnt in clear conscious do so, with our past track record. He persuaded me into meeting with him, and by the end of our conversation I had agreed to give him a hand. Adam of Ladd’s Evil Acres in Hillsdale has proven to be a man of his word and we have a wonderful cross promotional relationship to this day. Ladd’s Evil Acres has since added a corn maze, and a pumpkin patch to his attraction, be sure to check it out in 2014. We have a similar relationship with the BoneYard Haunted Attraction in Stockbridge. By working together we can all help drive traffic to eachothers’ attractions and ensure we all have a successful season.

Horrorlust: Is it difficult to attract large numbers of visitors in such a rural location, and if so what kind of measures do you employ to draw in greater attendance?

Rob Johnson: This is where Old Man Cox and a burlap bag come into play, but even on a good night he can only scrounge up two or three if he cuts them up just right. Seriously though 80% of our guests travel two to four hours one way to visit us, which thankfully puts our target market into the Metro Detroit area and beyond. As I mentioned earlier what works for other attractions does not work for DarkSyde, such as radio advertisment. Our local market is swamped by one haunted house on the radio every year, you would be hard pressed to turn on a radio during September and October and not hear their ad on every station, on every single station break, so obviously trying to compete with that would be a waste of time and money. One year they went as far as to say ,”Don’t go to the DarkSyde” in their commercial, I don’t think it hurt us, but I’m sure it didn’t help us. The past two Halloween seasons we have not done any radio advertising at all, however when asked how did you hear about us during our exit poll, we get a surprisingly high amount of we heard your commercial on the radio.

We have had great success with our mobile marketing, and currently have over 120 cars, trucks, vans showing their love for the DarkSyde by sporting a large DarkSyde Acres Haunted House decal on their back window. We receive messages all of the time regarding their sightings. One of my favorites came from a fan who was visiting Disney World in Florida, when while in a traffic jam , the car next to her started beeping their horn to get her attention, apparently the other car lives locally and loves DarkSyde Acres Haunted House too. We also have good success with our roadside billboards, when the other previously mentioned haunted house staff are not tearing them down and throwing them into rivers and fire pits. Thankfully we put signs up within a 2 hour drive and the ones outside of our local market are not destroyed. Our first year open we put out these really awesome road signs that looked like actual road signs with a zombie crossing on them, we had 80,000 flyers printed that said just follow the zombie crossing signs. 90% were stolen the first night, with the remainder stolen the following night. We received calls all season asking where the damn signs were.

Social media has also helped get the word out to a larger audience and DarkSyde Acres has a strong Internet presence. In 2012 if you were to Google the word Michigan, DarkSyde Acres Haunted House would pop up on the first page. In the beginning Myspace was a huge help to spread the word, then Facebook took over, now unfortunately Facebook limits the amount of our fans that can actually see our posts which sucks zombie nuts because we put a lot of effort into the DarkSyde page. Ultimately, the number one success we have with our marketing would be our staff and FANS. They spread the word like no other, they vote for us in every contest , making us the number one haunted house in the Metro Detroit area, they drive around with our three foot long DarkSyde decal on their new cars, they wear our shirts and hoodies everywhere they go, and most of all they do not hesitate to tell you about their all time favorite haunted house in Michigan. I would like to take a second to say thank you to all of our staff and fans that make it possible for us to what we do. THANK YOU! From Rob, Atalie, Shane and all the guys and ghouls at DarkSyde Acres Haunted House.

Horrorlust: What are your long term goals or plans for Darksyde Acres?

Rob Johnson: Wow, our long term goals have changed a lot over the years, originally I wanted DarkSyde Acres to become the Bronner’s of Halloween. A Halloween attraction that would be open year round and attract guests from all over the world. (Sidenote: Have I mentioned that DarkSyde Acres has had visitors from nearly 40 different states, and 19 different countries?) Not to shabby for a little ole haunted house way out back in the sticks. While I would like to say that our original goal is still on the chalkboards, once reality set in, it was not a realistic goal. Staffing an attraction of this size is hard enough during Halloween season, seems as though we could always use just one more person here or there, but trying to staff DSA off season would be nearly impossible and a huge drain on the finances. I suppose we could create a separate haunted attraction all of its own and utilize nothing besides animatronics, and then flip the switch when guests arrive, but let’s face it, that’s not how DarkSyde Acres does things, so it was better to just place the original goal on a back burner.

One of the side goals to the original goal was to be the world’s largest haunted house, and that’s a goal that is easily accessible. Currently we rank in the top five largest haunted houses and once we have fulfilled our dreams of utilizing every square inch of our facility we will take and hold onto that title for a long time. We are currently using 6 of our buildings out of an available 14, and once we turn the remaining buildings into part of the attraction, it will take quite a lot to knock us out of the title. Not only would we like to be the largest haunted house in the world, but eventually we would love to be one of the best Halloween attractions in the world. That’s where actor training comes in — a haunted house is nothing without a core group of well trained actors. (Have I thanked our staff yet?) This goal is a harder goal, because there are some amazing haunted houses in the industry out across the country and they constantly raise the bar, with their set designs, character development, actor training, and FX makeup. I remember years ago just prior to the start of Bodybag Entertainment at a Transworld show, while at the costume ball, people kept walking up to me and mistaking me for Ben Armstrong of Netherworld Haunted House — that was a huge compliment for me at the time.

Back in 2010 I met Shane Rapkin, owner of Raven’s Wolf Entertainment. While we had admired each other’s work within the industry for years, we hadn’t made the step forward to actually become acquainted. He and his wife accompanied by a few other haunters from Ohio, had joined us for a weekend out here on the ranch. Shane soon became a fixture of DarkSyde Acres and is now a partner in the attraction. ( Sidenote: Years earlier Shane had been one of the many haunters that had approached me at Transworld, saying that I couldn’t do that. He had meant it in a good way, and years later here we are , doing “THAT” together.) Shane’s arrival came at a much needed time, a time where I really needed a boost to get DarkSyde moving forward, his positive outlook and fresh eye helped me regain the desire to do more, and he had a goal of turning Darksyde Acres into a travel destination. While I transformed the inside of the Haunted House into something out of a horror movie, Shane has transformed what was once the outside of an old pig farm into the illusion of a destination spot, much like Cedar Point and other well known amusement facilities. Combined with his phenomenal graphic work to promote our attraction, the overall view of DSA is one of pure awesomeness. Together our long term goals don’t seem that far away.

Horrorlust: What are some of your most memorable stories from your time operating Darksyde Acres?

Rob Johnson: OMG. Where would I even start to answer that question? Every night of operation at DarkSyde is a story in itself, you cannot collect as many freaks and geeks as we have and throw them all together and not expect there to be a story or two at the end of the night. When I orginally designed DarkSyde Acres Haunted House, I designed her to be a four tiered assault on the senses, starting with distraction, then startle , winding up to the hammer and ending with an oops I pooped my pants climatic ending to most key scare points within the haunted house. I’m proud to say that DSA has lived up to that and has provided us with many poopsie stories nightly.

Two of my favorite “Ooopsie I Poopsied” stories are as follows. One slow night a lone gentleman approached the entrance to the queue line. Before he entered I had a few minutes to chat him up, asking him where he had come from, how he had heard about DarkSyde, etc. In closing he had said that haunted houses did nothing for him and that he never got scared. I let him know that was about to change, and that he should be prepared to change his undies, He left me standing there with a “Yeah right” response and entered the queue line. An hour had passed and I saw him waddling toward me, I asked if he had a good time, and if he would like to go thru a second time, seeing how we were slow, and I wanted to like to keep the staff busy. He mumbled “Yes” and said he would like to go thru again and pushed past me. The stench was nearly unbearable as I watched him enter the haunt for a second time. Later that night while the staff sat around at the after party, that guy was the talk of the night. It seemed that he had let loose of all bodily functions at the very first scare and had managed to waddle through the haunted house not once but twice, gagging our staff all the while, before heading home without bothering to clean himself….. eeeeeeewwwwww!

The second “Oops I Pooped” story isn’t nearly as long nor detailed. One night I received a call over the radio that a porta potty was in need of a cleaning, That was odd because it was a Friday night and relatively early, but I made my way to said porta potty and opened the door to find what looked like an exploded atomic turd, there was POO everywhere, top to bottom, side to side. To this day I have no idea what that person had ate for dinner and no idea how they survived the explosion. Speaking of porta pottys, one of my favorite gags is to put a actor inside one of our porta pottys and wait for guests to run up to it after driving for 2-4 hours to get here, they always knock once, pause, and then open the door, that’s when our porta potty surprise jumps out, and our guests nine times out of ten have an accident right there and then. They get so mad and yell that they haven’t even bought a ticket yet, and we inform them that the first scare was on us, and if they want to pee their pants again, it’s gonna cost them twenty dollars — much to the enjoyment of their friends.

Other memorable experiences come from a different type of activity out here at DarkSyde Acres. We are one of the few haunted houses in operation that are actually haunted year round, and the paranormal activity always picks up during the haunt season — I would imagine due to the increased activity within the buildings. In 2012 during our opening weekend, we had numerous reports of actors touching, grabbing, and scratching our guests. We take these reports very seriously and investigate each one. The one thing in common was the location of the encounters, a ninety foot stretch of empty hallway where there are no actors present. When asked what the actor looked like, the answer was always the same — they didn’t see anyone. Insert creepy music here.

Many of our staff reports paranormal activity on a nightly basis, and many of our staff refuse to go into the buildings alone and avoid some sections at all costs, including two of my partners. Personally, I enjoy the interaction and every once and again the buildings will get the hair to stand up on the back of my neck, and I let the buildings know — well played building, well played and then make a hasty departure.

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3 Responses to “Dark Magnetism Part 2: Rob Johnson, Darksyde Acres”

  1. Thank you Joel, for mentioning the loss of Adam, He was a great Man and we were blessed to know him.

  2. Lady ChopChop Says:

    Thank ye for mentioning Adam. ‘E was one ah mah favorite victims and playmates.

  3. You’re welcome, guys. I read many of the posts concerning Adam on Facebook over the last several days. It was obvious that he meant a great deal to many people. I thought it only appropriate .

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