Archive for the Interviews Category

Derangement Syndrome Part II: Interview with Mike Fini

Posted in Interviews with tags , , , on October 24, 2018 by bluefall8

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In Part I of my interview with Mike Fini, we discussed the origin of Deranged and his journey from home haunter to commercial business owner. In Part II of the interview we shine a light on style, theme and character development.

Horrorlust: How would you describe the style and theme of Deranged?

Mike Fini: I’d definitely say our style is an actor driven haunt. There are several haunts in the area that do incredibly detailed haunts from top to bottom, and unfortunately we’re not there yet. If you want to see incredible props, animatronics and Hollywood caliber set designs, I’ll recommend you to the experts at Hush, Rotten Manor and Exit 13. I like to think of us as the low budget horror film of haunted houses. We’re not going to draw big box office numbers like Halloween or Friday the 13th, but we’re going to do what we can to leave our guests with an unrivaled, personal experience.

Horrorlust: What haunted attractions would you say have most influenced Deranged?

Mike Fini: It would be impossible to list all the attractions that have influenced me and my team as I’ve spent the last 7 years attending an average of 20 haunts a year. A few notables would be the Realm of Darkness, Sinister and Bloodview. I always enjoyed the interactivity that was provided at the Realm of Darkness. It was an attraction I attended year after year and will always hold a special place in my heart as it was the first real haunt I ever attended.

A big influence was the late Sinister in Utica. They operated with minimal space and resources, but provided an intense, interactive and fun haunt. The experiences I had their were unique and tend to stick out and get brought up every time I’m talking haunts and that says something.

The actors at Bloodview out in Broadview Heights, OH. stuck out to me as well. Through my two trips, I don’t remember it being a terrifying experience, but I’ve always left there with a smile on my face. Not everyone can be scared in a haunted attraction, but everyone can be entertained. That’s something we’re really trying to capture this season at Deranged.

Horrorlust: How many total staff members does it require to operate Deranged?

Mike Fini: We can operate with 16 – 17 people if we have to. We shoot for around 20 – 24 people on any given night. That includes parking, ticket sales, our ticket taker and the demons that haunt inside the gates.

Horrorlust: What kind of instruction and training are your actors given?

Mike Fini: When we do actor training, we try and work on improv. Jumping out and saying “Boo” is easy, that’s why we try and avoid it. The most memorable characters in haunts tend to be the ones with the snarky comments, that can come back with wit at whatever may face them. That’s definitely something we’re still working on, but I’m more focused on actors being able to think on their feet, rather than being able to drag their feet around as a mute zombie.

Horrorlust: The Baker is an interesting character — what inspired his creation and more generally how do you decide what kind of characters to include in Deranged?

Mike Fini: Ahh yes, the Muffin Man, or the baker if anyone may be checking the copyright on that — I play 1860s rules baseball over the summer and everyone is coined with a unique nickname as that was a thing back then. One of the players on my team, volunteered to act in my home haunt last year, his nickname on the field was the Muffin Man (due to his daily trip to the vending machine at his old job). It was only right to carry over his name and create a room based around his character, which we’ve expanded on this year after it’s popularity at the home haunt.

One big factor with the home haunt, you get a lot of younger visitors as opposed to a commercial haunt where you see older teens and young adults. We’re still messing around with the character to see if we can get it to translate the way we want to. It seems as if every haunt has their mad scientist, and in a way, he’s ours. Instead of messing around with radioactive potions, he’s trying to figure out the recipe for immunity as everyone fears for the apocalypse.

We’ve flip flopped themes just in the planning process, and it’s kind of fallen by the wayside. Being powered by primarily volunteer actors, I wanted to give them the creative freedom to create a role they would enjoy playing throughout the season. In doing such, we’ve lost a bit of the story, which we’re still trying to hop back into. It’s definitely been tough trying to balance the creative freedom of 20 different actors while holding to somewhat of a theme.

Horrorlust: Your predominant character is a clown known as Marbles. Why was this character type your personal choice and what’s the story behind the name?

Mike Fini: Back to the Muffin Man, this is a name that carried over from vintage baseball. I was given the name when I began playing when someone misheard my wrestling name (Mike Marvel). While Marbles the Clown was something I did at the home haunt, my acting nights at Deranged are very limited. The character never really took off as it never had any distinguished paint or costume as it’s varied over the years.

I’ve just always enjoyed being a clown as I much prefer face paint to a mask. It doesn’t muffle your speech, you can still make facial expressions, and with the products on the market you have the ability to turn yourself into a monster from your eyes to your teeth to your nails. I’ve always found the role of the clown very easy and natural to play and when given the chance to act, I prefer more of a challenge.

Horrorlust: In your estimation, what does a successful 2018 season look like for Deranged?

Mike Fini: A successful season is having people leave with a memorable experience. Whether they smelled something disgusting, whether they got scared, or even if they were just entertained, we want to leave a lasting impression on our guests, so that hopefully they’ll return to see us in the future. Any income that Deranged receives this season is just getting thrown right back into the haunt for next year, so from a financial standpoint, the more people the better. At the same time, keeping our numbers relatively small gives us the ability to create a more personal and intimate experience with our guests.

Horrorlust: What can guests expect from Deranged this final weekend of the haunted house season?

Mike Fini: This weekend we’re amping up the intensity. If you’re 18 or older, this is the weekend to come. Sunday night we’re putting on a show that’s more intense, and a little more…raw! However, if you have young ones, we will be doing a Scare-Free trick or treat this Saturday from 3pm – 5pm.

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Deranged is located at 35560 Goddard, Romulus, MI. The box office opens at 7:30pm on nights of operation; it closes at 11:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 10:30pm on Sundays. General admission is $13 per person. For more information, you can visit their official website: Deranged Haunt.

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Derangement Syndrome Part I: Interview with Mike Fini

Posted in Interviews with tags , , , on October 23, 2018 by bluefall8

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Canton-native, Mike Fini is the owner of Deranged Haunt in Romulus, Michigan. He and I first became acquainted at an independent wrestling show held at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Taylor, Michigan in August 2011. He was making his Metro Pro Wrestling debut that night as an 18-year-old, high-flying babyface (good guy) known as Mike Marvel. I could be found behind the ringside camcorder, as I often was in those days.

Over the course of the next year or two, he and I discovered that we had a mutual love for haunted attractions. Like myself, Mike began to hit the road each fall in search of fresh havens of fear. Also like yours truly, Mike couldn’t resist the urge to peek onto the other side of the curtain, assuming acting positions with the now defunct Dark Legacy and most recently the Scream Machine.

However, he had simultaneously constructed his own home haunt known as Deranged and in just a couple of short seasons the growing popularity of his neighborhood attraction forced him to embrace a more substantial opportunity.

Horrorlust: How did Deranged develop and grow as a home haunt?

Mike Fini: Around 2010/2011, I began excessively decorating my house. It was around this time I was growing out of trick or treating, yet wasn’t willing to let go of my passion for Halloween. It started with the generic, cheesy tombstones in the front yard, and went on to adding homemade cemetery fencing, to creating a (debatably, unsafe) 20 foot tunnel out of tarp and 2×4’s. As time went on and I got older, it expanded to a graveyard walk through to tarps in the garage and eventually became a walk through attraction.

In 2015, about two weeks prior to Halloween, I found a post on a local Facebook Halloween page about someone selling haunted house walls. The walls were believed to have been used for some sort of theater, or fundraiser haunt before getting stashed away in a storage unit. The unit was abandoned around 2013/2014. No one bid on it at auction, and then the fellow haunter I purchased them from had acquired them for relatively cheap, if not free, as they were all destined for the dumpster.

He had used them for a year or two in his driveway, but no longer had the room, so I purchased a variety of 7’ walls for an amount cheap enough for a college student to purchase. Many of them were not in great quality, but they stood up and took the wind way better than any contraptions I had created in the past. About 25 walls were moved from Taylor to Canton in my friends pickup truck and assembled into a structure 10 days prior to Halloween. There were a lot of blank/black walls, and cheesy designs from Pacman ghosts to cartoonish pumpkins, to splattered red paint to mimic blood. It wasn’t a pretty haunt, but it was an improvement for the trick or treaters.

Over the next couple years, it continued to expand. I added a dozen walls in 2016 and expanded the haunt into a backyard walk that bordered the forest behind my house. In 2017, 25 new walls were added or replaced which resulted in a full backyard attraction that totaled just under 1,000 square feet.

The main driving factor behind Deranged was the crowds. Growing up, on the other side of the block was a house that used to send chills down my spine. They had maybe 6-8 walls, but as a young trick or treater, it was an intimidating structure, and the strobed dolls in the front window, left nightmares. This house stopped decorating around the time I started and we became “The Cool House on the Block.”

The first year of the walkthrough, we already had people making our house a focal point of the trick or treat festivities. In 2016, we opened the Saturday before and then on Halloween and had over 350 attendees. Then in 2017, we opened for 5 different nights (kind of a test run for the pro haunt) and were able to see 500 visitors with Halloween still being the highlight of the week.

Horrorlust: How did you settle on the name Deranged?

Mike Fini: As a young teenager, I was a big fan of hardcore, independent wrestling. There was a wrestler by the name of Deranged that participated in a series of death matches. I enjoyed watching his work, and the name got adopted into some screen names I had used at the time for various sites such as AIM and Runescape. That trend instantly popped in my head when digging for a name that would be short, yet compelling.

The original theme for the home haunt was an asylum which fit the name even better than the current cluster of a theme. Coincidently, one of the more memorable moments I have observing the wrestler known as Deranged, resulted in him having a solid, uncarved pumpkin smashed onto his skull.

Horrorlust: What fueled your decision to expand from a home haunt to professional attraction and what has been the greatest challenge during that transition?

Mike Fini: Being lost and lacking purpose. I’ve always had an itch to entertain. I’m pretty shy and introverted, but being an only child, I crave attention. From sports, to pro wrestling to a brief stripping phase, I’ve always enjoyed entertaining. However, in haunting, I’ve kind of found my calling. In other forms of entertainment, you’re often still yourself under an alias. In haunting, I get to become a character, something other than myself, which I’m not judged for and no one recognizes outside of the environment.

Everything just kind of lined up at the right time. It was something I had wanted to do since 2012, but wasn’t really sure how to go about it, or if I had the tools to make it a destination worth going to and spending money on. To be honest, I’m still not that sure. When I made the decision, I had just finished a long, slow, five year process getting an associates degree and wasn’t ready to rush into more schooling. Also, I determined I was luckily in a financial position where I could take the risk and not lose a house or car if the haunt failed to be successful.

The biggest challenge has been dealing with the city and codes and ordinances. Each city is different, and it’s hard to know exactly what your city officials are going to want and require, prior to doing it. It also doesn’t help that several cities haven’t had a haunted attraction, and at times, the city doesn’t even know what they want from you. Thankfully, the City of Romulus has been accommodating and willing to work with us to find a balance of what we want to do along with what is safe for all of our guests.

Horrorlust: How did you acquire the location for Deranged?

Mike Fini: The location for Deranged actually came through a high school friend of mine. He acted in my home haunt the prior two years, and saw that we kept expanding. He mentioned in passing that his family owned a property he thought would be perfect for Deranged and I shrugged it off as a “yeah right, like that’s going to happen” kind of thing. And well, here we are, in a rather secluded five acre lot located less than a mile from I-94 and Detroit-Metro airport.

Horrorlust: As a new attraction, how do you approach the marketing of Deranged? I noticed that you didn’t advertise in the Fear Finder and instead opted for the Haunt Guide. Was that strictly a financial decision?

Mike Fini: The amount of times I’ve gone to Kroger in early September searching for a Fear Finder is embarrassing. The cover artwork is always incredible and I believe it to be a staple in the Michigan haunt community. However, it’s no secret that the ads in the Fear Finder aren’t cheap. Just as a little personal goal for myself, I hope to see us in there in the future but I don’t see it happening right away.

However, I don’t want that to take away from the Haunt Guide. While the Haunt Guide doesn’t quite have the notoriety of the Fear Finder, there are a few areas where I find it superior. The main thing is the Michigan Haunters Association — the fact that we’re in the Haunt Guide with nearly a dozen other haunts, that are all trying to help and promote each other is incredible. Plus, as a customer, if you attend one of the attractions in the Haunt Guide, you get a card that grants you VIP access to almost all the other haunts listed inside. I definitely love the community aspect and the fact that we’re a part of a publication where several different styles of haunts all across the state are working together to try and create business for everyone.

Horrorlust: What are the short-term and long-term goals for Deranged?

Mike Fini: A big short term goal is to just keep this going. We’re not the number one haunt in Michigan. I’m the owner, and I’ll tell you that right now. Do I believe you’ll get your $13 worth? Absolutely. The state of Michigan is littered with fabulous haunts, and while we want to be a respectable attraction that doesn’t want to disappoint the haunt industry, we’re not in the current mindset to become the top attraction in the area.

I enjoyed doing a home haunt, and wished it could’ve been a bigger attraction, open for more than just a couple nights a year and more intense. That’s what we’re trying to create. I’m slowly learning every night presents it’s own challenges and set-backs. We’re a long ways from what I originally envisioned, but we’re getting a little closer each night. While scaring people is the purpose of the haunted attraction industry, we want to provide a memorable experience that combines the screams with an evening of fun.

A long term goal is to just expand what we have. We’re on five acres of land right now. While we did what we could this first season to maximize the property, with the proper timing and resources, we could expand our trail to be two and a half to three times the current length and we could quadruple the size of the house, without changing too much of the landscape. The big goal is to develop a local, loyal fan base that not only attends our attraction once, but keeps coming back to support us and help us grow into a larger attraction.

Hororrlust: Can you share a story or two that has stuck with you from your time as a home haunter?

Mike Fini: The craziest thing about home haunting was the amount of time and effort put into an attraction that wasn’t even open 10 hours a year. I probably need psychiatric help as I oddly enjoyed making kids cry — from chasing a 12-year-old in a banana suit around the entirety of the block, to getting a middle schooler to cry under a street lamp while curled in the fetal position.

This answers the question in a way other than intended, but one key thing that stuck with me from a home haunter onto the big stage were my actors. Almost everybody that acted for me opening night was a part of my home haunt at some point or another. And taking the 6-7 actor home haunt to the public, tripling the crew and having everyone show up, is something I’ll forever be grateful for.

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Part II of my interview with Deranged owner, Mike Fini, will appear here on Horrorlust tomorrow evening.

Deranged is located at 35560 Goddard, Romulus, MI. The box office opens at 7:30pm on nights of operation; it closes at 11:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 10:30pm on Sundays. General admission is $13 per person. For more information, you can visit their official website: Deranged Haunt.

Dark Magnetism Part 2: Rob Johnson, Darksyde Acres

Posted in Interviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2014 by bluefall8

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.

Dark Magnetism: Rob Johnson of Darksyde Acres

Posted in Interviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2014 by bluefall8

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.