Purveyors of horror create haunting experiences

ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK: Actress Jesse Cairnes greets guests as they enter the vortex room insideThe Haunted Farm.
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK: Actress Jesse Cairnes greets guests as they enter the vortex room insideThe Haunted Farm. Photo by Cindy Kunst

ASHEVILLE, N.C.— On opening night at The Haunted Farm in Hendersonville, the undead do not emerge from shallow graves, but makeup chairs. Airbrushes continuously blast inside the property’s main office, creating a mist above the line of actors awaiting their transformations. Some will be turned into undead miners; others will become deranged dentists; a handful will sport bloodied cheeks and stitched brows. No matter the character, everyone flinches during the process, says Alicia Solesby, the organization’s lead makeup artist. The cold air coming out of the airbrush always gets them.

Meanwhile, down the hall, a second group of actors receives their masks. In total, there are roughly 40 participants, all volunteers. One of the actresses struggles to fit the silicone disguise over her head. Shawn McKee, the haunt’s manager, instructs her to start at the chin before stretching the mask over her forehead. It’s a tight fit. McKee asks if she is comfortable, reminding the zombie actress that the mask can’t come off once the haunt begins.

FINAL TOUCHES: Makeup artist, Alicia Solesby, adds a few details to Janet Kirby-Johnson, the Voodoo Queen. Photo by Cindy Kunst
FINAL TOUCHES: Makeup artist Alicia Solesby adds a few details to the visage of Janet Kirby-Johnson, the Voodoo Queen. Photo by Cindy Kunst

It’s not yet 7 o’clock. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. The haunt runs until midnight. The actress insists she is fine. McKee nods and walks off. The actress pulls on the teeth of her mask. A fellow actor reassures her that, once she breaks a sweat, the silicone will feel like it’s her own flesh.

Hauntrepreneurs

Estimates place the number of haunted house attractions in the United States in the thousands. Within the industry, these businesses are commonly referred to as haunts. The website Hauntworld.com features nearly 5,000 operations, ranging from ghost tours to charity haunts to professional attractions. Last year, the National Retail Federation estimated Americans would spend $8.4 billion on the holiday. Meanwhile, Rich Bianco, sales rep at TransWorld’s Halloween & Attraction Show, says the industry trade show sees around 10,000 visitors at its annual event in St. Louis.

Jim Combest and Rex Lively, co-owners of The Haunted Farm, are among those who attend the yearly trade show. Combest admits that he and Lively had no idea what they were getting into when they started the attraction seven years ago. “I was thinking [haunts] were a mom-and-pop kind of thing,” he says. Instead, what Combest discovered in St. Louis was a booming and sophisticated industry. From animatronics to masks, from set designs to makeup, the annual gathering offers the latest in the market. “Every facet you can think of is there,” Combest says. “I was really surprised.”

The two operate their haunt on Lively’s property, which is also a functioning farm. It’s a side project they manage while also running a construction company. Combest remembers when he first suggested the idea to Lively: “I called Rex and said, ‘You got all those empty buildings; let’s do a haunt.’ He actually hung up on me.”

But a few weeks later, the two revisited the idea and agreed on the plan. When they announced their intentions to their wives, Combest remembers, “They both said, ‘Y’all are going to make an ass out of yourself.’ And really we kind of thought we probably would. And looking back at that first year, we kind of did.”

Throughout its first seven years, though, the haunt has experienced growth. But it took the first four to gain momentum. Combest attributes it to word-of-mouth. But there’s also an obsessive quality that comes to light as he discusses The Haunted Farm. At night, Combest says, he’ll often lie in bed thinking up new ideas. “My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he says. But there’s something about the evenings — perhaps the darkness itself — that leads him to the same question, again and again, year after year: “What would scare me?”

Thrill of anticipation

FACE YOUR FEARS: The goal of haunt owners is to keep folks guessing. The predicable will not fright. Instead, images, actors and animatronics must come at guests from all angles and in unexpected ways. Photo by Thomas Calder

The living room is among the new scenes inside this year’s The Haunted Farm. The idea came to Combest during one of his restless nights. The process, he explains, is among the greatest joys of running a haunt: “You have this thought and you build it and you put it in place and then you watch people experience it.”

When creating these scenes, Combest understands anticipation is key. Everyone knows something is coming, but nobody knows just when it will arrive or what it will be.

Inside the living room scene, a television glares in the far corner, projecting a black-and-white cartoon. An actor in a wheelchair watches it. His bald head obscures part of the screen. On the wall, “Mommy,” is written in blood. The sounds and sights of the animated mice paired with the otherwise dark and still room create an odd juxtaposition.

The only way out is to pass by the man. No one wants to, of course. Because everyone knows the cartoons won’t hold his attention forever. But you can’t turn around. (The bloody animatronic in the bathtub would get you again, anyway.) So you slowly move forward, inching ever so closer, filled with fear and dread, anticipating what this old man has planned for you.

Dreaming up nightmares

A similar drive to terrify led Miranda Dillon and her boyfriend, Stacey Weaver, to open Tormented Dreams in 2016. Like Combest and Lively, the couple have since attended the trade show in St. Louis. Like Combest and Lively, the couple also hold day jobs. Dillon manages a dental office; Weaver works for an electrical supply distributing company. But come evenings and weekends, the two are more often than not inside the rented 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Black Mountain, building sets and designing costumes.

“We’re always thinking about it,” says Dillon. “Even when we’re not here working, we’re home at the computer, looking things up for ideas and different costumes.”

A FUNNY BUNCH: Tormented Dreams’ owners Miranda Dillon, back left, and Stacey Weaver, back right, pose with some of the haunt’s clown crew. Photo courtesy of Dillon

For less established haunts, like Tormented Nightmares, finding committed actors can be a struggle, as well as a source of stress. As with The Haunted Farm, Tormented Nightmares relies on volunteers. This year, says Dillon, she’s managed to bring back a handful from last year’s inaugural cast, but most of the actors — around 25 people — are new to the Black Mountain haunt.

Many of the clowns, demons and dolls partaking in Tormented Nightmares are students from local colleges and universities, Dillon says. A majority of them, she adds, grew up doing theater and are currently studying art. Those skills come in handy when it’s time to get into the spirit of the production. “I don’t have a script,” she says. “I want them to be creative. That’s what really puts them into the character and makes them enjoy it and gives the people that come through here the experience that they’re looking for.”

Three doors and a clown

Three doors await you midway through Tormented Nightmares. Door one reads: scary; door two reads: not so scary; door three reads: scary as hell. Meanwhile, a psychotic clown is hot on your trail.

Moments like these exemplify a crucial component of any successful haunt: a steady pace. At last year’s inaugural event, Dillon discovered that people generally react one of two ways to fear: “They either want to go really slow because they’re scared, or they’re so scared they want to haul ass.”

Neither is good for a haunt, in that both create traffic jams, which are detrimental to production. Every room is a scene, and every scene is a mystery. The actors responsible for creating these moments need time in between groups to resituate themselves in order to generate maximum scares.

The three doors and the clown help keep this steady pace. The doors slow the fearful sprinter down. Meanwhile, the clown makes sure those frozen with terror make a timely decision: scary, not so scary, scary as hell. The choice is yours.

Scary in the key of E

In some cases, haunts are designed not only to scare, but to raise funds. Haunted High, the annual fundraiser for the Asheville High School Band Association, has been in production for the past four years. Ticket sales from this year’s event will go toward an instrument drive. “We have about $35,000 in needs,” says band director Tim McCoy. “Last year we raised about $10,000. We expect to do that again.”

THE SOUND OF FEAR: Asheville High band director, Tim McCoy, right, and assistant director, Jonathan Bass, present one of the many brass instruments they’re hoping to replace with the money earned from this year’s Haunted High. Photo by Thomas Calder

All 143 band members partake in the two-night event. Some act as tour guides, while others generate screams. “Every floor has a different theme,” says McCoy. The haunt’s finale leads groups through the school’s former cafeteria, which, McCoy notes, is creepy in and of itself. And when you add to this the school’s 2008 surveillance footage that captured a mysterious figure (which some claim to be a ghost), McCoy says you’ve got the elements of a great haunt built in.

Jonathan Bass, the program’s assistant director, says the band members’ commitment to Haunted High is emblematic of their work ethic and dedication to the music. “These kids practice in the mornings, they practice in the afternoon, after school, together on the weekends, individually [and] during lunch,” he says.

Because of the haunt’s importance to the organization’s overall finances, McCoy says they make it a point to bring their A game, improving upon it each year. “We talk to the kids [and] interview them at the end of the process,” he says. “[We ask them] what worked and what didn’t and what we could do better next year.”

Evolution of fear

Feedback is a key component in operating a successful haunt. You can’t be afraid of criticism, owners say. Nor can you be afraid of failure. Resilience, adds Dillon, is another essential. “Other haunt owners would tell us, ‘Don’t expect much of your first year; your first year is going to be a disappointment. Don’t think you’re going to just go in there and blow it out of the water. Your first year is a huge learning experience.’”

Seven years in, Combest attests, it’s a constant evolution. And despite the turnout at The Haunted Farm (which Combest says numbers in the thousands per night), “It’s nothing you’re going to make a living out of.” The money earned gets pumped back into the following year’s production, he says.

But there’s a thrill, Dillon says, that comes with operating a haunt. “There’s so many possibilities,” she explains. “There’s so many ideas that you keep building on and changing. And you know you’re never going to get to a point where you feel stagnant. Because there’s always something to change. That’s the exciting part.”

Queen of the night

Reinvention isn’t exclusive to haunt owners. Nor, for that matter, is a sense of ownership. Janet Kirby-Johnson, an Apple Valley Middle School teacher and mother of three, has volunteered at The Haunted Farm for the past three years. She plays the Voodoo Queen.

WELCOME TO THE SHACK: For the last three years Janet Kirby-Johnson has played the voodoo queen at The Haunted Farm. She says the local haunt has become a point of pride among folks in Henderson County. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“I own the part,” she says.

She’s also taken ownership of the Voodoo Queen’s shack. Located in the woods, scream-seekers must pass through the wooden structure before making their way to the haunt’s main attraction. Kirby-Johnson says over the course of the years, she has gathered and collected items for the shack. No one has asked her to take on the task; it’s just something she does. Whether it’s bringing Spanish moss back from her visits to Georgia, or having her friends find her actual animal bones while four-wheeling in the woods, the Voodoo Queen seeks to make her shack as authentic as possible.

“I’ve always wanted to act in a horror movie,” she says. “With three kids, this is the closest I’ll get. … I love my life, I love my job, I love my children, but life gets stressful, and when I’m here, I’m somebody else for those four hours [each night], and it’s like I retain my youth because it’s so much fun.”

When the torch ignites

As dark begins to fall in Hendersonville, the undead gather on the gravel driveway outside The Haunted Farm. Some smoke, others sip soda, a few take selfies, while a couple of victims apply last-minute streaks of fake blood to their costumes.

A giant torch blazes atop the property’s silo. As the sun continues to set, its flame sporadically shoots several feet into the air. Someone says, “You know who the new people are; they jump when it blows.” Laughter erupts among the cast. The fire notifies the actors to convene outside the haunt; the evening is about to begin.

Within minutes, the torch goes off again. This time some of the veterans jump, as well. Debates ensue. The demented dentist insists he flinched not because of the flame, but because he nearly dropped his e-cigarette.

Standing atop a wooden bench, manager McKee addresses the crew. She begins by thanking everyone for their participation and then asks if they’re stoked to begin the 2017 season. The actors cheer in unison, except for one of the clowns, who projects a menacing laugh.

GET READY TO HAUNT: Actress Mercedes Houston knows that when the torch extends into the night sky, an evening of terror is about to begin. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Next, McKee goes over the rules as well as safety precautions. She reminds those who are stationed at the corn maze that there is no picking or throwing of the corn. A few moan, theatrically; others simply laugh.

Finally, McKee pulls out a plastic bag, offering cough drops to those who need them. “That’s our survival,” explains Cookie Lane, a returning actress. Rather than water, most actors carry these drops in their pockets, sucking on them throughout the night to help ease their strained vocal cords. Water, Lane explains, is tricky to sip with makeup on. Plus, she adds, bathroom breaks can be scarce once the terror begins.

Among the undead, one of the actors calls out, “Can we please go get started now?”

Upon their release, the morbid crew cheers and howls. Meanwhile, the clown once more breaks through the collective sound with his high-pitched, menacing laugh, as he and the rest of the horrible horde disappear into the darkness.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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