"It's our tenth year of fear," Darren Robert said. "I thought of that slogan," he added, looking fondly at a bloody severed head next to him. He gave it a little pat.
"It's 16,000 square feet," he said, looking around SlaughterHouse, the haunted house he's run for the last ten years, the last two of them in Deep Ellum. "We had a group in here at the sneak preview the other night who took almost 30 minutes to get through the whole thing, just because they were so scared. And we've had people run straight through. Most people just want to get through it and say they made it. It's pretty intense."
With a spooky, dimly-lit warehouse at his disposal, a cast of forty actors, pieces of old horror movie film sets, and hundreds of props, Roberts and his crew are more than ready for their second year at their Elm Street location, after moving their operations from the West End. A walk through the house yesterday afternoon in broad daylight, with all the overhead fluorescent lights on, was still pretty creepy: There were bloody chainsaws, dismembered mannequins, enormous demon heads, a ghoulish-looking mermaid, a freakish nursery, and what we can only describe as a "clown room."
And then there were our tour guides: Roberts, in a zombie t-shirt, and two of his helpers, a man carrying a large axe and wearing a ragged blue uniform with the words "Psychiatric Ward" printed across the back, and a devilish-looking clown with ominous black rings around his eyes.
Roberts began his career as a haunted house owner with a display in his front yard, one that grew so popular, he said, "people would come for miles around just to see our house."
That's blossomed into a haunted house that takes the entire year to plan -- they started preparing for this year on November 1, 2010 -- and costs, he said, "in the multi thousands of dollars."
"Nobody has any idea," what it takes to run a good (and legal) haunted house, Roberts added. Insurance. Fire alarms. Sprinkler systems. A blackened casket with a bloody corpse inside, its mouth gaping open in a wordless scream.
The psych ward escapee was Justin Rangel, the designer of the house and the acting general manager. His creepy clown friend was Steven Diaz, the assistant manager. The two live for making the house better every year, showing off the chainsaw room and the totally disgusting (that's a compliment, honestly) surgical nightmare down the stairs. They've both been punched in the face for their dedication. And worse.
"It happens," Rangel said of the punching, with a small shrug. "You learn to keep your distance. It's just some people's reaction to fear. My first year, I got knocked in the nose and learned my lesson." He's also been peed on. Twice.
"Don't go into detail about that," Roberts told him. Rangel didn't. Every year, they also get at least one person who passes out. Last year, they had to call an ambulance for a fainter, and a rumor quickly spread that someone had died of fright going through the house. It was great for business.
"I want people to be so scared they don't know what to do," Rangel said sweetly. He looked reflectively at a moldy gravestone. "There's not too much in modern life that scares us anymore. We have to look to fantasy for that."
The house has had a complete makeover since last year. "There's not a single inch of this place that's the same," Rangel said. He shook his head. "I can't tell you the man hours we sat thinking about what we could do with this. You do this because you love it. There's no other reason." As he spoke, Diaz quietly vanished behind a curtain and pulled a lever. A bloodied snake jumped out from somewhere unexpected. Someone shrieked (possibly a reporter).
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The haunted house industry has its occupational hazards, though. A painter swore he was working alone late one night a few months back, only to look down to see the words, "Get out," spelled out in the paint. Earlier yesterday, Diaz and Rangel said they were putting on their makeup when they saw a shadowy figure scuttling across a dark corner of the warehouse.
"I don't come down here by myself," Rangel said. He looked sheepish. "I don't believe in ghosts, though," he added quickly.
And the painter? Roberts smiles, a little devilishly. "We never could get him to come back."