Halloween is a big retail event, the second biggest behind Christmas, in fact, and that means that late September every year, thousands of "haunted" attractions pop up all over the country to capitalize on the chance to charge $20 a head to scare the living daylights out of people.
Most of these pop-up houses have about eight weeks to find their costumes and makeup and build their sets, says Amy Reed, who has worked in marketing her whole life and came late to the haunted house industry, since she herself is scared of them. Now Reed works at Dark Hour, which is unique among haunted houses because it's open year-round.
Dark Hour, located on Taylor Drive, just off Central Expressway in Plano, has a permanent facility where it has put on eight shows a year for the last three years. The biggest one, of course, is the monthlong event leading up to Halloween, but their other houses, which are tailored to the other major holidays, are also quite popular.
The haunt is privately owned. Lucy Moore founded Dark Hour in 2013 at the encouragement of her friends, who loved the makeshift "home haunts" she began setting up at her place in 2002.
"You know when you go to Halloween stores and see those expensive animatronics and think, 'Who buys those?'" Reed asks. "Lucy was the one who bought those."
Moore, who has a theater background, decided to take her friends' advice and go pro. From the outset she intended to make Dark Hour year-round, and so far her vision and commitment have paid off. Dark Hour has earned national attention: This year USA Today ranked it 4th on their list of haunts; Buzzfeed featured it on a list of the top 25 in the country; and AXS also ranked it in their top 15.
Reed believes it's their attention to detail that has earned Dark Hour such acclaim. Everything you see in the shows, from the props, to the costumes, to the sets, is completely made in house. They also veer from the traditional and often tired themes employed by other houses, such as clowns and zombies, by creating unique and elaborate story lines that drive their shows.
The premise underlying all eight shows is a coven of 13 witches, each with her own backstory. For every show, one witch is chosen to rise to power. This Halloween the dominant witch is Corva Hyve, the "Witch of Swarms," who comes from ancient Egypt. Handmade sarcophaguses, scarabs and Anubises adorn the set.
Surprisingly, the Valentine's Day show is Dark Hour's second biggest seller. For $99 a person you can sit down to a steak dinner catered by Southwestern restaurant Love and War in Texas before you enter the "Love is Blind" themed house.
Reed argues there's some solid science to back this unconventional way to celebrate the holiday of love. "Science says the endorphins released when you're falling in love are the same as when you're scared," she says. Why not amp up the intensity by being scared next to the person you love?
As for the Christmas show, where Santa has been overthrown by the Ice Queen and the world is overrun by evil elves, it's not the stereotypical, cheery way to bond with friends and family, but perhaps that's why people like it. "It's not jolly," Reed says. "But life isn't always jolly."
Many first time visitors end up buying a season pass. "I love talking to repeat customers," Reed says. "They say, 'Every time I think you can't do any more, you do it.'"
Dark Hour may be set apart by its attention to detail, but it also lives up to its promise to scare you. They're great at creating blind spots and secret entrances and exits, so that it's difficult to predict where an actor might pop out, and thanks to the intricacy of the props, sets and costumes it's easy to imagine you're in a different world and give in to the fright.
On our visit we were so spooked that we demanded a couple of Dark Hour employees — who, mind you, were also frightened even though they work there — to walk through with us.
The actors never grab you — Reed says the "no touching" policy is just good practice in the haunted house industry, even though some don't follow it — but they don't need to touch you to elicit screams. Reed has seen children as young as 3 enter the house, but she doesn't recommend you take your little ones. Even her 15-year-old is still too chicken to visit.
As for people who find out they're chicken too late, there are "chicken doors" set up throughout the attraction.
Because Dark Hour is a year-round business, they have been able to attract some of the top talent in makeup, costuming and set-building. And having a place to store their creations in between shows means they don't have to start from scratch each season and their work only becomes more elaborate year after year.
"We are fortunate to have a whole year and the ability to keep building," Reed says. "We don't have to worry about keeping makeup weatherproof [for example.]"
Dark Hour's Halloween show features 86 actors in a haunted house that takes visitors about 30 minutes to complete. Each actor is assigned their own makeup artist, and every bit of clothing, down to the masks the actors wear, is made in house. Some of the more exotic fabrics, such as furs, are found online, but most are purchased in Dallas' fabric district on Perth Street.
All of Dark Hour's actors are used in the Halloween show, and then they're recast in the others depending on which roles suit them. Tall actors won't get as much use in the Christmas show, for example, which relies heavily on evil elves, but most actors perform in at least a few shows a year.
Phil Chalut, who's playing "Dieter the Exterminator" this Halloween, is one actor who appears in almost every show that Dark Hour puts on. "In 2003 I had just gotten out of the Army and was looking for a quick job when a couple of my friends brought me to a haunted house, and they put me in a mask and stilts." Chalut says he was instantly hooked on the work.
He's worked at other haunted houses in the area, and even done some stage acting in DFW, appearing in a production of Ragtime, a docudrama called Rust and playing bit parts in a Shakespeare showcase.
He says the steady, year-round work available at Dark Hour is attractive to people who want to flex their acting muscles and still make money. He enjoys the opportunity to play a dramatically different character each time, too.
Chalut also works as a carpenter at Dark Hour; he's responsible for making a lot of the big, structural pieces. Dark Hour's director, Allen Hopps, will tell you that it's not uncommon for a haunted house worker such as Chalut to play multiple roles within a production.
Hopps has worked in haunted houses most of his life, and he's the person responsible for the intense level of artistry displayed at Dark Hour. He says he created his first haunted house when he was just 10, and would attach a fake spider to the end of a fishing line, dropping it on people as they passed by. He has been addicted to the thrill of scaring people ever since.
After Hopps graduated high school in Maryland, he hopped on a moped and traveled to Florida to work at a haunted house there. In his time working different freaky attractions he has learned the many and varied skills required to put on a show.
"When someone says they're a haunted house person, that means they're a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter..." Hopps says. Most of the time when projects need to be completed around a haunted house, like putting up a wall, it's up to the crew to make it happen. Hiring a construction team would often bust the budget.
That's how Hopps learned to make masks. The costumes and mask rooms inside Dark Hour house hundreds of original creations, all of which are far more complex than what you'll find at an ordinary Halloween shop such as Spirit, and most of them are made by Hopps himself.
He creates a vision board for each design, then draws it, sculpts the mold, pours latex into it and paints the resulting mask, making sure to allow plenty of room for the actors to see and breath, since they'll need to wear the masks for hours at a time. In between shows at Dark Hour, Hopps now works on commissions for other productions, including FrightFest at Six Flags Over Texas.
Right now Hopps is particularly fascinated with stilt costumes, and of his most impressive creations for the Halloween show is a frightening, bright gold Anubis that towers over you. Hopps enjoys working with bright colors and textured fabrics, because they're unexpected and stand out better in the dark house.
All of this attention to detail means that during the run-up to Halloween, Hopps rarely leaves work. He says it's a miracle he and his wife, who is a Dallas firefighter, are still together.
But he's proud of all of the work that he and the Dark Hour crew put into their shows, sometimes so much so that it frustrates him other houses aren't held to a higher standard. "Anybody can start one. There's no license that's needed," he says. "A good haunted house is a reflection of the owner. Because most people, in their brain they're gonna see a $20 bill on each person's head."
Dark Hour is about average cost-wise, at $28 for general admission, and given its success it would be justified in seeking to expand and make more money off Halloween lovers looking to continue the festivities long after October.
But Reed says Dark Hour has no plans to expand to Dallas or other cities. "We're focused on growing their show in Plano into the kind of attraction you might see at a big name amusement park like Disney or Universal Studios," she says.
Dark Hour's Halloween haunted house runs through Oct. 31 at 701 Taylor Drive in Plano. General admission tickets are $28 at darkhourhauntedhouse.com.