A Look at the Mansion of Terror
Every Halloween season, people line up in droves to walk through darkened corridors where monsters and madmen reach through walls in an attempt to tear their souls from their bodies. They pay the ticket, stand in line, and cross into an experience that leaves them rattled, terrified, and altogether euphoric because no matter how frightening the experience may be, it is still safe. Isn’t it? But what many people do not take into account when attending one of these seasonal treats is all the work that goes into building one.
When a person wants to learn to bake the perfect soufflé, he asks the best chef he can get his hands on. But when someone wants to find out the trials and tribulations of building a world-class spook-house for the Halloween season, he seeks out the best in the business. Named the best haunted attraction in the nation by Lionsgate Films in 2005, The Mansion of Terror in Roundrock, Texas, was gracious enough to allow Dread Central and our cameras into their facility to have a look behind the scenes before they officially open to the public.
“It really is a labor of love,” says owner Norm Glenn.
The whole process for each year’s Mansion of Terror attraction begin in March with a barbeque at Glenn’s house, in which the participants and partners of the previous year’s attraction meet to plan. At this meeting, according to Glenn, they discuss the previous year, what parts worked and what parts didn’t, and go through the feedback received from patrons about what they’d like to see. Then the arduous search begins for an actual location, which Glenn says is the hardest part.
“First, haunted attractions like ours need a short-term lease,” says Glenn, a fact that doesn’t endear them to real estate agents. While most businesses are signing leases for between three and five years, haunted attractions require a six-month engagement. “Second, the owner of the property might not like the idea of a haunted attraction.” The reasons behind such prejudice vary, but it is not uncommon for building owners to opt to keep the building empty rather than indulge in a short-term lease. Some assume there will be a great deal of liability in such a venture, others believe the finished product will be a bunch of drunk guys screaming “boo” at random passers by. The truth, however, is a different story.
For example, there are Jordan, Jessica and John, aged 9, 11, and 13 respectively. They’re on the crew. Really. Moreover, they’ve been helping with the buildout of Mansion of Terror for years now.
“I love working here because I get to get my hands messy,” says Jordan.
What’s going on is a real family affair. There’s no drunken rowdies, no unsafe working conditions. The people working in Mansion of Terror come from every walk of life, and indulge in their macabre hobby out of a love of the artistry of it. Glenn, who went to college on an art scholarship, also informs me that one of his partners is a fireman, while others are robotics experts.
Right after 4th of July weekend, construction starts. Without corporate backers, Glenn and company manage to raise over $70,000 to put together a world-class haunted attraction. Nearly 70% of the props and effects are custom built by Glenn and company, with other pieces coming from medial supply houses and second-hand stores. The effects, however, have some truly creative minds behind them. In addition to the experience of Glenn and his partners, there are also movie effects people such as Rich Bateman, also known as PenDark.
For the next two months, construction is underway, culminating in the hiring of actors. More than fifty actors are used, with twenty-five percent of them paid. The rest are given incentives in the form of t-shirts, hats and coupons for meals and such. On any given night, there are between thirty and thirty-five actors prowling the corridors. Why so many?
“This is very different from the JC’s haunted house of twenty-years ago,” says Glenn.
The construction is meticulous, with the 12,000 square-foot former Walgreens separated into two 5,000 square-foot attractions. On one side is a traditional spook-house, themed this year around the “Jigsaw” character from Lionsgate Film’s SAW movie franchise. The other, however, is called a “pitch dark.” Groups of no more than four go in with one specially-designed, remote controlled flashlight between them. If the group points it toward the wrong item, the flashlight cuts out, leaving them in total darkness. In other areas, effects are triggered by the flashlight beam. Other areas even give the actors control of the lights.
On the whole, Glenn says the patrons make the venture worth all the cost and trouble. The entire facility is handicapped accessible, allowing for groups of specially abled patrons to go through and enjoy the efforts.
“We’ve had groups of blind kids go through,” says Glenn. “And based on the sounds they hear, and how badly their guides are shaking, they have a blast.”
However, the attraction isn’t for anyone. Last year, more than five-hundred people got too frightened and could not make it through the whole haunted house. That’s why there are “chicken doors” every seventy-five feet in the maze. Amid the various sections, which include a hall of mirrors, a coffin room, and a cell-maze with spark-wire covering the walls, even in the full light of construction, there are things that create an unsettling feeling. With the lights out, it gets even better.
The next time you go through a haunted attraction, keep in mind all that it took to put such a thing together. All the money, all the man hours, all the actors and actresses, and all the artistry, brought together to put the scares into the Halloween season.
“We’re looking for a permanent structure,” says Glenn. “We think we’ve found one on five acres with an abandoned mansion on it. The grounds can be a haunted trail ride with the mansion at the end.” One thing is for sure: The Mansion of Terror keeps getting bigger and better every year.
For more information about the Mansion of Terror, visit their website here. Special thanks to Norm Glenn for showing us around the construction site and letting us see the product before it is finished.
Photos by Anna Piszczyk