When it comes to haunted attractions around the country, one of the biggest names is the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. Drawing in a staggering number of attendees each year (and it’s only growing), the haunted attraction is one of the premier events during the Halloween season.
The mastermind behind the event is Melissa Carbone, who turned her love of decorating her own home for Halloween into a massive venture that drew in the attention and, ultimately, investment of Mark Cuban on an episode of “Shark Tank,” which still is one of the biggest investments made in the show’s history.
Today we’ve got an interview with Carbone that delves into the origins of her company, Ten Thirty One Productions; her love of Halloween and decorating; a bit about her upcoming book, Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby Into an Empire; and how people might be able to do Halloween if they’re on a budget! You can read everything below.
Also, make sure to pre-order your copy of Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby Into an Empire via Amazon.
Dread Central: Many people recognize you for your appearance on “Shark Tank” and the investment Mark Cuban made in your company. However, I feel like that pushes aside the years of hard work that went into reaching that moment. So, let’s start at the beginning by having you tell me a bit about your love of horror. When did it begin and how did it grow over the years?
Melissa Carbone: Thanks for recognizing that. It’s true! By the time I was on the show, my company already had four years and three brands under our belt; we were doing really well and I had little to no interest in selling a piece of the company. I recognized what the platform “Shark Tank” could provide so I reconsidered. I’ve always been a horror movie junky for as long as I can remember and my mother is as well, I think I just learned by osmosis in her belly. As a kid, she threw epic Halloween parties for my friends and me and it was always what I looked forward to each season. Fast forward to being an adult in my late twenties, I bought my own house in Los Angeles with my partner at the time and decided to take “Halloween Home Haunting” to the moon, haha! I was so naive that I didn’t know “home haunting” was a term but once I did, I was validated and off to the races I went. The elaborate displays we’d put up in the yard were gorgeous and grew every year. It was when I noticed hundreds of neighbor’s kanoodling in the yard for extended periods of time that I decided to research the economics behind this holiday.
DC: Your love of decorating for Halloween is something you’re not shy about. What inspired such a passionate approach into that world?
MC: What’s to be shy about, haha! It’s just fun. I’m a giant fan of the macabre aesthetic and love lightning and effects so it was kind of a soul connection for me.
DC: Tell me about the early days of Ten Thirty One Productions and what you hoped to achieve with the company.
MC: In the very early stages of forming the company, I was incredibly fascinated by how large the revenue was behind Halloween and very little attention on it. Upon discovering that it was a multibillion dollar industry, I was shocked at how few choices existed, in the realm of Halloween activities, in the LA market. Coming from New England, we were barraged with Halloween offerings at every intersection so I started to feel a hole in the market that I thought I could fill, or be a part of filling. My co-founder, Alyson Richards, was always looking for Haunted Houses and Hayrides to surprise me but had a really hard time finding them and zero luck on the hayride front which brings me to my initial hopes for TTO. My hope was that I would bring a “down home”, old world Halloween magic to the live attraction space in LA. I wanted to provide an experience that would be super unique and intrigue a city dwelling population. A knock your socks off, “how is this possible in a city” type kind of thing. Sticking them in the woods at night seemed to be a tall order but I knew if I could pull it off, we’d hit it out of the park. Back then, the hope was to just create the most beautiful and magical Halloween world that I could. Obviously, the carrot I’ve been chasing has moved…and keeps moving, haha!
DC: How did horror events like Halloween Horror Nights or widely recognized haunted houses and events affect your vision? Did you feel like you needed to bring something new to the table?
MC: I was and still am a huge fan of Horror Nights and Knotts. Those attractions already existed in the marketplace so my model wasn’t to do the same thing and they were already doing it amazingly well. I wanted to create a much different feeling model; this was the start of the philosophy of TTO. I wanted to maintain the world class production levels of attractions like Horror Nights and Knotts, yet still feel like you’re in an environment that is haunting, disturbing, and vulnerable before we even inserted out footprint. We want to shove their heads underwater into our world, we don’t want them to come up for air until they are leaving our parking lots. This means from attraction to attraction, the in between portions must also follow the lines of our narrative. This means our environments must always be nostalgic and organic. Lastly, our attractions will always be the first of its kind. We won’t roll into a market and do something that’s already been done. Haunted Hayrides were unheard of in LA, so it was a perfect place to start. Ghost Ship was an attraction that actually set sail into the ocean and Campout was the first time we threw people into the woods and held onto them for twelve hours, all models that didn’t exist yet. These became the pillars of our mission and our guiding lights.
DC: What happened after your investment deal with Mark Cuban was finalized? What opportunities and avenues became available to you?
MC: I have to say the amount of time that opportunity saves us on sourcing location, scouting, and partnerships has been incredible. It took a year to permit a location for our first attraction and once we became known and associated with Mark, everyone in the country with a piece of land or building to offer had us on speed dial. We have a database of locations waiting for us now, which is a godsend for our growth hopes. Additionally, Live Nation came on board as an equity holder and their CEO became a huge mentor for me. The more obvious answer is that we were able to expand Campout into 7 markets and Haunted Hayride into NYC because of the capital infusion. Both of which have been hugely exciting and giant learning experiences into scaling processes.
DC: You have a book coming out called Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby Into an Empire, which tackles your philosophy of how to, in the most basic and cliché of explanations, make dreams come true. If someone stopped you in an elevator and asked you to pick the most important piece of advice from your book, what would it be? Aside from purchasing a copy, of course!
MC: There’s a lot of intel in the book and a breakdown of the things I think are the bible to taking your best shot and living your most extraordinary life. The underlying fabric to the entire book in a personal and professional reference is to “ACTIVATE” and it is what I wanted to call the book because it’s such a prevalent theme in the entire thing. My proposition is that having ideas doesn’t make you special. The whole world has ideas. The bridge between a millionaire with an idea and a non-millionaire with an idea is ACTIVATION. Often, the idea doesn’t even have to be an Apple, Tesla, PayPal level idea. Even mediocre ideas upon activating will create a more extraordinary ride simply because activating is so rare that getting into the 1% can happen simply by jumping in a world where most don’t jump, it’s scary, which is why such a small portion is left holding the prize. I talk in depth about fear and failure and how to overcome them crippling your life. My story of this weird little idea that seemed so nutty becoming not only viable but a catalyst for me living my best life and getting my time back can be anyone’s story. My entire hope for this book is that some of the magic makers out there will be inspired to start shooting. Hence, “Ready, Fire, Aim,” don’t think yourself into inaction or wait until everything is just right, because it never is.
DC: While your story is full of incredible experiences, it really feels like you’ve got a lot of adventures ahead of you. Can you tell us any plans you have in the works that people should be looking forward to?
MC: Developing the Haunted Hayride into a scalable attraction that can be brought into other markets continues to be my giant focus. That attraction is a beast but we’re getting the formula for multi-market growth honed and I’m really excited about the next couple of markets as well as discovering new uncharted territory in the space. We’ve been having a lot of conversations regarding collaborations that would be really groundbreaking and I hope TTO and I will be the ones who get to pave these roads. I couldn’t be prouder of where Ten Thirty One Productions has been and where we’re going. And my team – Justin Meyer, Trisha Fox, and Alyson Richards – are the biggest part of that.
DC: Obviously, I can’t let you go without asking you to tell me some of your favorite horror movies.
MC: The Strangers is still, to me, the most disturbing film out there; and the executive producer, Sonny Mallhi, is amazing so that’s on the top of the list. The fourth Friday the 13th, Poltergeist, High Tension, Funny Games, Wolf Creek, Insidious, and the weirdest pick I bet you’ve ever heard, Creep. I recently saw it and I am obsessed with it. Also, I think Get Out and Split are super interesting. I really like Jason Blum’s vibe a lot and his incredible business savvy.
DC: Last question, I promise. For people who are on a budget but still want to create a fun Halloween environment around their home, what are some recommendations you would offer?
MC: The best part about the Halloween aesthetic is that junk can go a long way. Nothing needs to look shiny and new. Getting old photos, knick-knacks, clothing, mirrors, etc., at yard sales or even pulling old furniture that’s dump bound into a little tableau of dust, webbing, and some fog rolling past it can look super cool. You can put a couple cheap Party City noise-making or animated props in the mix, and making it dark always helps because the little bit of light pop or movement will look more pronounced. The biggest dirty little secret is fabric; drape fabric in all the empty space, and aside from adding girth to the environment, it does really make the space moody and enchanting. My favorite piece is lighting which can get expensive but you can actually use any household light and put a colored gel over it or even translucent cover tape and get different light textures. There’s also colored bulbs out there that aren’t too expensive. Just have fun with it because the more fun you have, inevitably the better it looks anyway.