I have a special place in my heart for Halloween, it has got to be my favorite holiday second only to Christmas. I usually start to think about Halloween as early as June. That may seem weird but if you knew me, you would understand why. June is when I usually start planning what big display I want to set up at our home for the month of October. We always had a different theme each year. One year we had a haunted graveyard, with creeping fog and lumbering zombies. Other years we would play host to everything from pirates to aliens. I love the creative aspect of the season. Halloween is the only time of the year when it is socially acceptable for a grown man to build a 15 foot tall shipwreck sculpture and leave it in his front yard with theater lighting and a soundtrack playing Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, we are that house.
Every year we built something for Halloween. I grew up on a block that really loved setting up displays for the seasons. Halloween and Christmas were a really cool time. A lot of the houses added big light shows and decorations to their yards. Some of them worked together to build sprawling displays. We became a destination in the city. People would make a trip to our block just to see the light shows. I can remember the time that really sparked my desire to build a display every year.
A passion for the season
It was a Halloween when I was around 8 years old and a neighbor decorated his garage to look like a spooky cave. He left his garage door open and set up a chair in the middle of the floor. He was dressed in a baggy black hooded robe and sat silently in the chair with a big bowl of candy at his feet. When I got there, there was a big crowd of trick or treaters huddled at the end of his driveway. They stood and stared at him, not knowing what to think. He did not move, and he did not speak. He just sat there. The darkness of the garage and the hood obscuring his face. Some of the kids occasionally crept slowly up the driveway, but soon lost their nerve and retreated back to the safety of the crowd. It was weird to see. I knew the man and most of the kids on the block knew him. He was the nicest guy in the world. I was friends with his kids and he even taught me how to fix lawn mowers in his garage. Why were we afraid to approach him? I decided to take the risk. He always gave out the best candy on the block. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. They were like the holy grail of Halloween candy.
I slowly stepped out of the line of trembling children and approached the darkened corridor that was once his garage. I chose a path to the side of his driveway. I stayed close to the hedge and slowly stepped into the corner of his dungeon-like chamber. He made only one slight movement. He slowly turned his head in my direction. The movement was not scary in itself, but his acknowledgment of my intrusion chilled me to the bone. I froze there for a few seconds willing my feet to make the last few steps. After what felt like an eternity, I made the arduous three step journey and was in grabbing range of the bowl of sugary gold. I paused, expecting him to jump out and scream. He did not move. He just sat there staring at me through the darkness. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and I had to summon every last bit of courage to kneel down into the bowl and grab a treat. As I touched the candy, I looked up, expecting the worst. Nothing. Nothing but silence and blackness behind the bowl. I quickly grabbed my prize and just as I did, the dark figure uttered only two words. I almost did not hear them, as I was too busy sprinting down the driveway scared out of my freaking mind. I will never forget those words he said that night. He simply said "Happy Halloween".
That was a night to remember. What started out as a romp through the neighborhood going door to door requesting goodies from complete strangers, became a hair raising adventure, a death defying journey into the heart of darkness. I survived! I conquered my fear and came away with my chocolatey treasure. That was the best tasting smashed peanut butter cup I ever had in my life. After that, I was hooked on Halloween.
Finding the haunted attraction industry
For the next few years I decorated our house and tried to be like the neighbors. I did my best with cotton cob webs and painted cardboard tombstones. It was not very elaborate but I enjoyed turning our yard into another dimension for a few weeks out of the year. It was not until junior high that I got to see what a full haunted house was like. My friend's brother volunteered at one and he dared us to visit. A group of us had a sleepover and took up the challenge that Friday night. It was run out of someone's house and had all the rooms decorated. There was a maze set up in the front yard and the backyard. It was pretty well done for a home haunt. I was amazed. Apparently so were half the town as the line reached all the way down the block. We waited for over an hour to enter, but had a great time seeing the occasional visitor run screaming out of the exit and down the block. It was our turn. Everyone pushed me into the door and cowered behind me. I stepped into the front room. It was completely transformed into a witch's lair an old woman stood stirring a huge pot of bubbling liquid. I froze. Not out of fear, but out of awe. I scanned the entire environment. My eyes were fixed on the details. The dusty old shelf of books, the flickering candles, the smoky bubbling cauldron. How did they do all of this? The witch cackled and lunged at us. My friends pushed me into the next scene. I tried my best to slowly take in all of the amazing decorations. My friends decided not to wait and charged on ahead as I hung back till the very last second, soaking up the details of the whole thing. Even when my friend's brother finally jumped out at us in his zombie costume everyone screamed. I squealed with delight and studied the intricacies of his makeup and tattered costume. This was like being in a movie!
After we finished, I stayed back and talked to the guy at the exit. He invited me to come the next day early and he could show me around. I eagerly came back at noon and he let me walk through with the lights on. I was amazed at how they created such a great environment. I saw some volunteers painting some wood in the back yard. I walked up and asked a few questions. They were happy to answer all my questions and promptly handed me a brush. I stayed there all day helping them repair walls and decorate the rooms. I loved it. I ended up helping out the rest of the season and learned every part of the operation. The next few years I volunteered there and other haunted houses in the area. I started learning makeup and costume design
In high school, I was recruited by one of the designers of a really big haunted attraction in the area. I was super excited. I was blown away by some of the plans they had for the next season. There I was introduced to the wonderful world of computer controlled lighting, sound and animatronics. Before long, I was designing whole sections of their walkthrough, choreographing atmospheric lighting and sound as well as setting up cues for actors and automated events. It was a playground for artists and engineers. We had a team of some of the most crazy and imaginative people I have ever had the privilege of working with. I tried my best to soak up as much as I could. We all had a great time and loved every bit of what we did. The haunt industry was crazy competitive and every year the plans got more and more elaborate. Every year we had more robotics, more visual effects, and more wow factor. We soon collaborated with Hollywood special effect companies and learned the tricks of the trade. We all had to become engineers, carpenters, and artists. We had to wow people year after year. It was awesome!
After I went to college, I never had a chance to work for a haunt again. I do get my creative itch scratched every October with the decorations in our yard, but I really miss the scale and the immersive-ness of the haunted experiences. My family and I still make a trek down every year to Knott's Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights. I still hold up the lines soaking in all the details of the set design, analyzing how every effect is done.
This year we did not decorate the house. There were no animatronic pop ups or pirate ships or alien crafts crashed into the roof. My focus has been on our escape rooms. Seriously, like every minute. My goal is to bring a level of detail the haunt industry instilled in me to the escape room realm. I have been calling all my old haunt contacts to help me make this place special. I am not a fan of gore or gross features in an environment. I believe the magic is in what you don't see. Our escape rooms are not particularly scary. Our first environment is meant to be spooky and mysterious. No blood and gore. The lesson I learned creeping up the driveway when I was a kid was that creepy is enough to get your blood pumping. There is adventure in a sense of danger. That is what we are shooting for. A thrilling adventure.
Bringing the passion into escape room games
We are excited to be building an escape room adventure. The funny thing is, we have done this before. Over 10 years ago, we had designed a maze that had puzzle elements and a "win" condition like in video games. The flashlights you carried "scared" the ghosts away from your location. You had to work together to clear the area of ghosts before you could proceed. You also needed to find the code for the door. There was a guide that would offer hints that would help the bewildered guest solve the puzzle and exit the maze. Sound familiar? When I called up some of my old friends and told them about the escape room concept, they quickly jumped on board. The first thing almost all of them said was "Haven't we done this before?" It is true we have all done these elements before in different industries. We are excited to bring you an escape room bred from the passions of crazy effects industry guys and game designers.
We were originally going to open on Halloween. We had a few delays in construction, but feel like we need to polish our games and add some more wow factor to our escape games. We want to build something we can be proud of and not feel rushed together. This has been a labor of love for us and we are enjoying every minute of it. We hope you give us a try when we open. Bring your sense of wonder and thirst for adventure! We hope we can bring something special to Sacramento.