High Class Haunting

Some of the best scares in the country are happening right here.
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Posted September 15, 2010 by Peter Gorman photos by Byrd Williams IV in News

Brent James is a fireman and a paramedic in the city of Glenn Heights, which straddles the Dallas and Ellis county lines. But for a couple of months each year, he has another gig: He’s a madman with a chainsaw in a parking lot.

coverThe madman is part of an annual production that’s bigger than most Broadway shows. In this role, James’ job is not to save people but to scare them, as part of the biggest — and some say the best — haunted house in the world, on Fort Worth’s Lancaster Avenue.

“I like to tell people that this is the only job in the world where I can scare someone half to death and then give them CPR,” he joked.

The Cutting Edge Haunted House is located, appropriately enough, in an old meatpacking plant, and it is 80,000 square feet of fear. If your experience of haunted houses is something put on in, say, a high school gymnasium with a few sheets, strobe lights, black paint, and a lot of ketchup, then you’ve never been to Cutting Edge, developed and operated by Brent’s younger brother Todd James.

Getting it ready involves nearly year-round work by a core staff of six, plus another dozen staffers working nearly full time from July through early November, and up to 80 mostly teenage actors each night. Running it involves managing all those folks plus two 10-man “skeleton” drum lines and a 12-person “zombie” marching band. Fog machines, strobes, animatronics dummies, canned music, chainsaws, sound effects, and a host of other details must get done well and precisely on time. And that doesn’t include designing, building, and furnishing sets, plus wardrobes, makeup, and security concerns. (At left, Brent and some of his ghoul-friends sit in one of the rooms he designed.)

It’s part of an industry with its own trade magazine, national convention, competitions, and long-term employees.

“When you put it that way, it sounds like a lot of work,” said Todd, a fit 46-year-old who has been working for or running haunted houses most of his life. “But to me and the staff — and they’re more like family than staff — it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like we get to play all year, make some incredible stuff, and then we get to show it off for a month or so. I just love Halloween. And I love scaring people.”

feat_1And people love getting scared — and not just on one night at the end of October. Cutting Edge opens in early September and runs through Halloween, drawing crowds of 500 to 800 each night.

On opening night last week, searchlights lit the sky above the old meatpacking plant, atop which a menacing 20-foot-tall gargoyle loomed. Music blared, fog spread out over the parking lot, and colored strobes lit the small group, mostly teens and twentysomethings, standing in line to be the first to experience this year’s edition of the Cutting Edge.

Suddenly, a frightening mannequin of an old woman, appeared — hunchbacked, in a long skirt, shawl, kerchief, and long red gloves. She leaned on a dark red cane.

The waiting crowd pressed together to get a good look at her. They leaned close. Suddenly the mannequin stuck out a hand, as if to grab someone. The crowd members shrieked. As soon as they’d caught their breath, the creature lunged forward, and the crowd jumped back en masse, several of them running straight through the entire roped-off ticket holders’ area, knocking down stanchions as they fled.

For the next hour, “Granny” moved in and around the crowd as it grew to hundreds, sometimes sitting mannequin-still on the roof of a hearse, sometimes following ticket buyers to the port-o-potties and knocking loudly on the door with her cane. She snuck up on new arrivals from behind and followed them until they noticed her. People screamed or froze or ran, but they all seemed to be having a good time.

Granny is actually Darryl King, a dad with two kids who’s been working the Cutting Edge parking lot for 16 years. Another longtime staffer is Chris Marlow, the lead actor and trainer of actors, who’s been there for 15 years.

Some of the young actors have been working the show for a decade, but most come and go, so the show needs 25 to 30 new actors each year. They’re hired about a week before opening night, and Marlow puts them through a two-hour course called Boo University — or Boo U.

“The first thing I do is go over the ground rules: No talking, no making sounds, and no touching,” Marlow explained. “A lot of haunted houses have actors screaming and making all sorts of noise. We want the customers to be the ones making noise. And we don’t let [the actors] touch anyone. I mean, you can’t really drag someone down a hall. But if you get up really close to them and they think you might drag them down a hallway, well, that’s generating fear.”

Boo U also teaches the actors how to stay in character, no matter what happens, and how to be very still so, for instance, they can fit in unnoticed amid a bunch of mannequins until it’s time to reveal themselves as live and scary. “We want them to be utterly still and then to make short, quick movements. That’s what scares people. It’s a statue or a ghost or an eerie clown coming to life for just a minute, just a second.”

Generating fear is the name of the game for Cutting Edge staffers. Marlow said he and the other actors keep tallies on how many people get so scared that they have to leave the haunted house before the full tour is over — what the staffers call a “scare-out.” Those folks are let out by one of the fire exits set at intervals throughout the house.

“We had nearly 1,200 scare-outs last year, and half of them didn’t even make it halfway through,” said Marlow. “To me that’s awesome. It means we’re rocking the house.”

The cast’s favorite victim — for whom they score the most points in their in-house competition — is Todd James himself. Last year, he said, they “got him” six times. He loves it. “It keeps it Halloween for me,” he said.

Outside in the parking lot on opening night, a young woman admitted to being a scare-a-holic. “I love the rush I get when I’m scared, the adrenalin,” she said.

 


Her boyfriend had just bought tickets to the haunted house. He laughed nervously. “She likes to come to these places. I don’t really like them.”

feat_2His date agreed. “This is the first time I was able to talk him into coming to the Cutting Edge because it’s supposed to be really scary,” she said. “He put on dark plaid shorts just in case he pees himself.” She paused. “I’m wearing a diaper.”

Walking through the house is like voluntarily revisiting the nightmares brought on by the scariest books you read as a kid, and the most frightening TV shows and movies you ever saw. Gothic rock music blares as you feel your way down pitch-black, twisting corridors. Things touch your hair. Your hands brush things you can’t identify. You come into a room, and in the gloom you can just make out … clowns, perched all around you, looking at you, ready to get you. One of them sticks out a hand for you to shake. You jump back. The person behind you screams. You want to run but can’t see where to go.

You force yourself to move along, and another clown tips his hat to you. You keep moving, afraid to stop. Suddenly you’re in another dark hallway. You can’t see, and you can’t talk over the music. Fog fills the air. You touch what feels like a human body and jump back. It swings and bumps into you. A loud whirring starts, and you realize you’re in an old meatpacking room, with its steel roll bar carrying sides of beef from the fridge to the cutting room. You look closer and realize those aren’t sides of beef hanging from those hooks. They’re human bodies wrapped in cellophane. Someone starts a chainsaw, and your only way out is past the sound. You inch along, assuring yourself that it’s only a haunted house. You’re nearly convinced and almost at a doorway when suddenly — you can’t help but scream.

“The way we scare you is by taking away your defenses,” Todd James said. “By keeping it dark, except for when we hit you with a lot of light before making it dark again, we’re taking away your sight. And the loud music makes it impossible to communicate with anyone else, except by people holding onto each other. Then we throw in fog to completely disorient you. Then we create your nightmares — a swamp, an Exorcist room, a cemetery — and then we give you the actors. You know you’re safe. You know nothing bad is going to happen. But you still get scared. I still get scared.”

feat_4The rooms are largely developed by the core team of Todd and Brent James, Marlow, and a few others, with the responsibility of dressing them falling largely on Frances Woodruff. She finds or makes everything that gives the rooms a realistic but eerie feel, whether it’s the medical station or the clown room or Uncle G’s Snake and Spider Emporium, which is an entire 10-room house within the haunted house.

Woodruff is the only staffer who had worked as a professional in the haunted house business before she met James. “I used to design sets in completed haunted houses, but then I met Todd at a haunted house convention in Chicago, and he asked me to help design some rooms. That was 12 years ago, and look what we’ve done,” she said. “We’re the biggest haunted house in the world and one of the very best.

“When I’m dressing a set or helping out with costumes, I want things perfect,” she said. “If a makeup artist puts too much blood on someone, it’s coming off.  And even if someone is going to walk through a room that’s nearly dark, I am going to dress it as though all the lights were on. … That’s how Disney does it and Universal Studios and how the old Thrillvania was done. They always went that little extra, and so that’s what we aspire to do here.”

Todd James’ mother, Sue McBrayer, says her younger son has been wild about Halloween for as long as she can remember. (She’s also a core crewmember at the Cutting Edge but can’t take going through the house.) “He just loved everything about it. He loved the costumes and the treats, and he loved scaring people,” she said. He didn’t wait for Halloween, either — he’d put on a costume any time of year and jump out from hiding to scare his friends.

While still in grade school in Fort Worth, Todd James found an outlet for all that spooky energy. He started working at two Fort Worth charity haunted houses, one put on by Mrs. Baird’s bakery and the other by March of Dimes.

In junior high he discovered a haunted house built by Disney on the midway at the State Fair of Texas. “Man, that was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” he said. “I was dying to work it, but they said I was too young. I kept at it, though, until somebody gave me a mask, put me in a room, and told me to scare people.”

While at the University of Texas at Arlington (where he majored in music), he got a chance to work with Disney again. In a national search, he was selected as one of six drummers for the All-American College Marching Band at Disneyland. Working the summers there through college gave him “a good long look behind the scenes at Disney,” he said. “That’s what sped me along with the idea of opening my own place. They were such a class act. They have a great Haunted Mansion down there.”

That’s where he learned how important it was for haunted house actors not to speak. He also saw that you didn’t need blood and guts to frighten people.

After college he took a job as a band director at a South Texas high school. He did well but after one year realized he was never going to make much money teaching. “I thought that if I was ever going to jump into the water and open my own haunted house, that was the time to do it.”

In 1990, armed with $500 and every credit card he could borrow, he decided to open a haunted house in Austin. He chose that city, he said, because “at that time there was a huge party on 6th Street every Halloween, and I knew I’d have a captive audience for at least one night.” Eventually he decided on an old department store building that had been closed for decades. He made a deal for cheap rent in exchange for cleaning up the building.

 


One of the people James managed to talk into joining him was a college buddy, Chuck Manchester, who knew construction techniques from working with his father’s company. “All through college, Todd would tell us how he was going to open a haunted house. We thought he was just talking,” Manchester said. But then James made it happen, with a lot of help from a man named Leonard Pickel, whom Manchester said is “legendary in the haunted house business.”

feat_5“He taught Todd a lot,” said Manchester, “and even came down to Austin from Dallas while we were working. He taught us how to construct the panels, make rooms, how to do the scares properly.”

By the time they were ready to open, James had put $50,000 on the borrowed credit cards and was scared he’d never be able to repay it.

Manchester, who’s still with Cutting Edge, described the first year’s house in Austin as a hodgepodge of ideas, with just a few rooms and a skeleton crew. “We’d be jumping from room to room ahead of the guests to be there in time to scare them again. And we did it all night. It was a logistical nightmare, but it worked.”

One of those crew members was a tall, burly fellow named Anthony Littles, known to everyone as A-Train. “I was working in a hotel where Todd and a few others were staying, and I heard they were building a haunted house,” he recalled. “Well, I loved haunted houses, but the admission was $5, and I was in college, so that was eating money. I volunteered to work for a couple of days to get free tickets. They were short on actors, and I said, ‘Heck, I can scare people,’ and I had a blast doing that.”

By the end of the season, James said, he’d paid off the entire investment and walked away with $3,800 in his pocket.

The following year, James put A-Train in charge of the Austin show and went to work opening a second show in Fort Worth. The first Cutting Edge in Fort Worth operated from the old Texas and Pacific Railway freight terminal on Lancaster Avenue. James soon began getting calls to put on haunted houses for other people as well. After three years, he closed the Austin house to concentrate on what was happening in Fort Worth.

feat_6The Cutting Edge at the railway building grew to cover nearly 90,000 square feet on two floors, a huge show and a big hit. But in 2000, when a new owner raised the rent too high, James moved the show to a location off Jacksboro Highway for a year, and then to the current location on Lancaster. He bought that building, he said, because he doesn’t want to move again.

It was 4 p.m. on opening day, and out in one of the Cutting Edge’s two big shops, a door frame for the 22,000-square-foot maze was taking shape. The maze is designed by staffer Dwayne Bolt. “It’s the only room in the house with nothing in it: no props, no actors,” he said. “The only scary thing in there is the guests themselves.” Masks in progress took up one table. In another area a craftsman worked on a new animatronics figure — picture a Chucky doll that moves.

The second workshop is devoted to big props like the giant gargoyle. Sculptor Christian Anderson was putting finishing touches on a fiberglass dragon with a 16-foot wingspan. When he finishes painting it, it will sit atop a row of columns at the exit. “Ready for next week, probably,” he said, admiring his work. He also sculpted the gargoyle and the huge mask through which scare-ees enter the house.

Anderson once owned his own haunted house in Virginia and has seen many others, but, “I’ve never seen anything come close to this,” he said. “It’s just so big, so well done, with such attention to detail. This house takes fear to the level of an art form.”

feat_8Out in the parking lot the security crew was beginning to arrive, as well as the actors. The 50 cast members got room assignments and went off to get costumes, with Woodruff keeping tabs on assignments, pairing veterans
with rookies.

We only bring in 50 [actors] at a time the first two Saturday nights we’re open. For the new ones, it’s really their auditions,” she said. “A lot of them have no idea how hard it will be to stay in character for two hours, having to scare someone new every minute … . So I’m sorry to say, some of these kids are not going to make it.”

The costumes were doled out, then three professional makeup artists went to work. “We have to do as many as 80 actors and 32 band members in three hours when the season is in full swing,” said Liz McCracken, lead artist. She’s been working at the Cutting Edge for three years. “It was a challenge at first, because I work television and movies, and a lot of my stuff has to look very real. Here, they want zombies and voodoo princesses and ghouls and clowns, but they don’t want the gore that other places want.”

Outside, chainsaws — with no chains — were being gassed up and revved. Fog began to roll in the ticket booth area. From inside the building came the sound of music cues, and the staff walked through the rooms checking details. Roars, screams, and the screech of grinding metal came from all over, as the animatronics set pieces were tested.

By 7 p.m. the first guests were arriving, though the show wouldn’t start until 8. A-Train was dressed and ready to terrify people in the hospital room, though that room is so frightening it can make people flee even when it’s empty.

“We’ve been working since February to get this show ready. And I’m ready for it to happen.” he said.

Todd James came by. “Opening night,” he said. “This is what we live for. Let the scares begin.”


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