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'Haunters' work year-round to scare up Halloween frights

By Ann Hoevel
CNN
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(CNN) -- Once known as a successful Jaycees fundraiser, haunted houses have grown into an entertainment industry that keeps "haunters" planning year-round to scare people in the most intense, state-of-the-art ways possible.

Visitors to haunted houses this fall can expect expensive animatronics, Hollywood-style sets and professional actors sporting elaborate make-up effects and historically authentic costumes - all set to bring your scariest nightmares to life.

These days, entire compounds comprised of multiple haunted houses, hayrides and corn mazes provide hours worth of scares. Owners employ staffs of hundreds.

More scares than ever before

Between the last days of September and Halloween weekend, large haunted establishments scare thousands of visitors a night. This year, which included Friday the 13th, is destined to be one of the busiest ever, according to haunted house purveyors.

The industry this year is set to generate $300 million, Leonard Pickel, editor and chief of "Haunted Attraction" magazine told CNN during the week before Halloween.

Larry Kirchner, past president of the International Association of Haunted Attractions and owner of "The Darkness" in Saint Louis, Missouri, agrees. "$300 million in tickets is a lot of people," he said, "and that number is up. Right now most haunted houses around the country are reporting 20 or more percent increases than last year in tickets sales so far."

Large haunted house owners expect to see between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors this fall.

Spooky or scary?

Although "authentic" haunted houses come with spooky tales of poltergeist activity and looming specters, haunted house attractions are haunted only by roaming actors who get visitors screaming.

"It's like you are Jamie Lee Curtis, because once you step in the haunted house you are a victim," said Kirchner. "You are the one being stalked, you are the star of the movie and every step that you take in that haunted house there's potential of a villain about to strike to scare you."

"The Darkness" is erected in a two-story downtown St. Louis warehouse, with more than 100 animations and detailed sets. This is its 13th year in operation and Kirchner spent more than $100,000 completely renovating the attraction.

Visitors to "The Darkness," are entertained by scary scenes like the warnings of a re-animating demon mummy as they wait in line and an Egyptian "City of the Dead" on the first floor. Upstairs is an elaborate "haunted mansion" complete with a swamp and "real" ghosts, who yearn to take visitors - or victims? - with them to the afterlife.

Haunting inspiration

Large establishment owners say that what makes them successful is their originality and their willingness to incorporate completely new sets every year.

Conventional "scary" personalities like Jason from the "Friday the 13th" movies, Freddie Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, or Elvira are usually cast aside for more elaborate ideas.

Mike and Nancy Jubie, who run "the Headless Horseman" haunted establishment on their farm in Ulster, New York, offer visitors a two-hour journey into the terrifying story of "Louis Cypher".

Their farm hosts four attractions: a haunted hayride, a corn maze and two haunted houses. On the hayride, visitors learn of Cypher, a mortician who discovers the bloody secret to cheating death.

The corn maze puts visitors face to face with the legendary Headless Horseman. It turns out Cypher planted the cornfield atop the Headless Horseman's unmarked grave. Ulster is, after all, only a short gallop away from Sleepy Hollow.

Visitors end the night with two haunted houses: "Cypher's Casket Company," and "The Spirit House."

The bigger, the scarier

In Gradyville, Pennsylvania, a trip to the Bates Motel also starts with an ambling hayride, and the events get scarier as the night progresses. On the hayride, visitors are subject to a two-story, 1930s insane asylum, in addition to 25 other scary scenes.

Next visitors are taken to a haunted trail with a big western ghost town.

"There are a lot of highly detailed sets as well ... there's a big long mine shaft you have to walk through with a lot of animatronics, ... and there's a graveyard with real tombstones and a walkthrough mausoleum," said Randy Bates, who runs the Bates Motel.

Visitors end the night at the Bates Motel haunted house, a 4,000-square-foot building set up as a haunted mansion.

Now that's scary

And what could be scarier than a haunted house that's actually haunted?

The Jubies contacted ghost hunters after one of their employees saw what seemed to be the ghost of their 200-year-old farm's previous owner. The vision of a baker with a Mediterranean accent told the employee how pleased he was that horses were back on the farm, and that he liked their work.

"It's interesting, some of our actors actually think our building is haunted," said Ben Armstrong, who helps run "The Netherworld" haunted attraction in Atlanta, Georgia, now in its 10th season.

"We actually had some paranormal investigators go in there and try and get some data, but the haunted house itself, especially [one of Netherworld's three attractions] "Cursed," has a lot of elements that are like a classic haunted house. ... We're certainly inspired by those things," he said.

"The Netherworld" features three attractions: the "Freak Pit," "Cursed," and "Shock-O-Rama." "The Freak Pit" is a twisted funhouse full of circus freaks and oddities. "Shock-O-Rama" is a creepy 3-D experience based on an extremely gory comic book, and "Cursed" takes visitors to the haunted mansion of the occult-obsessed "Maxmillian Colber," whose family and house bear the scars of dabbling in the netherworld.


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A gaggle of ghouls get their scare on at the "Headless Horseman."

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