Haunted Houses are serious business. Just ask the volunteers at Jaycees FEARgrounds in Sioux Falls.
Haunted attractions are an industry---spawning national conferences, associations, and even safety certifications. However, a good scare can offer camaraderie, whether you’re the one giving or receiving the spook.
We stand in line at the Jaycees FEAR-grounds, and there’s no ignoring the screams of other visitors deep within the haunted house. To distract myself, I check in with my friends Brady Mayer and Megan Gayer.
JH: “What are our thoughts going into this?”
BM: “It’s really loud.”
MG: “I’m quite terrified.”
The only Haunted House veteran among us is Lucas Wipf, more the strong silent type. We’ve agreed to stick together, and even have codewords to shout out if we get separated.
But no amount of strategizing makes the first pitch-black hallway any brighter...and nothing really dulls the first scare.
That first scare can make or break the experience-- for visitors and volunteers. This is Donald Ohmann’s second year volunteering as a scare-er. He remembers a similarly dark hallway on his first night.
“And my very first scare I got punched in the face, and I was like, ‘This is awesome!’”
You heard him: punched in the face...not an intended part of the experience.
“I scared a grown man, and he didn’t see me," Ohmann explains. "And he immediately apologized and I was like, ‘It’s ok, that was awesome.'”
Another scare-veteran, Trevor Bittner, calls it an occupational hazard. He got started with the Jaycees haunted house when a college buddy asked for help.
“He ran it for many years, and he was like, ‘Hey man, I’m a little short staffed. Do you have any free time tonight?’ and I was like ‘Sure I’ll come help out.’”
That was about nine years ago. Bittner says he’s been involved with the haunted house ever since. On top of terrorizing willing visitors, he’s also the haunt’s Director of Finance.
This is the largest fundraiser of the year for the Sioux Falls Jaycees. Money from the haunted house supports everything from holiday toy drives to the 4th of July Fireworks show at the fairgrounds. Last year, the haunt brought in nearly $60,000.
And the volunteers who run the house are eager to learn tips of the haunting trade. Tamara Parliament is the makeup and costuming manager. A few of the organizers attended Transworld--the largest haunted-attraction trade show in the country. Parliament says one conversation was a game changer..
“And we were introducing ourselves to other haunts and saying, ‘We’re the Sioux Falls Jaycees Haunted House!’ And they’re like, ‘Great! What’s the name of your haunted house?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, well, that’s it.’”
And that’s how the Jaycee’s FEARgrounds was born. In addition to a national trade show just for haunted houses... there’s also a Haunted Attractions Association. And it offers safety certifications designed specifically for haunted houses.
Tamara Parliament is one of three managers with Jaycees FEARgrounds to earn CHAOS certification.
“CHAOS stands for Certified Haunted Attraction Operator Safety," she explains. "So it basically covers everything from dealing with patrons to understanding fire safety, which is a huge deal.”
As Halloween becomes a more common spectacle of scare, Parliament says it’s important to keep safety in mind.
“You have many volunteers or employees working in a haunt, and you have many customers who are in there who are lost by design and scared by design.”
Part of the safety training for the Jaycees FEARgrounds is a new program they call “scare school”--which includes training volunteers on the nearest fire exits and the location of the panic switch in each room to alert security.
Brittany Bittner is the volunteer coordinator with the FEARgrounds. She says actors are allowed to break character if they believe a patron is having a severe medical episode. If necessary, they flip the panic switch.
“If something should happen--like someone has a panic attack or if something were to break like glass or anything like that--we can get our security and our EMS team in there to check on patrons or volunteers and get things cleaned up as quickly as possible.”
But it’s a rare need. Most of the time, the scare is just scary enough.
About half-way through the haunted house, we have a moment to pause and regroup.
JH: “It’s fine! We’re good! How ya feeling?”
JH: “Ok good.”
MG: “...not good.”
JH: “Lucas, how ya doin?”
MG: “My Apple Watch is telling me to breathe.”
The moment of rest doesn’t last.
Tamara Parliament says one of the most exciting parts of the haunted house is enjoying other volunteers’ creativity. For example, a manager’s kids had an idea for a Christmas themed room.
I walk intp a scenario that plays out in a bloodied kitchen...only to escape to a deceptively soothing living room--complete with Christmas tree and stockings on the mantle.
JH: Nice and Christmassy!
MG: THERE’S A HAND IN THE STOCKING.”
There is, indeed, a hand in the stocking. Brittany Bittner and Tamara Parliament laugh about the detail.
“I actually think the hands in the stocking were, like, an afterthought. I was like, ‘I think they need something,’ and Chrissy’s like, ‘We have a tub of body parts…?’ And I’m like, ‘Great! Let’s go!’" Bittner laughs.
“Things you'll only say in a haunted house," Parliament says.
The haunted house only runs about a month , but preparations take much of the year. Organizers are named as early as January. Volunteers are most heavily recruited in August, and the rooms are built in September.
It’s a lot of work year round, but especially in prime spooky season. But that’s something the volunteers seem to love most of all.
Brittany Bittner says she’s always loved Halloween, but getting to know the other volunteers--and spending more time with her husband Trevor--is the best part of working with Jaycees FEARgrounds.
“You get that camaraderie, and you get your spooky stuff that not everybody else is always into, so you get like that connection on that level. And I wouldn’t imagine being anywhere else besides a haunted house in October.”
Both Brittany and Trevor Bittner describe the relationships among volunteers as family. He says he keeps in touch with multiple volunteers, and he likes to take new scare actors under his wing.
“You can come in on your first day and I guarantee you within the hour you’ll have two people calling you brother or sister within that time. I mean that’s just how it happens.”
And once visitors emerge from haunted house, they may find a similar feeling of camaraderie.
BM: “It felt good though. I feel good now.”
BM: “Yeah! I think I needed that, it’s been a long week.”
MG: “I don’t know if I needed that.”
LW: “We could stay out for a couple...eight more hours.”
The Jaycees FEARgrounds is open through November 2nd. After that, it won’t be long before the team starts planning next year’s scares. Maybe I’ll see what’s new next Halloween.