Published On: Mon, Oct 16th, 2017

Rebuilding South Florida’s Largest Haunted Attraction for 16th Year

By: Bryanna Basilio

Photo by Bryanna Basilio

As Halloween approaches, haunted houses all over the United States have neared their final preparations, the crew of Fright Nights among the chaos.  The West Palm Beach haunted attraction has called South Florida Fairgrounds home for the past 16 years and has evolved each year since becoming South Florida’s premier haunted attraction. 

The Boca Raton Tribune got a behind-the-scenes look at the haunted houses before opening night.

“I started out as a set director, dresser, painter, actor, for Fright Nights in 2002,” said creative director Craig McInnis. “I have been here for 15 years and we have veterans that have worked behind the scenes in haunted attractions for more than 20 years.”

According to McInnis, the Fright Nights crew wears many hats, “most of us only stayed in one position for a couple seasons. Let’s say someone doesn’t like the way the makeup looks, someone else does it and everyone says, ‘oh shoot you do makeup’ so the next year that person will have more on their plate, adding makeup to their talents.”

McInnis is always looking to replace someone else, so they can move up to a higher position. “We’re always looking to find new talent. Those are the two main functions, designing and acting.”

While there are not enough paid positions for everyone, fright nights sees more than a hundred potential actors at their open cast calls, all hoping to become a scarer. While these paid positions are minimal and more selective, it does not stop the influx of volunteers who are on standby in case anyone drops out.

“We get about 80-100 volunteers so there is a lot of desire to work here, both on the volunteer side and the paid side because it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” said McInnis. “Some people that have done it, have been hooked ever since.. like the veterans who have been here for more than 12 years.”

Photo by Bryanna Basilio

There are four new haunts alone in the large shared warehouse utilized by the staff. Effortlessly, the diverse haunts can still share the space without interfering with each other. After walking through all four haunts, each with its own entrance and exit, nobody could have known what exactly occurred in the neighboring haunts. Each haunt was relatively large as well, not a size guests would expect from a shared warehouse.

“The haunt you’re in is so loud you can’t tell what happens in the other haunts. The best thing about that is, we used to think some of the light hitting the ceiling and bouncing into another haunt was a bad thing but it adds to the chaos,” stated McInnis.  “If I hear screaming in the next house, it’s actually good for the house that’s next to it, because then people are thinking, ‘who’s screaming and why are they screaming?’ so it adds to the energy.”

At capacity, the warehouse can hold 400-500 people including the crew, and maybe, even more, said McInnis. That many people simultaneously in the warehouse is “a lot of energy, most of it is fear, so it feeds,” he said.

Apart from being creative director, Craig McInnis also plays ‘Eggman’ a hillbilly clown that rides around on a bike on the midway. (See image below)

By Boca

Craig McInnis as “Eggman” Photo by Bryanna Basilio

“I basically heckle people who try to heckle me,” he said. “The backstory behind Eggman is he was a short-order cook who made great eggs and got out of prison. He then started a traveling circus and became a rodeo clown. I have a long backstory, which I came up with because kids come up and ask me about it during the carnival. I’ve had 10 years to develop the guy.”

The character was developed a few years ago when McInnis designed one of his first houses, which was “The Clownhouse,” a murderous family of clowns, Eggman among the characters.

The crew tries not to divulge too much about their haunts before opening night, a tactic to used to scare their guests more upon entry.

This is not a relatively new tactic either according to McInnis, “It’s like what I did with the Smiths, I put ‘The Smiths’ and my tagline was ‘No Typical American Family?’ and I didn’t have clowns on the poster. So when the poor souls got into that room and saw mom cooking at the stove and she turns around with full-clown makeup, that’s when they found out.”

“Cletus” the 10-foot walker clown
Photo by Bryanna Basilio

No one can ever rule out clowns at Fright Nights and that is a given. “We make no apologies for the fact that we have clowns all the time because we know that’s a slam dunk,” he said. “There is always going to be 30-40% people who can’t even look at a clown. We have this big walker clown too that people despise.” (See left image)

The big walker clown is one of the unique props in the hands of the Fright Nights crew. Named “Cletus,” the harness sits on the shoulders of the operator while his feet stay on the ground making the operator and the apparatus quite mobile. While the operator’s face is at chest level (which is covered by a long cloth) the clown towers at 10 feet tall.  Cletus is among one of the “10-foot walkers” that patrol the carnival interacting with guests.

As for props, many intricate props are bought at the TransWorld’s Halloween & Attraction Show, a popular marketplace for the haunted house industry, which takes place in St. Louis annually. The crew also visits the Legendary Haunt Tour, a traveling tour that visits 2-3 haunted attractions each year that have achieved “legendary” status with the haunted attraction industry, the media, and the public. Here the crew has the ability to go behind the scenes of the haunts and learn what fellow hunters have to offer and start getting ideas for their own next year.

At Fright Nights, the carnival is booked by the fairgrounds and although guests have the option to enjoy carnival rides, food, live music, and entertainment, the true essence of Fright Nights is the haunts according to the crew.

“At the end of the day, the carnival is just a distraction and a way to keep the lines somewhat manageable and it’s another thing people can kill time with,” McInnis shares. “But for us, we’re addicted to this and making cool sets, walkthroughs, and scary characters, this what it’s all about here, the haunted houses.”

The budget does not play a big factor in whether a haunt is “good” either. The actors are essential and if they cannot perform well, how nice or big the set is will not matter. “Whether you have a ten million dollar budget or a fifty thousand dollar budget, it still boils down to whether or not the actors are convincing and do what they are supposed to do,” he said. “That’s what we try to focus on.”

Fright Nights remains open three days a week, every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from October 6 to October 28.

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