Something’s about to happen.
Maybe there was rustling in the cornstalks to your right, or cackling coming from ahead of you, just around the pitch-dark corner.
Suddenly, the breaker box next to you explodes in a shower of sparks and noise, or a bloody doctor emerges from his hiding place to chase you with his hacksaw.
Your heart jumps. Maybe you scream, because you’re really scared, or just because it feels good to let one loose.
After all, you signed up to walk through this haunted house. You’re supposed to be having fun.
So after that split second scream, you pick yourself up, shake yourself off, look around at the people you’re with (smile or give an embarrassed laugh), and continue your adventure through the night.
The Plateau’s Fright Factory and Haunted Woods gives hundreds, if not thousands, of people good scares like this every Halloween season.
But the magic behind a good scare, as anyone working at these venues will tell you, is well thought out and hard-earned.
The Fright Factory
Dennis Wink, the owner of the Fright Factory in Buckley, has been working on haunted houses since he was 14, living in Iowa.
“It was a haunted house run by the Jaycees,” Wink said. The Jaycees are similar to Bonney Lake’s Lions Club. “I was like, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.'”
Eventually, the organizers took notice of Wink and his buddies and asked them to join, and he’s been hooked ever since.
The Fright Factory has moved around the area several times. It opened in the Auburn Outlet Collection mall first, then three years in Shelton, and a year in Graham before coming to Buckley in 2001.
In total, the haunted house has been in operation for 24 years, “and it’s getting bigger and bigger every year,” Wink said, noting that they have hundreds of costumes and change more than half of the haunted house every season to keep things fresh.
Most of the people working at the Fright Factory are volunteers – it takes a minimum of 40 to 45 actors to keep the show running full-stop, plus around 20 paid staff members.
“And that’s minimum actors. Sometimes we have, like opening night, we had 66 actors and staff,” Wink said. “Most of our staff, if we’re not doing security, we’re in there as actors.”
Wink is involved in almost all aspects of the haunted house, from costume design to make-up and set design and, of course, scaring the bejeezus out of visitors.
But rigging the special effects and doing the makeup is what he likes the best.
“I’ve been doing professional-type makeup for, I’m guessing, 20 years,” he said. “I used to just do my own, and then I started doing everybody else’s.
On a tour through the Fright Factory with the lights on, Wink showed off some of the technology he uses to scare people – air cylinders, infra-red trip wires to activate lights and sounds, claustrophobic tunnels, and much, much more.
But the real scares come from using real life actors, and they all take their role very seriously.
“A lot of it has to do with good acting. We have a lot of veteran actors, a lot of coaching during the off season before we open,” Wink said. “We have some classes, teach them how to act, react. It’s like live theater. Total improv. You teach them how to get a scare, how to get a reaction, how to get jump scares, how to be a distraction in a ‘gotcha’ scare.”
On top of dealing out scares, Wink also collects canned food donations for the Buckley Food Bank, since bringing in donations gets a dollar off the entrance fee.
He doesn’t count or weigh how much gets donated every year, but, “They haul two to three truckloads every year. It fills the Buckley food bank every year pretty good.”
The Fright Factory was recently voted the top haunted house in Washington by Frightfind.com and in the top 25 haunted houses across the country by Buzzfeed.
For the past 11 years, Maris Farms makes the transformation from a family-friendly farm into the Haunted Woods every Halloween season.
Mike Meeks has been in charge of the haunted house for the last seven, starting out working at the farm as a churro vendor.
Organizing and running the mile-long Haunted Woods every year, Meeks said, is controlled chaos.
“We work on it all year long,” Meeks said. “We invest a lot of time, energy and money into the whole event.”
The length of the Haunted Woods alone calls for a large number of actors and actresses, around 75 every night, each of them having been vetted through an audition process and trained in how to get a good scare and, failing that, how to improvise and be entertaining.
“We want them to understand how to scare, and what scaring is all about and how to create a good scene, but also how to protect yourself out here,” Meeks said.
What he tells his actors is that scaring is more than just surprise and being loud – most of it is really about timing and being able to quickly read an audience and determine who will be scared and who won’t.
And what makes the Haunted Woods different than many other haunted houses, Meeks said, is that everyone is paid.
“We are probably one of the very few haunts, if not the only haunt in this area for sure, that actually pay their actors and actresses and makeup artists,” he said, adding that the Haunted Woods often times has whole families working together at the event.
“We’ve got actors and actresses that have been here for as long as the haunt’s been open, and come back year after year,” Meeks continued. “We get beat up a little bit on pricing, because people just think we’re getting rich off this thing, but this is a huge risk… and when it’s all said and done, we’re happy to provide jobs, and that’s what we do.”
Much of the Haunted Woods is outside, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
“The advantage to it is, we’ve got this creepiness right off the start, with the corn and all that stuff,” said Meeks, shaking one of the countless 12-foot tall corn stalks that make up a maze in the haunted house. “The big disadvantage is, is obviously there’s a lot of electronics out here.”
According to Meeks, more than 80 electronic props and animatronics help make up the Haunted Woods, many of them exposed to the viciously wet Washington weather.
“Every night we’ve got to fix something,” Meeks said. “The electronics just take a beating out here.”
Design work for the Haunted Woods starts as soon as the season is finished, with Meeks sitting down with his team of electricians, artists and costume designers coming together to discuss what worked well, what didn’t work well and start planning out what to do next year.
That’s Meek’s favorite part of running the haunted house.
“The fun part of this is the creative factor,” he said. “I love getting together with everybody and creating new scenes and thinking of new ideas.”
Approximately 25 to 30 percent of the haunted house gets changed every year, Meeks added.
Maris Farms does its own charity work as well, donating money raised in tips, from face painters and the pig races during the day. This year, Maris Farms is donating to the Seattle’s Children Hospital, Meeks said.