On becoming a haunter

Finally, a description of my little dark secret

Many have asked me how (in the world) I got started in the haunted attraction industry, especially those in my high school class who could not get me to even drop them off at the local “Scream in the Dark” for fear they would drag me like an asphalt plow through the parking lot and do the unthinkable: pay someone to scare me.
dana martin ravens gate talladega frights central valley haunts
For the record: I do not need to PAY someone for that. I have two attractions full of unrepentant actors who make it their business to scare me. In a month, I go through the attractions and check the actors (and their shows) no fewer than 40 times at each location. You'd think I would become desensitized to the little freaks, but no. The truth is that I startle as easily as a field mouse wearing a meat jacket, jumping out of my skin over every shadow or slight shift in the wind. I will later contend that this manufacturer’s defect has enhanced my abilities as a haunter.

Haunter: it’s a real word. Even though you’ve likely never heard it said quite in this manner before, haunter is a word (and a job) with a real definition.

I am a writer and editor by trade, a conservative girl who lives in a conservative town. I have been room mom, soccer coach, substitute teacher, cook, camper, volunteer, and—if you’ve been reading my blog with any regularity—devoted cheerleader of Christ. I adore pretty clothes, romance novels, country music, I Love Lucy, and pink roses. I do not watch scary movies. Most people would not describe me as dark.

I am also a haunter.

To my knowledge, I will be the first to define the word in this context. As it applies to Halloween, a haunter (n.) is a haunt enthusiast, especially one who works in, frequents, or owns a haunted attraction. There are home haunters, casual haunters, serious haunters, and professional haunters. Their thoughts often drift to blood, gore, latex, and building materials at regular intervals. Haunters specialize in props, makeup, set design, the business of haunting, and costuming, and they attend haunt conventions to sell (and buy) merchandise and take classes on how to improve their attractions. Their research references are horror movies and observing the subtleties that frighten people.

Raven's Gate
Haunters think of Halloween as football fans do Super Bowl Sunday; in fact, haunters treat the entire month of October as basketball players do March Madness.  For us, though, it’s October Awesomeness, and we train all year for it.

We take time off from our “real jobs” in order to make Halloween and the business of scaring people a priority during October. Some of us are lucky enough to claim haunting as a yearly profession. Big or small, part time or full time, though, haunters are alike in one very special way: passion.

And that passion is contagious. In 2008, I decided to write a story on the local attraction in Bakersfield called Talladega Frights (soon to be located inside of Halloween Town). When I arrived, I took a “lights on” tour of the grounds—the only tour I would agree to take, considering it was noon and no actors were in sight. The interview went well, but I felt something engage inside me that day, like driving a car in one gear all your life, then discovering you have four more. I felt exhilarated! The owner asked me to come back at night, so I did. Cautiously.

The rest, as they say, is history.
haunted houses central valley California attractions
Talladega Frights

My days became filled with haunt children (the actors) who needed guidance, and they also needed a lot of candy and tips on how to scare. Who better to teach them than the girl who is terrified of everything? Over the next few years, I developed methods to ensure our actors were having fun, doing their jobs, and being frightening. Over time, these kids became haunters, too. The passion is contagious. It’s also, as you can see in this photo with my daughter, hereditary.

In 2011, I was approached to help start a new attraction, The Raven's Gate, in Parlier, Calif. (just south of Fresno). My duties went from being a haunt mom to helping to run all elements of the attraction on 21 acres of farmland. It was a blessing, a blast, and we were voted best Halloween haunt in the Central Valley by CBS-47 viewers. 

West Coast Haunt Convention, haunts, halloween conventions HauntCon
1980s movie??
I now own and co-own two large professional haunted attractions that are about 80 miles apart. I attend yearly haunt conventions, where I teach classes on haunt actor management and haunted backstory writing, and I love, love, love touring other haunted attractions across the country. I love seeing other haunters and catching up with friends I've made through the years (shout-out to my beloved Browns), and I really, really love the costume balls, where I get to dress up for a change (and, incidentally, get to experience the trauma of the sticky stage blood required in haunt acting). 

So that's it... haunting. Haunters are some of the best people you will ever meet, eager to help one another, lend a hand, build a wall, fix a prop, share an idea, or even put Humpty Dumpty back together again (you know who you are) so we can all continue this weird, amazing, consuming October passion that barges into your life unexpectedly and lingers like kettle corn scented night air in the memories of screams, hayride music, crackling fires, and the terror and laughter of people looking to escape their real lives for a few nights a year.

Yes, haunting is like that. It's a love, and once you've tasted the fruits of its frightening festivities, fall will never be the same without it.