Haunted house entrepreneur Jason Greeley-Roberts doesn’t believe in ghosts. Nor is he even particularly fond of the horror genre.
“I’ve never been against (horror movies); they were just never my thing,” he said.
Yet on a dreary, drizzly Thursday night six days before Halloween, he was backstage at a haunted house attraction, standing amongst latex and rubber scabs and gashes. Fog seeped in from the other side of the wall, where people were willingly being terrified.
He was cleaning out the airbrushes used for actors’ makeup. As the cast manager of a crew of about 60, he has to make sure everything’s on point throughout each night’s show.
This is just the life of a commercial haunted house operator, or a “haunt,” as those who are in the business call it. It’s also where some so-called “theater kids” end up as adults.
“It’s a unique experience because people are wanting you to scare them,” said Greeley-Roberts, 32, who started acting in plays in middle school. “It’s a little sadistic but (fear is) the craziest, most fun, incredibly powerful, potent emotional response to your performance.”
Indeed — people love Halloween and being scared. The National Retail Federation expects Americans to spend $9 billion on the holiday this year, and 36,855,644 adults will pay to be scared at a haunted house.
The Scaregrounds operation at Clark County Fairgrounds is in its fourth year at the spot, and despite interest nationwide for fear attractions, Greeley-Roberts said the show still hasn’t actually turned a profit. Nonetheless, he’s optimistic. He said attendance this year is up 50 percent, thanks mostly to a little bit of longevity and word of mouth, since they don’t have a large budget for marketing.
“We haven’t made any money yet. We’re still pretty deep in the hole from starting up, but we’re starting to see the edge of that hole,” said Greeley-Roberts, who has been in the business of scaring people for nearly a decade.
“I went in with big dreams thinking we’re going to make a ton of money, like it’s going to be this huge lucrative thing. It certainly can be profitable, but it’s very, very hard to realize that profit,” he said.
Turning people’s fear into cash isn’t easy. Haunted houses have to stay on top of people’s rising expectations of both fear and technology. Many haunted house businesses have folded after a year or two. While customers typically fork over between $20 and $40 per visit, the money is funneled into costs for the actors, elaborate equipment, such as animatronic monsters, and business costs such as permits.
Business operators try to minimize those costs by using volunteers or building cheaper sets. Greeley-Roberts wanted to pay his actors, though; he said it guarantees that people will show up for work. Additionally, their sets may be more minimalistic than some of the larger haunted houses in Portland, but they work to instead incorporate more interactive story lines.
This year, $25 buys Scaregrounds patrons admission to three haunts, including Sector 13, which incorporates a story about a government conspiracy/alien experiment-gone wrong. It came from the now-shuttered FrightTown, which operated underneath the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland until last year.
One cannot just decide to turn a structure into a haunted house and start charging money. Clark County imposes specific rules for haunted house operations. Assistant Fire Marshal Curtis Eavenson said the haunted house operations sometimes scare inspectors from the office — but not because of the grotesque alien cadaver on an operating table, or giant animatronic spiders hanging about.
“When you take a haunted house like that, they’re intentionally set up to be disorienting and the path of egress is not always super clear to you, so steps were taken to provide that accountability,” said Eavenson.
“We’ve dealt with them quite a bit,” Eavenson said of Scaregrounds and its crew. “Jason had to get to know us, and we had to get to know Jason and build a relationship there as far as getting what we needed to have.”
Greeley-Roberts and his crew originally started out at a building in North Portland’s Delta Park before the building was demolished by its owner. Rules were a bit different in Multnomah County, said Greeley-Roberts, who grew up in Milwaukie, Ore. In Clark County, haunted house participants have to be “supervised and guided through the haunted house by individuals identified as guides.” The guides must carry whistles and flashlights in case of an emergency.
Some haunt operators find restrictions prohibitive, though Greeley-Roberts is understanding.
“They’ll pass new rules where you have to completely rewrite your show so you can follow the guidelines,” he said. “They’re all basic safety measures, but they get expensive and they get very complicated.
“We came here (from Portland) thinking we knew what to do. It was a little rocky the first year trying to make sure we were being totally safe and covering all of our bases.”
Eager theater kid
While things are going more smoothly and attendance is up, Greeley-Roberts is still honing his acting and construction skills. To pay the bills, he said he recently got his real estate license and works with his business partner, Kyle Paradis, to run Vendetta Productions, a production design and rental company. Meanwhile, he counts on a pretty loyal crew of people to keep returning each year for the thrill of being an actor in a haunt.
Breanna Kurth has been working with Greeley-Roberts for eight years. At Scaregrounds, she plays “The Broken Doll,” and scares people outside of the haunted house. Before heading out to the grounds for the night, she said Greeley-Roberts is “more like my best friend than a boss or anything.
“I’ll probably be here forever as long as it’s here,” Kurth said.
Greeley-Roberts feels the same way. He hopes not to leave the South Hall 3 building anytime soon — and hopes to move his home from Portland over to Clark County.
“I’m just this super eager theater kid,” Greeley-Roberts said. “I’m seeing this weird mutant form of theater that is haunted houses where you have all these actors and performers and different sets and scenes and we try to create this theatrical experience in a very different format.”