Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 | 3:57 p.m.
Jason Egan is a somewhat sly, shy, sullen sort. Soft-spoken, measured and relaxed, he doesn’t seem to fall for fright very easily.
But this ghoul-oriented master of the fear fortress Fright Dome at Circus Circus is known to wince and draw back on occasion. Show him a cat, and he’ll do that.
That’s it. The great Achilles’ heel of the city’s founder of fear is felines. Otherwise, the 36-year-old horror visionary says, “I’m not too easily scared anymore. I’m pretty jaded.”
As he says this, the man standing next to him, Sid Haig, nods and grins. Typical of Egan’s circle of friends, Haig is immersed in the horror culture as the man who played Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie films “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects. Haig hung with Egan on opening weekend of the annual Halloween season attraction at Circus Circus as one of the celebrity guests.
On this day, the two are walking the Adventuredome that has been overtaken by Egan’s horrified theme park. The attraction is open through Nov. 1, 7 p.m. to midnight, dark Mondays and Tuesday and also Oct. 22; cost ranges from $34.95 for general admission, $54.95 for a fast pass and $89.95 for a VIP tour.
As is common this time of the year, Egan eats on the fly, carrying a hot Subway sandwich getting cold as he walks through the 250,000-square-foot space. Along the way, we run into clown mannequins in various states of development, cast members dressed as zombies carrying chainsaws to no evident destination, a pair of wheelchair-bound actors who have no legs and appear in various staged performances, and members of the hyper-aggressive dance troupe Academy of Villains. At one point, Egan stops at a plastic statue of SpongeBob SquarePants, laughs and says, “Now, that’s scary.”
Though Circus Circus owns and manages this space for 11 months of the year, it belongs to Egan during Halloween. It has been quite a journey. He arrived in Las Vegas in 2000, having grown up in Omaha, Neb., and developing a fascination for building haunted houses in his backyard, delighting in scaring the neighbor kids. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and opened his first haunted house in 1998 across the street from that city’s Federal Building. He ran that house for two years while majoring in business with the idea of becoming a producer of live entertainment.
Egan started his own production company, Egan Productions, in the late-1990s and moved to Las Vegas in 2001. His first haunted house was set up on Highland Drive — “Where it’s kind of creepy anyway” — and drew the attention of some officials from nearby hotel-casinos, including the one with the frightful, neon clown sign facing the Strip.
In one of the great moments of magic ever on the Strip, two years after moving to Las Vegas, Egan persuaded execs at Circus Circus to turn over Adventuredome and give his Fright Dome a one-year test run. It took several meetings, and he was asked to dump the Highland Drive spot in favor of the hotel-casino. Three haunted houses, one scare zone and a few dozen actors were dropped into the casino in 2003, all under the direction of this 23-year-old mastermind from the Plains States.
“It was the perfect match,” Egan says in retrospect. “Circus Circus has been great to work with every year. I’ve been really fortunate.”
Today, Fright Dome is among the most successful attractions of its type in the world, with more than 100,000 visitors expected this year. This week, Travel Channel ranked Fright Dome as the No. 2 haunted attraction in the country. Last Christmas, Egan was astonished to read a book his mother had given him as a gift titled “Ghosts, Gamblers and Gangsters of Las Vegas” and find a chapter under the heading “The Scariest Place on Earth” all about Fright Dome.
“It goes on and on,” Egan says. “Fright Dome has become a huge brand recognition.”
An original $500,000 investment has long ago been met. Egan continues to invest in building the quality of Fright Dome, a $2 million annual investment that this year features six houses (or, mazes, as they are called from the inside) and 400 actors and staff members each year. The “scare zones” are the areas along the 5-acre space where strolling actors hoisting chainsaws wait in silence, then give chase, often dragging a trail of entrails as strobes, fog and loud sounds of impact descend. Along with a new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” house, the Hillbilly Hell Offspring house and Zombie Quarantine maze are back. Pulsating lights and the unmistakable scent of spent fuel permeate Fright Dome, which is how Egan likes it.
“You don’t need a $25,000 animation every time — sometimes it’s as simple as a gunnysack over an actor’s head,” he says.
The horror-movie culture is forever intertwined, and Egan has forged relationships (personal and professional) that have produced high-profile licensing partnerships at Fright Dome. This year, he is partnering with director Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel to showcase their classic fright film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which is why Egan is legally allowed to use the film’s effects and images. Leatherface graces the attraction’s billboards, signage at Circus Circus, Fright Dome website and the haunted attraction itself.
Over the years, Egan also has brought in industry superstars such as “Saw,” “The Collector,” “The Collection” and “Project Greenlight” producer-director Marcus Dunstan and makeup wizard Gary Tunnicliffe (who has worked on “My Bloody Valentine,” “Scream” and “Blade,” among other famous fright films).
This success has come at a price beyond money. Egan asserts that he rarely sleeps, maybe four hours a night during peak season, owning a “ridiculously high level of natural adrenaline.” His marriage from last year ended not with divorce, but …
“Annulment,” he says of the marriage to Dr. Nicole-Ann Cavenagh. The couple’s reception was celebrated at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health event center, and in the spirit of Fright Dome, zombies scrambled into the party for a flash mob to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
But once more, Egan is wed to his horror empire. He has expanded, finally, internationally, and opened Fright Dome in Hong Kong this month, a $4 million fortress that is not quite as large as the Circus Circus project but mirrors many of the same elements. Thus, Egan’s top-level staff has been split between Las Vegas and Hong Kong, adding more pressure to his already manic schedule.
“But the thing is, yes, we delegate a ton of work around here, but I am still the guy,” he says. “I am still working 20-, 22-hour days. We still have the personal touch. I’m still the guy who picks up Sid at the airport, and everyone here can get a hold of me, somehow.”
Egan never asks any of his actors to perform a role or act they are not sold on “110 percent, and if they don’t like walking around as a zombie with guts trailing behind them, I won’t ask them to do it.”
The next frontier for Fright Dome is Georges Island in Boston Harbor. That project was targeted for this year, but Egan was not quite ready for a full-force unveiling.
“We have a contract signed with the local government because we are going to be on government-owned land,” Egan says, referring to the land mass owned and operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. “I had to meet with the commissioners, police chiefs, everyone, because at first everyone is very scared about putting people on an island with Fright Dome.”
Egan was able to speak directly to those concerns but lost valuable preparation and development time during those meetings.
“I told them, ‘We are not going to be hurting people,’ and we finally reached terms, but everything was getting so last-minute, I just said, ‘Let’s just tease it this year for 2015 and postpone it for one year.”
Egan is confident that he will find a friendly partnership in Boston, same as he managed more than a decade ago in Las Vegas.
“Once I was able to give them a formal presentation, myself, everyone was great,” he says, folding up his bag of dinner. “I can answer any question about Fright Dome myself. It’s my baby.”
The hallmark of the 3,767-room Circus Circus Hotel, Casino and Theme Park in Las Vegas lies under the Big Top, where circus acts perform on the Midway Stage as part of the world's largest permanent circus.
The Adventuredome, America’s largest indoor theme park, offers five acres of climate-controlled fun for all ages.
Guests of Circus Circus may dine in a variety of restaurants including THE Steak House, rated the best steakhouse by Zagat and recognized a record 20 times in Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “Best of Las Vegas” awards, and Rock & Rita’s, where flair bartenders and live music enliven the scene.
Circus Circus also offers a casino, wedding chapel, meeting and convention space and a 30-acre RV park.