Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
As Jason Egan roamed the dark, claustrophobic halls of one of his Fright Dome haunted houses the day before the attraction opened at Circus Circus earlier this month, not a sinister hair was out of place — mutilated cadavers glistened, performers glared from dark corners, and blood spattered the walls just so.
Still, the self-described hauntrepreneur joked that his crew and he would be on the set until 6:59 p.m. — one minute before the attraction opens for the season. Far from a last-minute rush, Fright Dome, like many other haunted attractions, has been a year in the making.
While the haunts and festivals of Halloween seem to emerge spontaneously on lots and fairgrounds across the Las Vegas Valley come October, producing a professional haunted house is a year-round endeavor that comes with all the demands of running a full-time business.
“Haunted houses are very expensive to operate. They’re very labor intensive. (Fright Dome) costs us a fortune each night, so every night’s really got to be a winner,” Egan says. “You have this teeny, tiny little window of time, around 20 days, to make up what’s essentially all the same costs of a year-round business.”
The high operating costs and narrow profit margins are part of the tough realities of the haunt industry, which have only been exacerbated in recent years by the economic downturn. Whereas about a dozen commercial haunts operated across the valley 20 years ago, fewer than half that number can be found today, with most ventures struggling to stay open for a year or two while a handful of stalwarts remain.
The experience is typified by Eli Roth’s Goretorium on the Strip, a year-round haunted attraction that closed Oct. 2 after one year in business, having failed to make a profit for nearly all of its operating existence. Though operators sought to sustain Goretorium year-round with a DJ lounge and bar, the haunt failed to draw the steady, high-volume crowds necessary to offset its $10 million price tag.
“To sustain an attraction that’s so holiday-oriented, it’s a very difficult task to do for a month, let alone one year,” says Duke Mollner, who has owned and operated Las Vegas’ longest-running haunted house company, Freakling Brothers, for the past 22 years. “If you don’t love this business, if you’re only in it to make money, it’s not for you.”
With tickets ranging from $12 to $30, Freakling Brothers’ Trilogy of Terror, on a lot at Smoke Ranch Road and Rainbow Boulevard, needs to draw between 6,000 to 10,000 people during its 28-day run for Mollner and his son-turned-business partner J.T. to make back their base costs. Expenses start at the $75,000 to $120,000 to operate the shows, including staff, actors, costumes, design, repairs, security, utilities and insurance. Remodeling or rebuilding a show can run as much as $150,000.
Mollner and J.T. will spend the months after Halloween repairing, deconstructing and storing Freakling Brothers’ six trailer sets. Though Mollner admits that J.T. and he are already kicking around ideas for next year, their planning will begin in earnest in March, when they go to TransWorld’s Halloween & Attractions Show, a major haunted attraction industry trade show in St. Louis showcasing the latest haunt trends and technology.
“The challenge right now is to present something different every year for the public,” says Mollner. The attraction drew national attention when it opened the first 18-and-over haunted house, “The Gates of Hell,” in 2011. “It gets expensive to do that, but it’s what gets you the crowds you need.”
The semi-permanent nature of haunted houses falls into a no-man’s land within county regulations that can often be a logistical nightmare for operators who must navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of getting separate approval from the county and Fire Department on everything from zoning to fireproofing to capacity limits to emergency warning systems.
The process can takes months and cost tens of thousands of dollars and must be completed before operators can move on to obtain licensing, insurance, property rental and other base expenses necessary to build an attraction.
“Before you even get into anything, it’s good to have $100,000 to just throw out the window,” says first-time operator Frank DiMaggio, producer of the new Sin City Scare Fair, an offshoot of his Gene Woods Racing Experience Go-Kart business.
Realizing the Scare Fair would take more expertise than the haunted house his family and he produce at their Summerlin home, DiMaggio enlisted the help of veteran horror production company Haunted Enterprises (the group behind “Bloody English” at the Hard Rock Hotel) to execute his vision. He also hired the cast from Goretorium after they lost their jobs this month.
Even for seasonal attractions, investing the time and money necessary doesn’t guarantee success. Weather, timing and external circumstances can make or break the fate of a haunted house from year to year.
Mollner attributes Freakling Brothers’ success to his family’s zeal for the craft of haunting — and to tempered expectations.
“If there is a profit, it’s nice. If there’s a good profit, it’s wonderful. But everything has to fall into place to make a very good profit,” Mollner says.
“You’ve got to have a creative passion for haunting, for building and scaring people. (Only) then you can withstand all the flames and arrows of the financial fate that will be shot at you.”
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.