Q&A with “Hauntrepreneur” Leonard Pickel

As someone who has personally been involved in the haunted house industry as an actor for years, it was always a world I felt like I learned more and more about the more and more I got involved in it! There is so much more involved than decorating rooms and hiring actors to give visitors a fun and scary experience!

This Q&A segment comes from a haunt industry veteran who is known for the ins and outs of the business side of things: Designing a haunt, building a haunt, and the best ways to run it as a business. Check out what Leonard Pickel of the company Hauntrepreneurs has to tell us:

Jackie Sonnenberg: You are called “The Godfather” of the haunted house industry with your influence! Who first gave you that nickname and how has it shaped your reputation?

Leonard Pickel: That was a long time ago. I think the first person to call me the Godfather of the Haunt Industry was Tim Turner of The Ghoulish
 Gallery. He was new to the industry at the time and called me one day
 because everyone he talked to said Leonard can answer that, or you
 should ask Leonard that. Then we met in person and after a while he
 said, “You are like the Godfather of the Haunt Industry.” He must have
 posted on the internet somewhere because I had a bunch of Pickel
 Haters making fun of me about it. I never used the nick name until so
 many detractors made it stick. It wasn’t until many years later that I
 became a Godparent to a friend’s daughter and discovered that the role
 was to influence the moral upbringing of the child. I think, in regard
 to the Haunt industry, that fits me pretty good.

JS: How do you come up with designs for haunts to make the flow work
 well but still make sure they are all unique from one another?

LP: To me a haunt is a movie that you walk from scene to scene. Everything
 starts with a storyline. Steven King said, “A house cannot be haunted without a history.” So, what is the history that caused this place to
 be haunted? What is the evil that infests this place, and what minions
 has it created? Choosing the kind of structure the evil dwells in
 leads to the kind of rooms and spaces the patron will experience, and
 what kind of scares they will encounter. I even develop into the
 storyline why people are going into this place if we know it’s evil.
 There are so many variables with this approach that I have never
 created two identical attractions in the last 30 years.

Final facade drawing, courtesy of Leonard Pickel

JS: Describe the very first room you ever designed.

LP: The very first room design I created was supposed to be kind of a
 joke. The haunt was in my college dormitory in 1976 and the exit of
 the haunt had two rows of large columns. We took closet doors and
 created a Hall of Doors like was in the old Three Stooges movies.
 Actors behind the doors were supposed to randomly come out of doors
 and sneak back and forth across the hallway in front of the patrons
 while they walked (what I thought would be) slowly down the hall.
 Instead, people would gather at one end of the hallway and suddenly
sprint past all of the doors. It ended up being one of the scarier
things in the haunt, and I still use a version of that room design to
this day!

JS: Haunts are mainly operating during Halloween season of course, but
 more and more are becoming year-round places. Which are your

LP: Year-round haunts are great, and God bless them for trying, because it
 is a hard way to make a living, but typically they are understaffed
 and over “animatronicsed.” It is the live interaction with actors that
 is what is scary about a haunt. So, it is the October seasonal haunts
 that are the most fun. A year-round haunt runs on a trickle of
 patrons, and cannot afford to have multiple actors waiting for people
 to come in. A successful October seasonal haunt runs in excess of 500
 people per hour, and typically has lots of actors and action. I have
 designed Year-Round haunts that use a small staff count while
 maximizing actor interaction with the patrons, but it has to be
 designed with that in mind from the beginning, or it won’t be
 effective. Some of my favorite October haunts are 13th Gate, Baton Rouge, Erebus in Pontiac, MI, Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, NY, Bates Motel in

JS: What is the number one mistake haunt owners/builders make?

LP: The biggest mistake I see haunt designers making is that they get
 carried away with the scenic or “Form” of the haunt and forget about
 the scare. In architectural design, “Form ever follows function.” The
 “Function” of a haunt is to scare people and good design starts from
 the scare and works outward. In so many haunts, even elite haunts
 that I go to, you walk into a room with amazing sets and great
 costumes and makeup and the actor is standing there not knowing what
 to do. You must design the action of the characters into the space.
 Give them things to hide behind, stuff to pop out of, ways to
 disappear and reappear in another location. Don’t just tell them,
 “When people come in the room SCARE THEM,” and expect the room to be

Photo courtesy of Leonard Pickel

JS: Does location play a large role in attractions? How does it make a
 difference in attendance?

LP: Everything in haunting is a tradeoff. A great location in a city will
 cost a lot in rent but be cheaper to advertise. A haunt in the country
 may be cheap on rent, but but you will have to spend more on advertising to get the people there. Haunters are always looking for that wide open warehouse building that looks like an old stone asylum on the outside, with a haunted reputation, that the kids are breaking into to scare each other anyway, but those are hard to find. (If you do find one, CALL ME!) So, most people have to make due with what they can find, and haunters will haunt anything.
 A carwash, the space under a bridge, whatever they can find cheap, we
 can put a haunt in. The two hardest things to come up with when
 opening a haunted house are location and funding, and as hard as
 funding is, location is even harder.

Photo courtesy Leonard Pickel

JS: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start their own attraction?

LP: A haunt is a business, and like any other business what you don’t know
 can kill you. Hire a consultant who has done it before. Their insight
 will save you many times what they charge you for the knowledge. Start
 with a business plan and if the bottom of that plan doesn’t say
 “obscene profits,” then rework the plan until it does. The best advice
 I can offer is don’t pull the trigger until you are ready. Waiting a
 couple of years to make sure your marketing is right, your budget is
 sufficient, your staffing ready, is crucial to success. Being under
 funded is THE biggest mistake you can make opening any business. Make sure you have enough capital to make it to year two, or don’t start
year one!