Live snakes, interactive scaring and resident ghosts on the agenda at haunted houses
Inside The 13th Gate, you don’t just see scary things, you hear them, and you smell them.
Take the insane clown screaming inside the putrid-smelling sewer.
“The circus burned down one night and the clowns had nowhere to go, so they started hanging out in the sewer, eating rats, and now they’re all half crazy,” Dwayne Sanburn said.
It’s one of many stories Sanburn’s created inside his 40,000-square-foot haunted house. Last year, for the Gate’s 10th anniversary, he added a 40,000-square-foot cemetery across the street.
“We’re not a normal haunted house,” he said. “We’re way out of the norm for a number of reasons. One of them is our sheer size. Between the two, it’s over a mile of walking.”
But it’s no walk in the park.
“In this cave, we’ve got everything from waterfalls and pools, to a snake pit with 400 diamondback water snakes and a roach area,” Sanburn explained.
A fire pit glows, cave paintings from the Neanderthal era line the walls, and in the ice cave, a giant frozen woolly mammoth towers over passers-by.
The relaxing sound of a waterfall is broken by the creak of a moving bridge. A creek runs through the cave, constructed by the crew from 35 tons of concrete.
But it’s not all ghosts and gore.
There’s the quite realistic replica of the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
“We built it,” Sanburn said. “It’s all foam, wood and plaster.”
A big clam under the water blows bubbles, while a bubble machine spews them on visitors. And there, an animatronic shark.
“We’ve got some fantasy sets, some real-world horror in the beginning, just really bloody, we’ve got a little bit of everything,” Sanburn said.
Including an asylum, and another story.
“There are about 15 rooms,” Sanburn said as he cracked yet another creaking door. “This is one of the patient rooms. I try to develop characters and storylines for each; we give them boundaries but the actors are free to explore their characters. This is Norbit Thibodeaux’s room. The asylum closed down years ago. Norbit had stepped on a land mine in the Vietnam War and both his legs were blown off, and his stumps are really infected and really nasty, and he was homeless, he had nowhere to go so he came back to the asylum, and he lives in this old fallen-in building, and he’s a great artist so at night he draws pictures of things he sees and he sticks them on his wall. And the place is haunted.
“Going through, most people wouldn’t get that but it gives me ideas for props, and gives him (the actor) more for the scene.”
A warning before entering the cellar: it’s based loosely off the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“There’s nine actors in here, a very intensive area, very dark. The lights tend to flicker on and go completely black at times,” Sanborn said. Great.
“Everybody’s tortured, chained up,” he said. “This girl is in there (a wooden cage with legs) with 12 live rats who are gnawing her leg off, so people love her.”
The tour moved on.
“This is the sewer and it’s dark in here. Oh, the smells, they’re all over. The smells, there’s a company called Sinister Scents, the little fans put them out and they’re horrible, disgusting. This year we’ve got body spray, so I’ve been going around spraying the actors with stink and they just love me because of that.”
Smelling quite decayed are the undead across the street at Necropolis 13.
“This is an outdoor New Orleans style cemetery. It takes up the whole block,” Sanburn said. “If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’ll really like this because it’s nothing but zombies and the undead. The show opens with a voodoo fire show and it tells the story of why the dead have to come to life in the cemetery.
“If you’re going to Necropolis, that’s a must-see. And it’s 8 o’clock every Friday and Saturday night. The Inferno Fire troupe is great.”
Sanburn, who’s also the house manager and artistic director, praised his paid actors, wardrobe and makeup artists, some of whom have been with him for more than 10 years.
“We have 182 in the cast and crew, probably of that 150 or so are actors, and 30 or so behind the scenes,” he said.
“We work year-round on this haunted house. It never ends.
“As soon as the haunted house closes, we’ll tear out a section and start over. It’s always a race for time, because we always do too much. Not only do I try to make it different, I try to push us in new directions, do things that we’ve never done before. It’s always a challenge but I think that’s another reason why we are different than most haunted houses because I’m not satisfied with being where we’re at, I always want to grow and do more. That’s the fun of it.”
The House of Shock
For 20 years, The House of Shock has been doing just that, shocking people in the New Orleans area with its in-your-face style of haunted house antics.
It all started out with a bunch of friends tired of the same old Halloween.
“We wanted to do it our way, our style, our influence,” said Ross Karpelman, one of the founders. His partners in the plan? Philip Anselmo of the band Pantera, Steve Joseph and Jay Gracianette.
“So we made this extreme haunted house in the neighborhood and nobody wanted to see it die, so we jumped through a bunch of hurdles, and we’ve kept it alive for 20 years,” he said, adding that close to 400 volunteers work on the attraction throughout the year.
The first five years the house was in five different locations, but has been at its present address for seven years.
“It’s an old warehouse that we rent in Jefferson Parish, it’s right under the Huey P. Long Bridge, Karpelman said. “We’ve revitalized practically the entire haunted house. For 20 years, we’ve wanted to go big, so we’ve put in about three or four new areas, and brushed up all the old areas, and put some new things in to make them a little different.
“We’ve completely upped our ante on the outside for the Halloween Festival.”
In addition to the indoor haunted house, which takes about half an hour to walk through, the outdoors offers a free festival complete with stage shows and bands for those waiting to get in, or for those to frightened to enter.
“We’ve got bigger, better bands. We’ve got different acts, Cinge, a group that blows fire and eats fire; the Atone Pain Tribe, they pierce their skin on stage, and then hang stuff from their skin, hang themselves from their skin. It’s very interesting to watch, it’s like watching another culture,” Karpelman said. “We’ve got the Rev. B Dangerous, who’s been with us for about 12 years. He used to be the emcee for Ozzfest. He sticks a screwdriver up his nose, he sticks firecrackers down his pants, anything stupid he’s doing it.”
The seven-minute stage show features stunts, actors, lights, and a ton of pyrotechnics, according to Karpelman.
“We do more pyrotechnics in five minutes than KISS does in an entire stage show. It’s just an overload of pyro. It’s just incredible, really, to see,” he said.
Visitors taking in the whole experience can spend hours at The House of Shock. Rides are available on the Arachno-ride, a mechanical spider similar to a mechanical bull. The “Shot in the Dark” experience allows one to stand outside and watch on a video screen as friends go through the house, and, pressing a button from outside, can scare the ones inside and see and hear how they react.
“We’re an interactive haunted house, which means that at any time you can become part of the scene, where our actors interact with you,” Karpelman said. “We’re so different and we’re not afraid to go places where other people may not want to go. A lot of people don’t want that intense experience. They’re just too scared to go through. We always have that question, you know, if we would have went more mainstream, would we be more popular, and I don’t think that we would be. I think we would be just another run-of-the-mill haunted house and at least we can hang our hat on knowing that we’re the most extreme haunted house in the world and live by that.”
The house continues to gain national attention in magazines, online and on television.
“What’s cool this year is that we have some producers in from Hollywood that are filming a feature film documentary that’s based on us. They’re covering it all, from the history on to what’s happened now and into the future. They’re getting all angles from everyone,” Karpelman said.
“It’s all coming together. It’s only taken 20 years to get there.”
Google “perfect location for haunted house” and what should come up is “old funeral home next to cemetery.”
At least that’s what Jeff Borne thought when he bought the old P.J. McMahon & Sons Funeral Home on Canal Street in New Orleans in 2007.
“We like to call it a haunted house in a real haunted house because of the nature of the building,” Borne said. “It was built in 1872 as a personal home next to a graveyard. The graveyard was there before the home was built. In the ’20s the home was sold to P.J. McMahon & Sons and they turned it into a funeral home, and it ran as a funeral home up until around 2003 or ’4.”
Borne said the three-and-a-half story Victorian mansion has been totally renovated, a project that took three years.
“It was in bad shape. There were vagrants living in there, setting fires, using drugs. It was a bad thing for the neighborhood and the city. So I got it, had a vision, saw the potential,” he said.
Open for six years as The Mortuary, this is the latest of several haunted attractions Borne has been involved with in the last 30 years. Owner of an audio visual company, Borne worked on the Jazzland theme park in 2000, where he introduced the Psycho Swamp haunted attraction. He’s also run the Scream Factory in Covington.
“We experiment in fear basically,” Borne said. “There are a lot of haunted houses out there that just create these really cool, fake sets, and they have a lot of ‘boo’ actors that just pop out and give you a quick scare and then disappear but there’s no real substance to it. In this attraction, it’s very much like live theater or theater in the round where you’re the center of attention and you have all this activity going on around you as you journey through the experience, and it’s very theatrical, there are professional actors and special effects makeup artists.”
A staff of 120, with about 65 actors working a night, keeps the fright at fever pitch.
“It’s a whole different animal than people are used to and besides that, it’s in a real environment. We like to make the sets as real as possible so you feel like you’re in this movie experience,” he said. “It’s a roller coaster that we take you on in a planned fashion throughout the experience. You have a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and that makes the highs higher. It’s very well thought out.”
The experience Borne talked about begins when one first gets to The Mortuary, he said.
“When you pull up to this building, and you see this, and you look next door, and as far as you can see are graves, that go on forever, you think, ‘wow, this is the real deal.’”
The tour, which takes about 30 minutes, relates another chapter of the story every year, with about two-thirds of the attraction changing each Halloween season.
“This year, it’s called Cirque du Fear, in the darkest of the night, something wicked rises from the shadows, and that’s the Cirque du Fear in New Orleans,” Borne said. “The ringmaster there dies mysteriously and so they brought his body to the mortuary for funeral services, of course, and all of these freak show clowns and talent are there to pay their last respects, but they don’t know the history of the mortuary and basically what’s happening is there’s Lord Ravenkroft, who’s the mortician who owns the mortuary, and has other plans for these creatures from the Cirque du Fear.”
Pay close attention as some of the ghosts you see or hear might not be part of the show.
“We’ve had a lot of the paranormal TV shows come out,” he said. “What we’ve determined through various organizations that have investigated the building is that there are nine resident ghosts that haunt the building. It’s kind of cool. It adds a lot to the atmosphere.”