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Scary Stories: ScareFest ScreamPark

Blog-BugJohn Bommarito was lured into the haunt industry six years ago by a family friend, and has been thrilling visitors to Metro Detroit’s ScareFest ScreamPark ever since. SlashMachine’s Ted Ellis sat down with John to talk bodily functions, canned goods, pregnant women, and other scary stories.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Thanks for joining us. I’m with John Bommarito from Scarefest Scream Park. John, where is the park?

 

JOHN:
It’s 20 miles north of Detroit in Lenox Township

 

SLASHMACHINE:
And what is your role there?

 

JOHN:
I manage the actors and I direct the scenes.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
So, do you help conceive the scenes, or are you brought in after that to help get it set up?

 

JOHN:
I work alongside the owner of the property. We work together to create the layouts. Not just the props, but the overall feel of each scene. Once it’s ready for actors, we get them in place. Make sure they know what to do. That’s more my area, managing that, and setting people to manage while I’m away because we have multiple attractions at the park.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
So, at your haunt, how many attractions are there?

 

JOHN:
We have four attractions. We have a haunted house, a hayride, a maze, and a forest walk.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
How big is land that you guys operate on?

 

JOHN:
We have 50 acres.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
How did you first get into haunts?

 

JOHN:
I knew a guy, who knew a guy basically. The guy happened to be my mom’s boss, and her brother owns the park. They had been trying for years to get me out there, but I was dragging my feet because I was a very shy and socially awkward teenager. Finally, I caved and tried it for a year. I’ve been doing it ever since. That was 6 years ago.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Did you frequent haunts when you were younger? Were you into haunts?

 

JOHN:
I had visited haunts before. I hadn’t really visited them regularly, but I’ve always loved Halloween. I was really into hiding and scaring people as either pranks or whatever, so it was a natural fit for me.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Do have any particularly funny or heartbreaking or interesting story that you would like to share?

SixYears

JOHN:
It’s too broad of a question. After doing this for six years, there’s so much that you see that you didn’t want to see or that you did want to see. There’s so much there. Both positive and negative moments. Some of the more iconic moments since you’re there so much, we’re opened 16 days a season. We have 1000s that come through the park each night. We have a beer tent. It’s ran by a charity. You get a lot of intoxicated people coming through the park. We have a security team to make sure everyone is safe. There have been times where I’ve been groped while in costume. You have to have a tough skin. There was a time where I saw a woman go into labor right there on the hayride. Her water broke right there.

 

Labor

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Did you charge her for the additional passenger?

 

JOHN:
It’s a gray area since the ride was half over at that point.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Haha!

 

JOHN:
There’s been negative experiences too. Like any other job. In this one in particular, you’re dealing with the public. You’re dealing with the drunk public. In some cases, you’re dealing with the angry public because sometimes when people get afraid, they get angry. They go into an altered state of mind even if they’re sober. It could be something an actor said, or a situation where the line was too long. It becomes fight or flight syndrome, and they choose to fight. We might have negative situations, but the key is to learn from them.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Have you ever anyone that couldn’t take it, and they just run out/pass out/etc?

 

JOHN:
Oh yeah! All the time. It’s a badge of honor if you can make someone pee themselves, for an actor. I don’t know if it’s like that for all haunts, but it takes a very peculiar to do the things we do in the environment that we do them in, so I assume a lot of us are the same. What I’ve seen at the conferences that seems to be the case. Passing out? We’ve had that happen. We’ve actually had people go into seizures from the strobe lights. Signs are posted everywhere, but sometimes people just don’t realize. We had a kids this past year just pass out from the lights. We handled it properly. The mother of the group was actually a nurse. Security came over and assisted also. That’s what it’s all about. Being prepared for the worst case possible.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
You said people lose control of their bodily functions. Do you mean that they literally lose control? I’ve heard the saying “so scared, I peed my pants”, but you’re saying it does indeed truly happen?

 

JOHN:
It does occur. They don’t just wet themselves. It’s all bodily functions.

 

JustWet

SLASHMACHINE:
So, you’re in charge of the actors. You hire them. Do you make them audition? How does that work?

 

JOHN:
Yes, I make everyone audition.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Once they’re hired, are they there for the season? Do you lose people during the season?

 

JOHN:
It depends on a lot of different factors. Sometimes you have a group of a certain age and then they graduate HS and go to college, so there’s a drop off. Also, if there was a lot of drama or if it was just a bad season with a lot of rained out days. All that can contribute to drop off. We have over 100 actors at our haunt. We have 70 to 80 percent return each season. It makes it very easy to bring on the new people when you have that many returning. It’s going to lower quality of the entertainment when you have to bring new people up.

 

JOHN:
Usually around 1st of August. We use twitter, tumbler, craigslist, facebook to recruit. Craigslist is great. People looking for a new opportunity, or quick buck use craigslist a lot. It’s a great resource for us.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Do you guys run the same show throughout the season, or do you switch it up during the season?

 

JOHN:
The actors will change it up as they see fit. The actors need to remember that each time they perform, it’s the first time that person has seen that scene that night. I script most of the things, but sometimes there are times where I let them do their own lines, and that’s completely fine. This way they don’t get too bored with material. I don’t have issues with that as long as they don’t break character and keep it scary.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
What kind of feedback do you typically get from your attendees? Lines too long? Not scary enough? How do you handle that?

 

JOHN:
I’m in close contact with the ticket booth. If they are getting consistent complaints, they’ll tell me and I will deal with it as quick as possible. Like if an actor maybe didn’t get full training on their scene and maybe they’re using foul language or using inappropriate gestures, those type of complaints quickly trickle down and get handled. The most common complaint we get is “that’s just wasn’t scary”. That’s tough to deal with because it’s subjective. If I get a complaint saying “an actor was in the way”, that’s something that I can handle and fix. Not being is scary is much harder to deal with. If you tell me the hayride wasn’t scary, I will tell you that you’re sitting on a tractor with 30 other people, the actors don’t get close to you. It’s just not designed to be that scary. Sure, we want it to be, and we are adding props and jump scares, and new ideas all the time to try to increase the scariness of it. To those people, I would recommend trying the haunted house. If that’s not scary, then perhaps you’re desensitized and I can’t help you. Try Six Flags.

 

 

SLASHMACHINE:
You told me in St. Louis about breaking character. How do you deal with that? Do people get physical a lot, forcing people to break character? How often do they get out of line that you have to throw someone out of the park?

 

JOHN:
Maybe every other weekend. Most of the time, the actors can roll with the situation. Move them through the scene. Then, when they’re through, radio security. Security will deal with it. If they’re challenging you, try to manage it, but if they’re violent then of course you can break character. 99% of the time, security will be the ones to deal with them. The rate of throwing people is not very high. We want to find out what happened? What caused their actions? Then we go from there. We have a great head of security. Usually it can be dealt with though.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Do you guys have any plans to expand?

 

JOHN:
Yes, they owner wants to expand. It’s hard to put a timeline to it though. You have to consider how much to invest to update the haunts each season. You have to try to make budgets. You have to try to figure out how many rain days you’re going to have. Etc. I actually intend to open my own haunt there.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Oh yes, I remember you told me you were wanting to do that.

 

JOHN:
Yes, I do. You have to have land to conduct your haunt. We have had other haunts come on our land and operate independent of us, but using our land. Then, after the season, they have to pack everything up. The owner wants to increase attractions because “the bigger the better” philosophy. Everything is in the works still, but I’m planning on opening in the 2015 season. It’s been great. Learning how to do a business plan. Doing a budget. Etc. It’s all been a great experience learning all this. It almost feels like I’m going in reverse because I’ve been in the industry so long, but I’m just now learning a lot of what it takes to run your own haunt.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
What about your market?

 

JOHN:
We are the largest attraction in the area. I believe that’s because of our multiple attractions. We have a good name. We provide a good show. It’s intended to last from the moment you get in. That’s the goal. When they get in, they’re experiencing something they can’t get anywhere else.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
So do you mean you start entertaining them while they’re standing in the line to get it?

 

JOHN:
Yes! The argument is made “well, then you’re just giving them a free show”, but it’s worth it! It’s my experience that word of mouth is your majority of marketing. I’ve never talked to haunter that has said differently. So, positive feedback will yield more business. It’s worth it.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Speaking of marketing, how do you guys market? Facebook? Or are you established enough to where you don’t really have to market?

 

JOHN:
You’re never too big to market. You should always be marketing your haunt. We’ve done TV ads before. We’ve done radio. But haven’t gone full in on those. There’s statistics now that show that radio is not very effective for haunts unless you’re willing to spend a ton of money. Especially in our area and we have a haunt near us that invests a ton of money into radio. If we tried to crack into that, we’d be washed out by them. What we do primarily is coupons. At any venue that will allow to leave a coupon booklet. It’s a very common practice in our area.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
How is technology helping you guys?

 

JOHN:
We’re just now getting into it. It’s been slow taking steps to that level. I’ve just began taking over the social media for us. You can gain a lot from social media. We will do promo codes. We all have tasks. Even the owner. We update about 30% of the haunts each year.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Do you guys do advanced tickets? Online?

 

JOHN:
We do online ticket sales which is like advanced sale tickets. You can buy the ticket online, but you still have to go through the ticket line when you get there to have the ticket validated.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
So when you’re busy, do the lines get out of control?

 

JOHN:
Sometimes it gets bad. We’ve had lines that do all the way through our large parking lot. We have 3 ticket windows. Usually, they can push people through quickly. Waiting in line is a necessary evil of the haunt industry. You can only push so many through at a time. People can only walk so fast. We see that when everyone comes in, first they go to the hayride line. That’s great, we can use all four of our tractors. The problem is that then they all go over to the haunted castle, but you can’t get people through as fast as you can on the hayride. So it becomes a matter of just doing the best you can. Sometimes you have to change the speed of the haunted castle. So instead of 45seconds per scene per group, you cut it to 35seconds per scene. Typically that won’t impact the attendee negatively. We use the early season to work out all the kinks. We offer discounts for these tickets because we are still working on the haunt.

 

SLASHMACHINE:

Do you offer any sort of VIP or “skip the line” tickets? What does that entail?

 

JOHN:
We have a speedpass. That puts you in the “special line”. It’s for people with speedpasses. Then also, we have the VIP bracelet which allows you to use the speedpass line with unlimited access to all the haunts for the night. I’ve talked to other haunt owners who say people may complain about being skipped by speedpass holders. That’s true, but they also have the option to upgrade. If they have the money, then they’re happy to upgrade. It’s special.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
What do you think about the haunt industry as a whole?

 

JOHN:
I don’t want haunts to become something that’s old. Like outdone and everywhere like Starbucks. I want it to be special like a festival. Like a carnival. It only comes around once in a while, and when you go see it, and it’s great. That being said, I do want to see it grow. I want to see the big haunts do well. Not to multiply, but to get better.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Have you guys every though about an alliance with other haunts to benefit the area? I noticed at Transworld haunters seem to be guarded and keep their cards close to their chest. Do you find the same about them wanting to stay segregated?

 

JOHN:
Pretty much, they want to stay segregated. I like to think I would try to build a bridge with at least one other haunt. It just makes more sense to me to make both haunts more successful, but these habits aren’t something you fall into, they’re learned. I’m new to this, so my idealism isn’t to say that their jadedness is unjustified. That being said, there are forums and organizations that try to do this. We have “hauntfinder” in our area. It’s owned by a haunt owner. So, that’s where we are kind of brought together, but not really. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s in the cards anytime soon.

 

SLASHMACHINE:
Do you guys work do any work with charities?

 

JOHN:
We do. We have them on the property. We collect canned goods instead of charging money for parking. Then we donate them to a local food bank. Several haunts do this. There are no big business haunts, they’re all a small business and usually family owned so they frequently work with charities. They will let a charity come onsite and set up a booth.

 

Parking

SLASHMACHINE:
Is there any particular accomplishments you have at your haunt that you would like to talk about?

 

JOHN:
The thing I’m most proud of that I started is the institution of managers. Before we had managers that got there because of seniority. There wasn’t enough accountability or professionalism under this system. So, when I moved up, I moved to a manger based system. It has worked well, and we are still learning.

 

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