Scary Stories : Sinister Shadows
While other mainstream amusement parks try to entertain people by pushing the limits of what the human body can experience, Sinister Shadows will take rides to the next level by building an attraction that will take the riders into a different world.
SlashMachine : Hi Chris ! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. You have a very interesting project you’ve been working on…Can you start by telling me a little about yourself and and how you got started on this journey ?
Chris: Well, I’ve loved haunted houses and haunted attractions ever since I was a kid. My father used to take me to some of the local seasonal things that people would build themselves. Back before it was popular. I’m 45 now, so that’s going back you know almost 35 years or so. My family loved vacationing at Disney and for whatever reason the dark rides; Mr. Toad’s wild ride speci
fically was what addicted my brother and I into Disney and dark rides and things like that. He loved it so much he ended up moving away right out of school. Went down to Disney and started operation trains down there and worked his way up to, he was in charge of Human Resources at one point down there for Disney so. He got it in his blood. I chose to stay up here in Pennsylvania and on and off the past couple decades just been working on building what I want, my own little… now when I say little it’s probably a bad way of describing it. But I’m talking about a 50,000 square foot Halloween attraction here in Pennsylvania.
SlashMachine : I know from our email, or the emails we’ve been shooting back and forth it sounds like this thing that you’re envisioning is pretty incredible . What inspired you to start creating a ride of this size and scope ?
Chris: Well I’ve been blessed with having people in my life that are extraordinarily talented. I have a friend Keith. He owns a company called Haunt Spot and he manufactures control assembly animatronics , robots and displays, custom makes things like that for amusement parks all over the world. I have another guy named Dave Perkison he makes control systems for amusement parks. And I’m friends with the guy that started showbiz pizza place and Chuck-E-Cheese. So I’ve had an enormous amount of talented people around me that would build stuff for fun for our Halloween displays that would blow Disney world’s out of the water. And we did it for a fraction of the cost. And I’m not trying to sound… because it’s not me. I don’t want to make it sound like I am this talented sculptor and electrical engineer, but I’ve been lucky enough to have some friends that all love doing this stuff. So, we figured that with the right resources and time we could build something unlike anything anyone has seen. And the closest thing I would say would be something comparable to a Disney’s Haunted Mansion, or the Pirates of the Caribbean. Probably a little bit longer. Probably a little bit more thrilling. Not quite terrifying because I’m still sensitive to what it’s like to see kids that are scared to get on rides like the Haunted Mansion because of the way that’s it’s built up. So, we just decided to do something different. I don’t want to say better than Disney, but I dare say it would compete with it quite a bit. That’s what we’ve been working on, but doing it you know; when Disney built a ride you’ve got $30+ million dumped into it. This is all being done on a volunteer basis so; all of us have other jobs and careers. So, you can’t just do it in a year. It takes a while.
SlashMachine : I think a big part of having any successful creative venture is being able to visualize the end. Now when you say that you don’t create these things, but being a connector is one of the most important parts of it I feel. You’re putting people in the positions and right places to be able to see their talents used in the most effective and creative way possible. There’s definitely an artistry behind that as well.
Chris: What I like about it taking so long… well not that I like taking so long, but I feel like with you documentary, it evolved over time and if you had the time and resources to slam out your documentary the first day that you thought about it, it probably wouldn’t be as good as it’s going to be taking all of this time to evolve. You realize that something you may have thought about at one point as exciting, now you look at it and you look at it and thing, “Ah, it doesn’t do it for me now.” So the project has changed over the past ten years, for the better. It’s also gotten grander which is why it continues having trouble getting off the runway all the time. But in the end you haven’t really done what we could to speed it up. There were people that were interested in investing and playing a financial role in it. But the more you get people with their fingers in the wallet the more they want a say in things. So it’s also important for us to keep creative control of the whole project so it’s exactly as we want it.
SlashMachine : So tell me, 50,000 square feet, that’s got to take quite a while to get through. How lengthy of an experience would this be?
Chris: What we figured is it would be close to a twenty minute ride. Now some of the parts wouldn’t be, and it’s challenging to go through over the phone, but we’ve story- boarding the whole ride out. So the first part of the ride, the queue itself, is going to be a recreation of a state fair. So, you’re going to be waiting in line to get on a ride at a state fair, and it’s going to look like a fair ride. Like one of these hollowed out by a tractor trailer, 30 second, piece of garbage rides. So you’re going to have Funnel cake stands and pizza stands and all that kind of stuff really there. So while you’re waiting in line you can buy pizza and funnel cake and it’s going to be it’s own big scene. And then when you get on the ride it’s going to have a malfunction and then the story goes that you’re going to end up jumping off the track and driving this car, being a rambunctious young person, you’re going to end up driving this car out into the local fields nearby just to fool around. Then trouble ensues. The first thing, the queue is going to be huge. The next two scenes, which is the farm field and then we’re going to go into a forest are also going to be bigger. Then as you progress the scenery is going to change down on you quite a bit to bring you into the deeper story of being in a haunted house. It’s kind of the opposite of the Haunted Mansion where you start in a house and then eventually you’re outside. This is kind of going to be the opposite where you have these big scenes that eventually bring you down inside a house.
SlashMachine : You mentioned the story boarding aspect of the project. Do you get together and these are your friends, you know you mentioned having a group that has different talents. Is this something that you guys get together regularly and discuss? Like, “this is where we’re at and this is how I foresee this going.” Know what I mean? How do your creative process work ?
Chris: It’s interesting and honestly in some ways it’s a little bittersweet because some of the people that were involved in the very beginning haven’t been involved for a couple years now. Specifically the example of the story boarding part, we had a writer and an artist on staff. A sketch artist that was really good at getting down on paper the descriptions. Everyone felt like we were giving someone a police sketch and their description. We’d sit there and we’d say, “This is what the forest is going to look like” and he’d show us a picture and we’d say, “Nah, that’s too menacing” and, “no that’ too nice” And eventually we got down to having a couple hundred snap shots of what the story was going to play out and what the scenery and characters were going to look like. So then we used that to direct other people like the sculptor, for example. Then I’ll take the story board pictures of one of the story board characters. One was of the construction worker character, and then I’ll go to dinner with the sculptor and spend a couple hours talking about the character, what his personality is like, what part in the ride he’s going to be. Then the sculptor will actually sculpt this huge, three dimensional, clay, heavy character based on the description that kind of takes it to the next level. Then we go into the people that build the animatronics, then the control systems. Then you have a voice actor. So then once you get this character built you have his script, now we have another writer again. So the answer is yes, we do have meetings with what I would call the staff, but the staff has completely changed over ten years. From the website design and the logos, stuff like that. There are some people that haven’t been in touch with this project for ten years now. Funny enough one of them stopped by the restaurant yesterday just to say, “Hi” and see how the projects going. So we do have brainstorming sessions.
SlashMachine: Things evolve and plans change, but it’s impressive the level of persistence that it takes to follow through on something you started ten years ago. Where does your drive come from to continue ?
Chris: Well what we feel, and by “we” I take it down to the core group of people that are still involved. We really feel that we have something that will change the industry forever. I really feel that even Disney in some ways has lost its story telling ability. We saw the ton of money they throw at things. They do so well with the scene-ing, they really do, but the story telling is what’s so critical and the vision of this is that if we don’t build this I really don’t think anyone else is going to. It could bring people into a story that starts while you’re waiting in line. The scene is so that you suspend your disbelief by the time you climb on this ride. I’m really excited to see the reaction that we get. And we’ve had the luck of, like I remodeled a dark ride for Williamsburg amusement park. We’ve had the luck of working in the business over the past ten years. So we’ve done little things at places like Chernobyl’s Grove to test some of our special effects and our theories to see how people react to them. And it’s been very favorable so we’re very excited to see when we can put it all into one ride.
SlashMachine : How important do you think incorporating a story into the experience is for the evolution of the haunted attraction industry?
Chris: I think there are two very distinctive parts of rides. There’s the shock value of rides, just like you said. There’s a lot of them out there and it’s not diminish their value because they usually don’t have the resources, or the time, or the space to drag people into a story. Their job is to scare the crap out of somebody and move them on. In my opinion, those things have very limited replay value. Once you’re on the other side of it I don’t think too many people say, “Hey lets go see that again” because you know where all the shock are now, you know where all the pop-ups are, you know where all the hiding place are. So there’s very limited replay value with those things. Then you have thrill rides, which you know a lot of places are working, like Disney has Expedition Everest which is a cross between a rollercoaster and a dark ride. Thrill rides are good, but again you have a very limited replay value and they’re not open to people of all age groups. You have a narrow group of people that can truly enjoy that stuff. What we want to do is build the equivalent of a good movie that you can ride through. And I don’t dare compare myself to some of the great movies, but you know a movie like The Sixth Sense and at the end you’re like, “Oh my God! I get it now. I want to watch it again” to see if you can pick up on all the little hints they gave you through it. That’s kind of what we want to do with the ride.
SlashMachine : Well that’s very cool. So it’s taking the idea of a movie and basically making it an experience. That’s a great idea. So right now where are you in the process?
Chris: Well, the reason why I’m sitting in a restaurant bar that we just bought is one of the.. have you ever been to the Rainforest Café?
SlashMachine : I have, yes.
Chris: Okay, one of the plans is we want to have an attached business; a themed haunted restaurant very much like the Rainforest Café. We have some contact that run that too. We want to have a haunted house themed Rainforest Café type restaurant and we were looking for a liquor license. In Pennsylvania you can’t just open up a restaurant with a liquor license it goes by the census bureau and how many people are located and in what county. So if you want a liquor license you either have to find a restaurant that’s going out of business or is up for sale. So we did not think for the life of us we were going to find a restaurant quickly. Not that you need to be in a specific location, we need a piece of paper that says, “We own a restaurant with a liquor license”. They’ll go anywhere we want now. We’re still looking for our 50,000 square foot building, but we came across this restaurant with a liquor license that was not just operational, but profitable and it was the right time for us to pounce on it. So that’s where we’re at with that. We kind of got sidetracked. You know the restaurant should’ve been the end part of it, but it kind of popped-up. We have most of the rides completed. We have it stored in five tractor trailers. We have, and I don’t have the specs in front of me, but we’ve got close to half a mile of track that we redesigned. I’m not sure how much you’ve ever followed. You know coal cars? Are you aware of what they are?
SlashMachine : No, I’m not.
SlashMachine : (laughing) No, go ahead. I’m right there with you.
Chris: Leon Cassidy, back in the late 1920’s was the person who built the very first dark ride. He built the ride out of coal car parts out of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It rides on a single piece of railroad track that was typically bent. They’d pull up to a building and they’d have, say a few hundred feet of railroad track, and they would bend this track permanently to fit the building. It would go around the structural posts and in one door and out the other. And they would bolt this to the floor, but once that railroad track was bent it was done. It was in that spot forever and if you wanted to move that haunted house ride you had to move it into a building that you could put the track back into the exact same way, because it’d only fit together again one way. So, what we did is found out when we first started designing our first haunted house ride we quickly found out that in the United States if you go to build your own amusement park rides it’s almost as difficult and building your own jet airplane and trying to get that approved by the FAA. It’s not going to happen. And I don’t have the millions it would take to get that approved and tested and all that. So what we did find out is that all these old haunted house rides are grandfathered in. So as long as you have original haunted house parts you can re-scene it, you can repurpose it. But as long as what they call the consumer transportation system remains the same you can operate that ride. Now the problem was that all these rides from between 1928 and 1930 all had this tracks that were specifically for the places they were put into. So it would be very difficult to make it all fit together. What we did is one of our engineers found a way of cutting all of the pieces of track into sections. Almost like if you’ve ever had a train set, like a little Acer train set for your house with so many right turns, so many left hand turns, so many straight pieces and this and that. So what we did is we cut thousands and thousands of pieces of this track into sections that can be joined back in different ways that now when we find the building, the building is the last part, because the rent on a 50,000 square foot building is going to be frightful. I am certain. So what they’re doing is we’re getting the rides completely done so when we find this building we can go up to wherever it is and install this ride no matter where the support structures are. No matter what obstacles the building throws in our way. We have two tailors loaded. We actually can’t move them, they’re so loaded with weight they can’t be moved. We have to move half of the stuff out to toe it then load the other half back in. But we have what I would call the world’s largest train set because we can go anywhere. Now again, within the guide of the story I’ll give an example. We have a plan that you’re going to drive seventy five feet and they the cars going to turn left. Where the road closed sign is. With our design it doesn’t have to go seventy five feet it can go fifty feet and turn left or it can go a hundred feet and turn left, or it can turn right. We can put the ride into any building once we find it. So yea, right now most of the stuff is in storage and trailers everywhere. The robots are at my house, in every single room of my house. You can’t even use the bathroom in my house without having an animatronic robot sitting there staring at you. That’s a little creepy. People don’t like that so much.
SlashMachine : Very neat!
Chris: That’s where it’s at. We’re playing with this restaurant business which is not only fun but it’s also helping to fund some of the rides and now we just have to save up and get a building.
SlashMachine : Great, well I think we can pretty much wrap up. I’ve got a lot of what I need and I think it’s a very interesting story. I really look forward hearing how things progress and really I’d love to stay in touch with you and kind of continue to do update us as things progress.