Behind the scenes at a haunted house

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Jimmy Blunt was absolutely terrified. He was walking through the Lake Dallas woods with his 14-year-old daughter Madisson and her friend when all of a sudden, a man wearing a mask and robe came charging out at them.

While the experience “scared the crap” out of Blunt, he and the girls were fine, as this was just one of the many scares at Dan’s Haunted House. Dan’s Haunted House (DHH) claims to be the only Japanese-themed haunted house in America. It is set in the woods, and actors wearing masks or traditional Japanese clothing jump out at customers as they take their fear-filled 20-minute walk through the twisting and turning maze.

Dan Baker, the 41-year-old founder and operator of the Haunted House, is wearing a partially unbuttoned black shirt, with shorts and sneakers. He has a teal-colored towel tied around his head like a bandana, keeping sweat from dripping down to his bespectacled, blue eyes.

As he does every Friday and Saturday between Sept. 22 and Oct. 28, Baker is walking around his setup, making sure everything is where it needs to be and all of his actors are happy before show time.

Baker is one of the few people here whose face isn’t caked in make-up, or covered by a ghoulish mask when the show is going, but he’s the brain behind the haunt.

Baker launched Dan’s Haunted House in 2014, after working for another haunted house. Frustrated by the repetitiveness of clowns, chainsaws and zombies in the haunted house industry, Baker decided to do something different: create a Japanese-themed haunted house.

“My wife’s Japanese; we’ve been married for 22 years,” Baker said. “I lived in Japan for about six (years) and heard a lot of really scary stories. What’s really neat is those stories, they weren’t gory. They weren’t bloody. They were just terrifying.”

That’s exactly the way DHH is designed. At no point will customers see a fake arm get chopped off or blood spray anywhere. While the features aren’t different from a normal haunted house – actors jumping out from behind a wall to scare visitors – the costumes and imagery are what makes DHH different.

The characters in the haunt wear exotic masks or makeup, looking non-traditional, but no less terrifying. According to Baker, each of the characters is based off of a mythological character from Japan. The whole haunted house takes place outdoors in the woods, giving customers the fear of the unknown.

“We go to haunted houses all the time but I’ve never been to one that is entirely outside,” Blunt said. “Just the outdoor experience alone really adds to it.”

Hosting the haunt outdoors has its challenges too. Earlier in the year, a pack of coyotes walked straight into the haunt as customers were going through. While Baker and his security guards had to chase the coyotes out, customers had no idea that it wasn’t planned. Even when animals aren’t visible, a rustle in the bushes or the squawk of a bird gives the haunted house a spooky feel that is only possible outdoors.

One rule of Baker’s — he won’t change his haunted house based on what’s popular. While the recent clown-based movie “It” scared people across the world, it will not lead to an increase of clowns at DHH, Baker says.

The audience appreciates that DHH is unconventional, and the customer doesn’t know what he or she is getting.

“You can pretty much bank that you’re gonna have zombies, clowns, something,” Blunt said of typical haunted houses. “That whole genre has played itself out.”

While he still wants to have fun and scare his visitors, Baker’s primary concern is safety. Baker is insured, and says he hires actors and security guards who know what they’re doing. He has never had a situation where an actor has hurt a customer, or vice versa, aside from the occasional, accidental poke in the eye.

“Safety is number one,” Baker says. “I’m fully insured and all that stuff. I do this right. I’m not some sideshow carny that sells fireworks during Fourth of July and I do a haunted house. This is my passion.”

Occasionally, a customer will pass out or defecate due to fear, and Baker has had to call ambulances when people faint. His security team works hard to keep the actors safe and the show running smoothly. When a security guard notices people overly intoxicated in line, he or she will remove them and give them a refund.

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Occasionally, people will threaten or taunt actors, in which case they will be ejected without a refund. Earlier this year, a customer tried to bang on some drums that one of the actors had. When the actor shook his head and told him to move along, the customer replied “What if I punch you in the [expletive] mouth?” After this, a nearby security guard removed the unruly man.

An hour and a half before the show, the majority of the actors linger near the entrance of the haunted house. They are smoking cigarettes, playing with a ball, helping each other put on costumes and making conversation.

These actors come in all ages, shapes and sizes. One man has a large beard and black makeup smeared over his face. He wears tall black boots, which are hiding a machete. Next to him sits a woman standing less than four feet tall. She has tattoos on her arms and neck, and is dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl. The actors almost exclusively address each other by nicknames, and the conversation is littered with curse words and dirty jokes.

“If you go to any haunt convention, it looks like a litany of bad tattoos and poor decisions led them there,” actor Rob Corey admits.

Once the show starts, the actors take their places. As customers weave through the dimly lit maze, actors jump out at them, sometimes speaking in a Japanese accent, sometimes just snarling. After leaping out, actors will follow the visitor for a few steps, before quietly returning to their spot.

At one point, two actors holding baseball bats come seemingly out of nowhere, surrounding customers. All throughout the haunted house, customers hear the terrified shrieks of others in the maze. One cannot make a turn at the haunted house without the fear of a masked actor leaping out.

At DHH, there is a special camaraderie between the actors. They spend time together for long periods of time after the show, eating catered food, playing beer pong and reminiscing about the night’s show.

Michael Edwards has been in the haunting industry for different haunted houses for 30 years, and he feels the bond between the actors at DHH is special.

“Every haunt that I’ve ever worked with has had its share of drama behind the scenes where this group gets pissed off at this group,” Edwards says. “I’ve been with these guys two years; this is the first time I have not seen that. Everybody is nice to each other. Everybody is friends. Everybody likes each other.”

Since Halloween isn’t year-round, haunting is a hobby for these people. When he isn’t running DHH, Baker works in sales and marketing for air conditioner companies.

“It’s a hobby, really,” Corey said. “Each of us has real jobs and real careers. To make a living in the haunting industry is nigh impossible.”

Baker has quite the task on his hands. Not only does he have to put on a show that will satisfy customers, he has to make sure that the large group of people working for him is happy.

Some of his actors come for every show; and some are “floaters,” people who make it when they can. Baker has to organize the show and make sure everybody is in the right spot. But most of all, he has to make sure his crew leaves happy every night.

“My objective as the owner is to make sure that every single person, whether they’re security, tickets or they’re acting, whether they’re a marquee character or a roamer, I want to make sure that they’re having the best time that they’ve ever had in their entire life,” Baker says.

For visitors who buy a $20 ticket to the haunted house, the place seems spooky. But to the hard-working employees, the environment at DHH is downright congenial. Baker works hard to keep everyone happy, and it pays off, as his employees put on a show that scares anyone who dares to enter.

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