Behind the horror: anatomy of a haunted house

The air is thick with the smell of sickly sweet cotton candy. The lights, a murky glow through the simulated fog, cast eerie greenish shadows; taking on any and every shape from your childhood closet. There is an innate chill that creeps up your spine, and though nothing has happened yet, the atmosphere alone is enough; you are standing in the Gateway to Darkness (GTD).

Sam and Michelle began running a small haunted house out of their garage for the children in their neighborhood around seven years ago. From that local venture blossomed what is now one of Alaska’s most frequented haunted houses.
“We started it for the kids,” said Sam. “They loved it so much the first year, and we loved it so much the second year, that we just had to keep it going.”

After two years of having a “haunted garage” Sam and Michelle (who wished their last name to remain anonymous) attended their first national Halloween convention in Los Angeles.

“It was the beginning of the end,” said Michelle. “After that, we were sold on doing this for real.”

Seeking to fully break into the industry of scare, Sam and Michelle rented a five thousand square-foot warehouse in Wasilla.

“We have been here for five years and plan on staying,” said Michelle. “When you have a business like ours, people need to know where to find you, every year.”

The warehouse doubles as an indoor paintball arena known as “splatter house” in the winter months, but as soon as the snow melts, it’s out with the paintballers and in with the building crew. Though the haunted house is only open for about a month, Sam and Michelle work on the haunt year-round, traveling, planning, building and revising. Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and a twisted imagination, the new maze for GTD takes about five months to map, build and decorate each year.

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“Nothing really gets to us anymore,” said Sam. “We have been doing this for so long; our scare factor has gone down in everyday life.”

Complete with unique themes and a spooky touch; Sam and Michelle are slaves to their art form.

“We love detail,” said Michelle. “Some people don’t notice detail, but we love all of the little things!”

This year, the maze is loosely themed off of an orphanage, including things like a graveyard-kitchen, clown room and psychedelic color tunnel, all of which are complimented by animatronics, dark claustrophobic passageways and hidden actors.

During each evening tour, GTD has anywhere between twenty and thirty actors interacting with you as you weave your way through the frightening maze of rooms and blackened corridors. Behind chain link fences and melded into corners, the actors lie in wait for just the right moment to pop up beside you, there is never a time when you are truly alone.

“You can have a haunted house where there are just animatronics,” said Michelle.  “But if you don’t have people, you just don’t get the same scare factor.”

The average evening brings in around two to three hundred people, many of which are self-proclaimed GTD groupies, coming anywhere from one to four times a night, every night.

“These same people will come running, screaming and flailing out the back door,” said Sam. “And then run right back in the front one to do it all over again.”

Tickets cost $15 at the door, or $12.50 online.