Haunted houses lose their luster in the light of day. There are no chainsaw-wielding maniacs to jump from behind dark corners or flashing strobe lights to disorient me as Fright Dome mastermind Jason Egan guides me on a sneak peak at the eighth installment of his Circus Circus-based Halloween attraction. It is at night when they come alive. Under the cover of darkness, Egan’s blood-crazed zombies and demented clowns are reminders of why I tend to stay away from haunted houses—they’re supposed to scare you.
Egan, 32, began designing haunted houses while still at the University of Nebraska. His first haunted house in Las Vegas, a haunted ballroom off Highland Avenue, was so treacherous it caught the attention of Circus Circus officials, who asked him to take over their Adventuredome theme park and transform it into a horror playground. Eight years later, Egan’s Fright Dome is the largest and highest-grossing haunted attraction in Las Vegas, and has partnered with Lionsgate Films and video game producer Konami to bring you scares based on the Saw movie franchise and the Zombie Apocalypse video game, earning the ghoulish attraction the distinction of being named one of the top five scariest attractions in the United States.
How do you come up with the ideas?
We figure out what’s going to get cut and then what worked really well. We tested zombies last year and it worked really well. People really liked it and we thought, “Let’s have a whole scare zone of zombies. Let’s take it the next step further and talk to Lionsgate partner Kunami and see if they’ll grant us rights to their Zombie Apocalypse game and let’s base it off their video game.” We did that and created this amazing scare zone. If you see it at night you see what we want you to see, it’s fun stuff. Every year we sit down at the drawing board and we figure out what works and what didn’t work, and what’s popular, too. I’ve got to stay with the times, so that’s why I’m always watching videos like crazy because certain things are popular and certain things are a complete flop, so we want to stay away from that. A lot of times people like feeling like they’re in the movies because it’s like a safe scare.
Why do people like being scared?
It gets their adrenaline going. People like bringing their dates down here and having a good time. It’s a safe scare. You can go out and experience the set pieces. You watch My Bloody Valentine on the big screen, and now you can walk through the actual sets and the character is literally right there. I understand that he’s right there with the 3-D glasses on, that’s great, movies are great, but this takes it to a whole new level with them being in your face.
How do you scare kids today?
They’re extremely jaded, so it really boils down to your actors. A friend of mine used to say a haunted house is as good as your worst actor. We can create amazing set pieces and amazing props but if we don’t have good actors, it’s nothing. Good actors are a staple.
There a thousand ways to die in horror movies. What’s your favorite?
I always like the shocking methods like the Final Destination and the Saw methods. Something that’s really wacky and weird. Saw has devices that crush your organs, just wacky weird things that you aren’t suspecting. Don’t get me wrong, you get the typical slasher film that uses the butcher knife, but I like the ways you’re not expecting. You know your person is going to die, but sometimes you don’t know how. I like the weird traps.
What is the most scared you’ve ever seen someone?
I’ve had people wet their pants. I’ve had journalists come in here and have panic attacks. People get extremely scared, and we have to lay off all the time. We understand that point. We don’t need to see you go away in an ambulance. Once we know we’ve done our job, we’re not going to hover over you with a chainsaw while you’re in the fetal position. You have to pay close attention to your customers to make sure everything stays safe.
What works year after year?
I can never do away with chainsaws. They are a staple item. They love the chainsaws and if there’s not enough, I’ll hear about it. I don’t know when that fad will go out, but right now people love it to death and I think it’s that fear of not knowing if there is a blade on that chainsaw or did this crazy maniac get a hold of it and manipulate it, because it is a real chainsaw. You can hear the motor and you can smell the gas and you just don’t know.
What scares you?
The only thing that really gets me is, believe it or not, snakes. I don’t know why it is, I never understood why, but I’m getting a little bit used to it. Haunted houses don’t scare me.