I had the opportunity to sit down with Master of Horror and owner of Virginia's number one haunted attraction, Louis Brown. Louis owns DarkWood Manor Haunted House in Luray, Virginia and gave us a little insight on what's involved in running a successful haunt.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Louis how long have you been in the haunted attraction business and what led you on the journey to begin with?
Louis Brown: This will be my official 15th year of haunting. I've always been into Halloween since I was a kid. I remember, when I was a kid, I was always trying to make props and sets when I didn't really know how to, but that never stopped me. My parents were great cause they pretty much let me have at it even when I wrecked the house in my attempts to create stuff. In college I ended up getting a degree in fine art. I didn't discover haunting until I was in my 30's, but it was the perfect fit for me. It is a genre that allows me to be creative on so many different levels, and I get a high on the visceral responses people have to my work. I get to make people scream, cry and laugh. I may be demented, but for me, as an artist, it doesn't get any better than that.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Tell us about that journey; about the roadblocks and challenges you may have faced? How has DarkWood evolved over the years? How does it compare to the beginning?
Louis Brown: All I can say is that I'm glad there aren't a lot of photos of the first year of DarkWood. The concept was there and the originality was there, but my skill set and budget was not. However, I got a lot of positive response, cause no one in this area had ever done anything like it in a haunted house before. I tried creating realistic sets and I tried to tell a story. So, my biggest hurdles were budget and the learning curve. I just threw myself into the learning side of things. I read everything I could find and watched every video on prop building, lighting, animatronics, pneumatics and haunt acting. DarkWood still doesn't have the budget of a large metropolitan based attraction or ones found at theme parks, but I do have enough to make the show more along the lines of my vision.
Backwoods Beard Co.: This is your full time job. On one hand I am sure it feels gratifying knowing that you’ve been able to rely solely on the income you earn each season, especially only being open for patrons during October. Have you ever thought you’ve had enough? Ever considered making it the last season? Or is the passion still as strong as it was when you started?
Louis Brown: At some juncture, sometimes at several, every season I say to myself, "what the hell am I doing? I’m working my ass off over a spook house!", but those thoughts usually pass pretty quickly. When I see all the fun people have at DarkWood, the patrons and the actors, I realize it is worth it. I get to do something I love and give people a great time. How can I stop? The business part of it is no fun for me. I don't like sticking to budgets and making ends meet. I'm a creator. I just want to create, but in order to do that I have to be a business man as well. It is a small sacrifice if you hold it up to the alternative of working for someone else doing stuff that you care less about.
Backwoods Beard Co.: One of the coolest things about DarkWood is that no season is like another. Every year you add or rearrange set pieces, change the story, sculpt new masks, create new characters, and fabricate new props. I’ve noticed a lot of other haunts don’t operate this way and I’d imagine it would be cheaper not to. Why did you decide to use this approach with DarkWood and what would you say is the most challenging aspect?
Louis Brown: The short answer is I'm crazy and a horrible business man. HAHA! No, I started doing this cause I wanted to tell scary stories in a real life environment. It was just an extension of my art. Over time it is what made DarkWood successful. If I was just doing a traditional haunt in the rural Luray, I doubt I would have been able to keep doing it. People can find those all over. The fact we do things different is what motivates people to drive a little farther to see us. The most challenging aspect of doing different themes each year, with all that it entails, is that it takes a lot of my time. I have to solidify what the following year's theme is going to be shortly after DarkWood closes for the year. It takes all that time to get all the new stuff made. And, inevitably, every year there are always great ideas for the show that I have, or that some of the other creative people who help me have, that just have to be tossed aside because we don't have the time or money to get them done. That bugs me a bit, but in the end the show we produce usually turns out pretty spectacular.
Backwoods Beard Co. : What is this year’s theme?
Louis Brown: WIGHT- A Ghost Story. Once again it centers around the DarkWood family. The back story for this year tells how the DarkWoods created a legion of vengeful
ghosts to protect DarkWood Manor, and they chose the location on which to build the manor because it was cursed to keep spirits of the dead trapped there. The patron's window into this is that they are invited to a séance that accidentally awakens all of the ghosts. DarkWood has a main back story that centers around the DarkWood family, and then each year I write a short back story to accompany the theme. Some years have a more detailed story than others. This year has a more detailed one.
Backwoods Beard Co.: What is your favorite part of it all?
Louis Brown: There are a lot of parts I like a lot. I think if I boiled it down it would be the creation of cool characters and the environments for them to inhabit. Of course all the screams that can go along with that can't be beat either!
Backwoods Beard Co.: What makes Luray, Virginia so unique that a haunt such as DarkWood has thrived for so long?
Louis Brown: Even though we are kind of out in the sticks we are centrally located to several larger population areas. Also, Luray is a major tourist destination in October. With the changing of the leaves, Luray Caverns, and sitting on the door step of the Skyline Drive helps us with getting a lot of tourist business. For a lot of people, DarkWood has become a part of their yearly visit to the area.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Have you ever considered running the haunted house year round? Any plans for exploring any other attraction opportunities?
Louis Brown: I think about a year round haunt all the time due to the fact this is a tourist town, and I think a year around attraction would work here. Of course it would have to be geared more toward a general family experience, but I do believe it would work. My reservations about doing it is that it would take even more time, and I wouldn't want to give up what I do with DarkWood. Not to mention I'd have to do more 'business man' type stuff, and I'm not much of one of those. I have been doing some minor consulting with other attractions, and looking at a possible bigger project in DC next year. I'm going to have one of those 'business man' type meetings with the interested parties sometime in November. If things pan out I could be doing some haunting in the big city.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Craziest visitor incident?
Louis Brown: There are a number of those. I guess one of my favorite ones is a lady got her husband to drive her two hours to come see DarkWood. She got about a third of the way through the house and freaked out! She was hysterical. We had to escort her out the exit and she never finished the haunt. People's reactions to DarkWood are so all over the spectrum, and it is very fascinating.
Backwoods Beard Co.: You have some pretty amazing makeup artists working for you. How much do they contribute to the success of operating each night?
Louis Brown: We have, and have had, some really good make-up people at DarkWood over the years. That has always been one of the strong points of the show, and I try to get the best people I can. I want guests to get immersed in the environment of DarkWood, and having the actors look good is an important key to doing that. So, the make-up department is very important to the whole operation.
Backwoods Beard Co.: How about the actors? Any challenges filling all of the roles each year?
Louis Brown: The actors are a major key to DarkWood's success. I try to recruit people who have a passion for playing pretend and scaring people. That isn't always easy to do in a rural area especially with all the other autumn actives going on, but we somehow manage to do it. I don't know how, but we pull it off. I never have all the actors I want, but I usually have all I need to make DarkWood work.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Talk a bit about ScreamFreak and how that idea came to fruition?
Louis Brown: It started out several years ago when Ryan Sligh and I were working on cross-promoting DarkWood and several other Virginia haunts. After that first year the haunt that Ryan worked for closed. Himself, and a few of the other actors from the haunt were looking for some place to act for the following year. That is when we came up with the idea of them doing queue line acting at several different haunts and also use that as an avenue to promote all Virginia haunted attractions. So, we set up the website, SCREAMFREAK.COM that is basically a listing of all Virginia's haunts, Ryan and I worked on a design for the icon character for the website, Mr. ScreamFreak, and Ryan and the other actors did the rest.
It has really grown over the years. The website listings are free to all Virginia attractions, and it now sends a lot of traffic to those attractions’ web sites. Other states have web sites that provide state wide listings, but I doubt any of them are free to list. I think it is a pretty cool achievement.
Backwoods Beard Co.: What some folks may not know is that underneath the beard I’m an artist who loves both illustration and working with my hands. You’re actually the one who taught me how to sculpt, as you’ve done for several other teenagers and young adults who’ve come to you seeking mentorship. What is that experience like? It has to be rewarding to know so many people respect your craft.
Louis Brown: I love showing people how to sculpt and make masks, or any other part of the haunting process. It is a learning experience for me as well. It makes me think about how I approach things, and reinforces the skills I have. Teaching people also brings fresh ideas to the table, and I always encourage that.
Backwoods Beard Co.: How do you feel about haunts that focus on the torture side of fear? There are a lot of questionable things that go on. Do you think they create a bad public perception of the industry?
Louis Brown: I believe consenting adults have the right to offer and take part in any form of entertainment they desire. My concern is that I just wish they wouldn't label these "extreme haunted houses" as haunted houses. They need to be called Torture Houses or Extreme Experience Attractions. The haunted house industry has struggled to build a decent reputation over the years. Now, with more amusement parks and other high-end entertainment facilities getting into the haunting game, our business has a certain legitimacy that has been hard-fought. I just fear that these extreme venues are going to tarnish that quickly, especially if there is an accident and people get hurt.
Backwoods Beard Co.: As a college art major, do you think Art School is necessary to be a successful working artist?
Louis Brown: No, not any more. There are so many ways now to learn the skills you need to have to work in the art field. However, with that said, I wouldn't give up my college education for the world. It has always been my opinion that art is about everything other than art. Most of my art classes were spent talking about religion, politics, history, and personal experience. That kind of personal exposure to other people's opinions and insights is hard to get outside of a college or school setting.
Backwoods Beard Co.: On a side note, what is your favorite beer?
Louis Brown: Well, Guinness Extra Stout is my usual choice. But, when I feel like spending more, I like Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout or their Taddy Porter. And, please don't confuse Samuel Smith with Samuel Adams...big difference.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Favorite comfort food?
Louis Brown: Strawberry Rhubarb Pie!
Backwoods Beard Co.: Favorite scary movie?
Louis Brown: That is a hard one. There are several, but I guess Alien for sheer piss-yo-pants scary. The first time watching that movie is a blast! And it still holds up well for being 36 years old. That can't be said about many horror/sci-fi movies.
Backwoods Beard Co.: How do you feel about your beard? How does your wife feel about your beard?
Louis Brown: It's my evil artist beard. It is good for stroking malevolently as I ponder new ways to scare people! MUHAHAHAHA! My wife likes it. Even over the winter when I let it grow out completely she doesn't complain. She does wish I would let her groom it, but I like to trim it myself.
Backwoods Beard Co.: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add about DarkWood Manor? Be sure to let people know where they can come see your horrors and pee their pants.
Louis Brown: This is our 15th year of doing DarkWood and like each year before, it just keeps getting better!
DarkWood Manor is open all the weekends in October, and the first weekend in November. For a complete schedule go to DARKWOODMANOR.NET