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
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and speak to Charley Hustle: producer, songwriter, artist, and founder of The Hustle Standard. If you've seen the film Southpaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal, you've heard his music. His song "Beast (Southpaw Remix)", co-written and produced with Rob Bailey (FlagNorFail), played during the opening titles of the film and was featured on the film's soundtrack. He was kind enough to share a little of his time to provide great answers to all of my questions. I hope you enjoy the interview below.
Backwoods Beard Co: Who inspires you?
Charley Hustle: It’s always changing. Different people for different times, but right now. Rick Rubin, Elon Musk, Phil Jackson, Vince Gilligan. It’s usually that kind of mix. A producer or musician, a revolutionary, a coach/leader, and a director/writer.
Backwoods Beard Co: What musical influences would you say led you on your path with songwriting and producing?
Charley Hustle: Method Man was the first person I heard that made me think I wanted to do that. Then I just dove in and eventually started studying producers. I just naturally felt like that’s where I belonged – guiding the direction or trying to bring to reality what artists had in their minds or hearts. I really got away from the artist & songwriter thing for a while in my early 20s. Then I kinda got too impatient for the mainstream path and decided that if I wanted to work on dope music I’ll just have to make it and find the artists I want to make it with. That’s how Hustle Standard was born. I’ve always loved writing songs and making the environment those songs should live in. The artist part is sort of byproduct of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a visible part of my music, but more than that I just love creating songs that mean something to people.
Backwoods Beard Co: How old were you when you started pursuing music? Did you have anyone trying to tell you it wouldn’t happen and if so, how did you respond to that?
Charley Hustle: I think I was 17 when I made the choice that that was a path I was going to go down. I told myself that I would regret not trying. That’s actually how I got myself through for a long time. It took me from the time I was 17 until I was around 28 before I ever made any livable money from producing and songwriting. And all along the way, whenever I thought about doing something else, I just kept saying, “but you’ll regret it if you stop now”. And yeah, I don’t know if people really tried to discourage me. And I think that’s kind of my point too. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. So much so that I don’t even remember if people told me I wouldn’t make it.
Backwoods Beard Co: Can you talk about any of the struggles you faced during your journey?
Charley Hustle: Like I said, it took about 11 yrs to get to a point where I felt like I could say I made my living from producing and songwriting. I was making an ok living as a recording engineer, and could have made a good living at it if I wasn’t so obsessed with becoming a producer/songwriter, and you’d think that being in the studio every day with songwriters and producers and artists and managers and A&Rs blah blah blah that I’d have the most access to get the chance to do what I really wanted, but it was actually the opposite. They all saw me as the “engineer”. That was something that really fired me up. I would be playing my songs or tracks for a songwriter and then their manager would walk in the room and be feeling what I was playing and then ask who it was, and then when they found out it was me the head stopped bobbing along. That was really weird to me and really pissed me off. So, I just said fuck it, I’ll find a different way to the top of the mountain. It’s really funny because no one I ever worked with had or has anything to do with the success of The Hustle Standard. I’m not in that major label club and I’m totally cool with that.
Backwoods Beard Co: Is there an aspect of the field you enjoy more than the other? Where do you feel the most comfortable?
Charley Hustle: Making tracks, writing songs, and working with musicians & artists on songs. That’s where I feel alive. The creating part is my favorite part. I don’t mind mixing. I absolutely cannot stand editing. I also don’t really enjoy playing live shows. I like making shit. That feeling of making something from absolutely nothing and having that thing be something you love. That’s what I live for.
Backwoods Beard Co: How did you and Rob Bailey connect? You’ve worked together on a few albums now and always put out amazing music. What makes that relationship so successful?
Charley Hustle: Rob & I went to high school together. We met on the basketball team. Been great friends ever since. We’ve always helped each other out with projects whether it was him doing graphics or photos for me or me making music for something he was working on, and every once in awhile we would make songs together. Rob has always been one of my favorite people to work with. I feel like we are very similar in a lot of ways. We both have the same amount of intensity. Mine might be a little more under-the-surface, but we both have big expectations of ourselves and live passion filled lives. We both love working hard and we love getting better at stuff. We also give each other a lot of respect creatively. We never argue about what we’re working on and trust me, we’re extremely honest during the creative process, but early on we knew we had to be able to be honest for us to both feel like we were involved in the final product.
Backwoods Beard Co: You and Rob recently had one of your songs featured in and on the soundtrack for the film Southpaw that starred Jake Gyllenhaal. Tell me a little about that experience.
Charley Hustle: The way we got the placement was everything you want as a creative person. Apparently, Atoine Fuquia is an avid boxer, and he listens to RBHS when he’s in the gym. So, when he made a movie about boxing I guess we were the obvious choice haha.
Backwoods Beard Co: I know that a lot of your work has influenced and motivated me personally. It’s my go to pick me up when I need to focus and get sh*t done. Is there an artist like that for you?
Charley Hustle: Weird artists “hype me up”. The Good, The Bad and The Queen; Elbow; Ray LaMontagne; Bon Iver. For some reason Bon Iver’s soft ass music gets me going. I think I get more out of deeply emotional music than just hard shit. But on the other side I always go to Jay-Z, Kanye, Drake, Tupac, Lil Wayne….I love Hip Hop and sometimes the more ignorant the better hahaha.
Backwoods Beard Co: What’s a typical work day look like for you?
Charley Hustle: This is my optimal workday, but you know, sometimes things don’t fit this exactly. But I started planning my days like this about 2 years ago and I get so much more done working 7-8 hours a day and limiting my emails and social to 2-3 times a day then I did when I just went as hard as I could from sun up to sun down….and now I get to spend time with my wife and take care of other responsibilities too. But this is generally what a good day looks like.
6a – I’m up, shower, meditation
7a – Coffee & reading (time with wife)
8a – Breakfast
9a – Working – Which can range from Writing or Mixing to Editing Video or Even just admin stuff.
12p – Lunch & Emails/Social
1p – Back to Work
6p – Emails/Social
6:30p – Dinner
8p – Make a plan for tomorrow, Do stuff around the house, Maybe get some TV in
10p – in bed, reading, asleep by 11a.
Backwoods Beard Co: Is there an artist on your list that you haven’t worked with yet and would like to?
Charley Hustle: I don’t know, I think I could make a killer Jay-Z album. I would love to do a Tom Petty album. Miley Cyrus, holler at me!!! Hahaha But I also really like making songs for my audience. I’d love to bring more artists into my world, and give people more positive, no-excuses, kill everything music hahaha
Backwoods Beard Co: What advice could you give to someone interested in a career in music? How about to young, creative professionals in general?
Charley Hustle: MUSIC – Make a lot of it, work with a lot of people, and finish shit. Also, the sooner you can figure out who you want to be or where you want to be the better. Hold on to that idea and do EVERYTHING you can do to get it, and don’t play yourself. You can’t predict the future and there’s no way of knowing where something will take you, but eventually you’ll be able to tell when something is going to feed your vision or distract you from it. GENERALLY – Yeah, pretty much the same thing. Also, find a mentor and NEVER stop getting better.
Backwoods Beard Co: What do you like to do for fun outside of music?
Charley Hustle: Carpentry is a new hobby for me. I really enjoy that. Snowboarding has also been a new thing for me that I really enjoy. Basically, I never really had hobbies. I lived in NYC and every minute of my life was about career. Then I bought a house in the mountains and now I’ve started doing other stuff. Other stuff is awesome. But don’t worry, music is where my soul lives.
Backwoods Beard Co: One of the highlights of this blog is interviewing hardworking bearded professionals. You just so happen to fit that category. What does your beard mean to you, if anything? When is the last time you were beardless? How does your wife feel about it?
Charley Hustle: My beard doesn’t really mean anything to me more than my jeans or tee shirt, but I’m really happy to have it. When I was a kid I wanted facial hair so badly. I thought dudes with beards and goatees and chinstraps and all facial hair were awesome. So, I’m really happy I can grow one. From the time I was probably 15 I wore some version of facial hair – even if it was just a couple chin hairs. For a year when I was 18/19 I worked at an Italian restaurant in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and they had a shaving policy. That was the only time I ever didn’t have facial hair. I mean, I’ve shaved here and there, but I don’t think I’ve ever shaved more than once every 6 months. I think the last time I took off the beard was about 2 years ago. My wife LOVES the beard. When we met I was wearing a very short beard; a little more than scruff, and she was like, “you should grow that out!”. So naturally, I obliged, and I’ve never been happier. The marriage has been nice too haha.
Backwoods Beard Co: Your favorite beer?
Charley Hustle: Recently I’ve been loving the Nirvana IPA by Ommegang, but now it’s fall and I’m gonna need to get back into the stouts. The Catskills is such an amazing place for good beer. Honorable mentions: Victory makes some great beers, and I pretty much like everything from Southern Tier and 21st Amendment.
Backwoods Beard Co: Finally, is there any news or upcoming announcements you’d like to discuss or anything you’d like to add?
Charley Hustle: Nope. Thanks for the insightful questions.
Special thanks to Charley Hustle for taking the time out of his busy schedule to sit down and answer these questions. If you'd like to learn more about his work, please check him out at the following links: