Back in the 1960s, as Brett Molitor explains it, an organization called the Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as the Jaycees, decided to focus on an ingenious way to raise money.
Various chapters – there were once 150 Jaycees chapters in Indiana, Molitor said – started opening haunted houses during the Halloween season.
The Jaycees also had a practice of visiting other chapters to see how they operated. That way they picked up a lot of ideas for putting together successful haunted houses.
Eventually, though, Molitor said, the pros started taking over. Molitor, who first worked in the Jaycees-operated Haunted Hotel in Huntington in the 1980s, took over operation of that venue in 2003 and bought it in 2006.
Today Molitor owns the Haunted Cave on Arden Drive in Fort Wayne in addition to the 13th Floor Haunted Hotel in Huntington, which he believes is the oldest running Halloween haunted house in the world. It started in 1968. The Haunted Cave has been in operation for 15 years.
The two operations are among six for-profit and non profit operations in the Fort Wayne and surrounding counties and at least three dozen in Indiana, according to haunted events promoted on various websites.
Patrick Konopelski is president of the Haunted Attraction Association, a national organization of all things haunted.
The industry is only about 25 years old, Konopelski said, but as customers demanded different and scarier attractions, the industry grew. He said it’s hard to put a finger on it, but he said it is now a billion-dollar industry nationwide.
Getting into the haunted house business, though, can be a scary thing. Early on one could set up a haunted site using fish line, spaghetti, a couple of guys with masks and a strobe light, Konopelski said. Today it can cost one quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars to set up a haunted operation, and one has to update it every year.
It’s by no means get rich quick, Konopelski said. It’s become a real entertainment option, part of our culture. It’s gone from a nonprofit model (as it started with the Jaycees) to a business model with income, investment, expenses and profit, and, like any business, if you have a poor plan, poor management or a poor location, it won’t work, he said.
Over the years, Molitor has seen the classic haunted house blossom from small fundraising operations into big business, with some operators running multiple venues and attending as many as five different haunted house conventions around the country each year, where operators can buy props and attend seminars.
Some operators, Molitor said, attract up to 70,000 to 80,000 visitors during the relatively short Halloween season. He noted one man who bought an old asylum in Pennsylvania and opened a haunted house, expecting to attract perhaps 20,000 customers.
He got 50,000.
The operations also need an amusement permit, Molitor said, and must be inspected by the state fire marshal, part of Homeland Security, he said. As far as fly-by-night operations, I don’t know that there are many.
Molitor knows one man who operates three venues in Wisconsin, taking three weeks to set them up in September, opening for four weeks in October, and then spending two weeks disassembling the operation and storing everything in 17 trucks.
That, however, is an oddity. Most haunted houses are actually permanent operations, in place year round.
That’s the way the Hunted Cave, the Haunted Hotel in Huntington and the St. Vincent Scouts’ Haunted Castle and Black Forest operate.
When the season ends, on Nov. 2 this year, Molitor will close his doors and start reworking his show, making improvements and changes. He estimates 75 percent to 80 percent of the Haunted Cave will be new next year, and 10 percent to 30 percent of the Haunted Hotel will be new.
Molitor won’t say how many people go through the Haunted Cave – thousands pay the regular $12 admission fee or pay $20 for a fast pass that lets them go to the head of the line. That’s cheap compared with some other operations, which can charge $30 a person.
It’s a money-making operation, but I couldn’t live off the money from the two, Molitor said.
Not all operations are for profit, though. The Haunted Castle and Black Forest at 8965 Auburn Road operates as a fundraiser for various St. Vincent scout troops
Keith Hedrick, assistant scout master for the St. Vincent Boy Scouts, said the people who started the Haunted Castle probably had no clue it would be as successful as it has been.
Hedrick wouldn’t say how much the Haunted Castle generates, but it has generated enough money that the Scouts were able to build their own building four years ago and create a permanent operation.
We worked with the state fire marshal and the local fire marshal so we can move forward for the next 20 years, Hedrick said.
The scouts run the operation, and several troops from around the area also work there, raising money for their troops. It teaches a good work ethic, Hedrick said. It lets them fund their entire scouting experience.
The result is that the Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Girl Scout and other troops, about 150 kids in all, have buses to take them on trips. They are able to go whitewater rafting, skiing, take trips to the Boundary Waters and take part in other activities.
All of the money goes for providing programs for the kids as well as maintaining the building.