Looking back at a decade of horror within The Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse, creators and 10-year haunt veterans Michael Baker, director, Paul Allan, producer, John Sabo, technical director, and Brian Loesch, production manager, explicitly stated that they are avoiding the cliché of the obvious theme,“Ten Years of Fear.” Rather, sticking to the yearly re-themed haunt, they have created a time-travel-gone-bad theme, allowing them to bring back favorite characters with the help of special effects/makeup manager Ricky Vitus.
The story goes: A Gateway tinkerer has created a time machine to go into the past, but when things malfunction, everyone is transported into a crazy dimension that is home to a lot of the characters from the past 10 years.
“We didn’t want to be cliché, but we wanted to pick a theme that would allow us to bring back characters,” Allan said, emphasizing that it is their 10th anniversary, after all.
“We re-theme the haunted house every year. It’s something we are excited about,” added Baker, explaining that the new theme is a good bridge for celebrating the anniversary. “It’s not going to be the best of 10 years,” he said, also promising new characters.
As for the reintroduction of Gateway characters, Baker and Allan said haunted house guests will have to come and see for themselves, but also hinted at the possibility of an appearance by the ghost story girl, who roams the property, from the very first year and have also since teased some characters on their Facebook page.
The first story, created in 2008, was ghost stories-themed, based on true Gateway events. Last year there was an alien invasion theme, and in between themes included fairytales, nightmares, camp, biohazard puppetmaster and clowns.
“We like to theme our house based on true events that actually happened here and build on it,” said Baker. “Some of these things actually did happen, we just may have colored it to make it more exciting.”
“The themes were all distorted versions of regular stories,” added Allan. “This property is so historic and so much has happened here,” he continued explaining that the puppetmaster theme was based off a “real” person who used to build props there and the camp theme connected to the very real camps held at the facility.
Another element that sets their haunted house apart from the rest, Allan said, is the fact that haunt participants have a role in the story. “We try to understand why they are coming. It’s not just them coming to get scared,” he said, saying that one year they were part of an experiment, where one in every 10 people were selected with stickers placed on them.
“Some people don’t understand half of it and others are haunt enthusiasts and just love it,” said Baker, also emphasizing the use of all five senses with fear, smell and moving tactics, including automation, moving floors and body bags. “It’s a different atmosphere we create and we build on those atmospheres every year.”
Of the about 150 people involved in the production, over 100 of them are actors and the rest are staff, cast and crew, who often “double-dip” as actors. About 10 of the over 100 actors have either been with the haunt since the beginning or keep coming back year after year.
“So many more people go into this than just the scare actors,” said Baker, recognizing his staff and crew, including Vitus, who has been with the production for the past five years. According to Allan, he creates unique masks and props custom to The Gateway and its yearly theme, rather than expensive store-bought ones.
The first year included only about 25 areas with about 30 actors and was created in an effort to attract a different audience to The Gateway, explained Allan and Baker. Now Gateway’s Haunted Playhouse is 15,000 square feet with about 75 areas, all created in-house within the theatre and its grounds.
Also, when it comes to the haunt, Baker coined the term “slow burn,” which means it’s not just about scaring people but rather pacing them by cooling off through creepy rooms and areas before being hit fast with scares.
“It’s so important because it’s real life. We want to get someone off balance one moment to interpret another moment before they get scared,” he said.
Each year the core-four visit St. Louis for a haunted house convention, learning and sharing ideas, which eventually curates the theme. Automation, props and pacing are all mostly reworked by the end of the preview weekend, but new ideas are also added and tested throughout the season for implementation in the following year.
“Depending on when you come through, there’s always something new that can pop up,” said Allan.
Preview tickets are on sale now for this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28 and 29, for $15, as a chance to be one of the first groups through the terrifying haunt. Regular tickets are on sale through Nov. 3, $30 online and $35 at the door general admission, and $40 online and $45 at the door fast-pass admission. While you wait to enter, patrons can also enjoy the beer garden, take a coffin ride, or shoot some zombies in the midway attraction. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit gatewayshauntedplayhouse.com.
Purchase a Monster Protection Amulet to signal the demons inside the playhouse to spare you from the terror that can be too much for some patrons.