With Halloween just around the corner and haunts gearing up for their opening night, Craig had the chance to interview Melissa Carbone of LA Haunted Hayride fame, where they discussed everything from home haunts to scouring the world for new horror concepts.
Nightmarish Conjurings: How did your vision for LA Haunted Hayride come about and what did you draw your inspirations from?
Melissa Carbone: The vision came about very organically. Alyson Richards, my founding partner, and I were living in Westwood at the time, which is very suburban LA. We lived in like a soccer mom USA neighborhood, you know suburbia, and Halloween was a giant thing in our neighborhood. At the time I was working in corporate America for Clear Channel Entertainment so I had nothing to do with Halloween per se, but I started getting into the magicalness of my neighborhood around Halloween, because it was a big deal. I started creating these displays in my yard and every year they would get a little bigger until it looked like someone had thrown up Halloween all over my lawn. It became a big deal in the neighborhood, so in 2008, which was the year before we started the hayride, I started keeping track of how many people were coming through and when I looked out our living room window I noticed hundreds of people in the yard canoodling. I mean, it looked like we were having a rock concert in the front yard. Seeing the parents sitting there talking to the other parents, the lightbulb went off over my head that there was something to this holiday and I wanted to know what it was. After that I started doing research and saw that it was a six and a half billion dollar industry, which was huge to me. It’s an extraordinary thing that there’s this multibillion dollar industry out there that is kind of underserved or more accurately not given the attention that other big industries receive. I say this all the time in interviews, but I think it’s really profound that if you think about any other multibillion dollar industry you will think of a leader right off the bat. Like, for instance, if I say beverage, a major corporation comes to mind or if I say cars, another major corporation would come to mind; but if I say Halloween it takes a second to think of who would be the leader of that industry. Realizing that fact made it seem like there was some land in that space that was up for grabs. It helps that it was the space that I was having a ton of fun in and could definitely do more in as well. It made me start thinking about how in a city as large as LA we have very little to do around Halloween, because at that point in time there were only three significant Halloween attractions: Universal, Knott’s, and Queen Mary. The very next year we became the fourth. That’s not to say it’s an easy market; because, for instance, in 2014 there were twenty six haunted attractions in town and the very next year only one of them returned. Looking at that example, one can see that it’s a crazy model and it’s not an easy one, but I think it has this allure where it looks easier than it actually is to execute. I think that’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from; because I’ve always loved Halloween from as far back as I can remember. We used to have Halloween parties in my barn in Hartford, Connecticut when I lived with my mom and I’ve been a horror fan forever. I think it kind of became this perfect storm that organically brought me into this world of making a living off of blood and guts.
NC: Did you ever do a full-blown home house haunt?
MC: I mean, that’s what it turned into, but I never realized that’s what it was called. At the time I was not a part of the industry or in the know on the industry slang, so I didn’t know I was a home haunter, I just was.
NC: What other events does your company Ten Thirty One Productions put on?
MC: We are a year round company now. Ten Thirty One Productions is, by definition, an entertainment company that creates, owns, and produces live attractions in the horror space. For us that transcends just Halloween, but Halloween is obviously our biggest season. We also have a series called The Great Horror Movie Night which stretches from February to June, we have our Great Horror Campout asset which is our summer attraction, and then in August we start planning for the LA Haunted Hayride. We are pretty much all year round at this point.
NC: How big is your year-round team?
MC: There are about eight of us that work all year-round as the core team. Obviously, during pre-production and Haunted Hayride time, which usually runs to mid-November, we are busier so we usually have about six hundred or more employees.
NC: How has going from one seasonal attraction to being a year-round company changed the dynamics of the attractions?
MC: It’s a different consumer, I think, so the learning curve on it is more difficult. I think, for the most part, you can look to other Halloween attractions as models and structure. For instance, if you launch a Halloween attraction there are a lot of other examples in this marketplace and other marketplaces whose business models you can mimic to kind of get started. I think outside of the Halloween industry the model is not as easy to find because, for the most part, people aren’t doing horror events in June or in February. Especially at the time we started up, there was not a company out there doing year round haunted attractions so I think the dynamic of that learning curve and that demographic curve was a big one, and it still is. Every time we launch a new offering we have that learning curve. Like when we launched The Great Horror Campout, one would have thought it would be the same people who bought the tickets for the Haunted Hayride in October, but it’s not. In fact, it’s not the same people at all. Since The Great Horror Campout is a twelve hour overnight immersive camping adventure, our consumer is different than the main stream person who loves Halloween and is rolling in with their family of six. Instead of the casual haunter we get the people who love mud runs and mountain climbing, so our audience is more of the high octane horror fans who are also comic-con kids. We have found it’s a different demographic every time we launch a new attraction outside of the Halloween season, so with each new event the learning curve starts over.
NC: What are some of the challenges you have faced during the new learning curves?
MC: I mean, low ticket sales, for sure, can be a massive challenge; which sucks. Typically, aside from that, you can have a massive spike in sales due to curiosity or it can be that people don’t understand the concept yet so the first year might be a low year. We have had both, so figuring out how to deal with that is always a challenge. The biggest challenge companywide that I think we have, and it seems to be the consistent challenge, is finding our soulmate candidates in the company. The team that we have in place is everything, it’s critical to me. The core of Ten Thirty One Productions is that we’ve all been with the company for this nine year period. We still have all the same people that launched the first LA Haunted Hayride and they are all currently working on this year’s attraction. You know, I have that core and it’s been incredibly challenging to find people like that to bring into the company who can be true DNA holders, or soulmate candidates. The reason that it is such a big issue is because without more DNA holders you cannot really grow as quickly as you’d like. I think at this point we’re growing as quickly as we can find those soulmate employees and key people at the company. Also, from a content standpoint, we want to stay at the forefront of the creative curve and be the person coming out of the gates each year with something new that’s going to blow people’s minds. We don’t want to just throw up another haunted maze and call it a day. In fact, we’re always combing the world for skill sets and show stopping type content that we can integrate into our attractions. Like the sway poles we used in 2014 were the first time that a sway pole troupe had been at a live attraction in the United States. We actually found them in Australia, flew them out here, put them in a warehouse for six weeks, and had them train a bunch of acrobats here so that we could have our own sway pole troupe in the United States. Our troupe became the first sway pole troupe in the United States and since then they’ve gone on to be in movies. Finding things that are new or that people have never seen before like that takes the entire year of combing the world, researching, and trying to pull creative inspiration from everywhere.
NC: Can you reveal what new things you have in store for this year?
MC: Well, the entire attraction is new this year and it is, for the most part, all new every year. We change the theme every year and this year’s LA Haunted Hayride is called Clowns. This inspiration comes from way back, because LA Haunted Hayride has been doing clowns forever. Like, we started with clowns and it’s been our thing. It’s funny because clowns are so topical this year and it seems like they are everywhere. In a way, it’s almost easy to just jump on this clown bandwagon and, if that helps a haunt, then awesome. For us, where this comes from is that the first four years of the hayride we had our finale based around clowns and we called it the clown tent. People loved the clown tent and they would get off the ride saying that their favorite part was the clown tent. Since we couldn’t get away from it, for four years we spent time revising it and trying to freshen it up. Then, in year five, we took it away for a completely different finale. That year people kept saying that they wanted the clown tent back and I was like, “God dammit, I am never going to get away from this clown tent.” The following year, year six, was my favorite year and even though people loved it, they still wanted the clowns. Years seven and eight we still did not have the clowns and we kept getting the same feedback. When we sat down with the team in January this year to start planning I was like, “You guys, we have to bring the clowns back because I cannot take one more person telling me they want the clown tent.” We wanted to evolve past this clown tent, but it seems to be what people want. We decided that if we are going to have to bring the clowns back then rather than having it be just the one scene at the finale, we were going to turn the entire attraction into a clown-based event. Let me just say that this year the clown content is insane. We are basically going through an evolution of clowns from the traditional clowns to clowns that we’ve created that have never been seen before. Everything is haunting, disturbing, and exactly what people expect when they hear that the theme is clowns. We plan on taking people through a lot of different breeds of clowns throughout the entire attraction. In super LA Haunted Hayride form we have created a lot of touch points along the trail and we’ve brought back a lot of the old down and dirty tactics to just annihilate people around every turn. Along the trail each year I think we kind of change our narrative so that some years might be more cerebral, while others we just try to ruin people. This year we’re going back to the hayrides from the first half of our history and it’s just going to feel really terrifying at every turn.
NC: Speaking of history and personal stories what prompted you to write your book Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby Into an Empire?
MC: I come from a corporate background. In fact, the first decade of my career was at Clear Channel Entertainment so I got to see a lot of the business world from that perspective. Then from this incredibly cushy, high paying, secure space I jumped into this unknown abyss of entrepreneurial risk where I could potentially fall flat on my face. It was really interesting because I got to see the reoccurring themes of both sides of this business world. Looking over my twenty year career, there have been so many themes with people who wanted something more than they had, but most of them didn’t have it or would never have it; and they were just okay with that fact. It bothers me because having gone through this process, which is super scary; I’ve come to see that building the life you want is so achievable. I wanted to write a book that could inspire more people to jump, because I think it’s so crappy that one percent of the population can hold the majority of the wealth. To me, it’s not fair and it doesn’t have to be that way, but I believe the reason it is that way is because the fear of taking a risk keeps people from trying. It seems that because of that fact, the people who do try are the ones who are left holding all of the wealth and it doesn’t have to be that way. I mean if I can create a career, a year-long company, and an empire out of this little Halloween haunt that I was doing in my yard; then you can literally create a business out of anything. As long as there’s a hole in the marketplace for it, you can make money off of anything you are passionate about. I think the point of the book was to tell people that having an idea doesn’t make you special, what makes you special is acting on the idea. The fabric of this book is about activating on your idea, but then I take people through my process, which I think will show people the building blocks of how to create their own empire. Through the twenty years I spent in the business arena these principles have never steered me wrong. In fact, whenever I’ve gotten off track or taken an uppercut to the jaw, it was because I was not sticking to these principles. My hope for the book is that it inspires more magic makers to get on their best path, live there most extraordinary life, take their time back, and spend every day making money for themselves, rather than for other people.
NC: What has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned along the way?
MC: The activation is a big one and such a big theme in the book. Aside from that, I would say learning to not drown in opportunities is another big one for me. I think my Achilles’ heel is that I try to take every opportunity that comes to my desk or every opportunity that I see out there in the world. I like to just take them and grab them and run with them, but the problem is when you do that, you drown yourself in the opportunity. After Shark Tank, that’s what started happening because people saw us, thought we were a cool or fun looking company, and we started getting offers for various haunts, movies, or carnival attractions that were not part of our core. It was all so cool that at the time I was like, “Great!” because who doesn’t want to work on a movie with the directors or producers from the Insidious or Paranormal Activity franchises. Now while I may have wanted to do all of these things, at the same time it would have taken attention off the core of the company, so the quality might have suffered. I think learning to say, “No,” and focus on the core while taking on only projects that we can take on to let us do our very very best work is the most important thing. I definitely would rather do that than drown in opportunity.
NC: Going forward what can we expect from Ten Thirty One Productions as far as new or returning content?
MC: We are always in a growth phase, especially right now. I think the biggest thing people can expect are more Haunted Hayrides in more cities, because that’s definitely coming soon. The brands that we have established, such as the Great Horror Campouts and the Great Horror Movie Nights, we plan on rolling out into new cities. Over the next five years we expect to be in fifteen new markets across the country, which is probably our biggest undertaking to date. We also have some new concepts in the funnel that are in development right now, one of which is pretty close to being finished. I think this new concept will be a really cool, new, exciting thing similar to the Haunted Hayride, but different in terms of size, scale, and scope. It should be really fun. We also plan on doing collaborations with other brands and movies, so there are obviously a lot of things on the horizon for us. For us it’s never for lack of an idea or concept, it’s always how much can our small team execute perfectly at any given time?
Tickets are on sale now for LA’s Haunted Hayride: Clown and the event runs on select nights from September 29th to October 31st.