If you’re looking for some horrifying fun this spooky season, there’s only one place in San Luis Obispo County that keeps a “pee chart” in the box office to track how often visitors wet their pants in fear.
The Haunt has been serving up scares from its current location on El Camino Real in Atascadero since 2015.
It’s one of the only traditional haunted houses operating in San Luis Obispo County this year, after Nightmare on Main Street in Templeton had to temporarily shut down as it looks for a new location.
For Haunt founder Chris Towers — who previous Haunt attendees might recognize as the top-hat wearing ringleader of the house — this year’s haunt is even better than ever (though he does say that every year).
“Every year it gets better,” Towers told The Tribune during a walk-through of The Haunt on Monday. “Every year, I say this is our best one yet — every year it is the best one.”
Production manager Sandi Andersen-Tarica added that organizers spent extra time this year making The Haunt both spooky and safe in a time of coronavirus.
“We have to make it all scream-worthy,” Andersen-Tarica said. “We had a good time doing that.”
What to expect at Atascadero haunted house
For those curious about how The Haunt works, here’s a quick spoiler-free explainer.
The actual haunted house is located in a commercial space at 5805 El Camino Real, just up the street from the Carlton Hotel.
After passing through the doors, you’ll be ferried into a series of spooky themed rooms, all designed to scare you with a mix of animatronics, lighting, smells and live actors.
This year’s theme, Grimm Reaper’s Scary Tales Volume II, takes famous fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Snow White” and “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” and turns them into the stuff of nightmares.
Each room is designed by a variety of people, according to Andersen-Tarica. Some are created by actors with The Haunt trying their hand at scene design, while others are the work of community volunteers.
Towers plays a huge role in making each room possible, Andersen-Tarica said, with his electrician background and interest in animatronics.
“If (the designers) say, ‘Well, gee, I don’t think we can do this, but I’d like to have this in the room,’ Chris says, ‘Oh, yeah, we can do that,’ “ Andersen-Tarica said. “He is a builder extraordinaire.”
Each room is a testament to The Haunt team’s creativity.
Team members source materials to build all of their sets and props by themselves from a variety of places, including local garage sales.
“Everything in here is built by a volunteer,” Towers said. “It’s just neat to see how much of this is repurposed (when it could) have been thrown away.”
The sets may be scary on their own, but it’s the actors who breathe life into the various tableaux.
Andersen-Tarica said she organizes a team of between 30 and 40 actors of various ages who volunteer their time to work in The Haunt on weekends.
“They sign up and we put them in a room, turn them loose,” she said. “They don’t have to have any acting experience. It’s all improv.”
The Haunt is always looking for volunteer actors, Andersen-Tarica added. Anyone interested can sign up at The Haunt’s website.
COVID-19 precautions at The Haunt
This year is a unique one for The Haunt, given all of the difficulties presented by the novel coronavirus.
“(The pandemic) has played an interesting role,” Towers said.
He said that organizers had to get creative with some of their more traditional scare tactics to make them safe in the era of COVID-19.
“We did have to dial back a few things,” he said. “It has been an interesting transition. But one cool thing is we learned a lot of new ways to do things which kind of forces you to think outside the bubble.”
Doorways that used to be fabric curtains are now made out of vinyl, he said, and a so-called “air bag walls” room had to be closed since it would have proved difficult to disinfect.
Meanwhile, everyone who goes through the haunted house is required to wear face masks. The actors wear masks as well.
“We have a lot of brainpower here,” Andersen-Tarica said. “And a lot of people who want things to be safe. And we promise our actors that we will keep them safe.”
“We’re very, very conscious of being safe during this time,” she added.
Haunt organizers say guests ‘always get the best of the rooms’
Towers and Andersen-Tarica both take immense pride in The Haunt and its role in the community.
They also clearly are having the time of their lives.
Andersen-Tarica, who usually works the box office on Haunt nights, gleefully shared how volunteers keep a “pee chart” inside the little shed. On it, they mark every time someone leaves a room saying they peed themselves.
In 2019, there were 31 “self-confessed pee-ers,” she laughed.
“Some people look at it as a badge of honor,” Andersen-Tarica said. “Some of them will actually want to sign their name, like ‘That was me!’ ”
The Haunt also keeps on hand emergency sweatpants that are “available on request” if guests have any “accidents” while touring the rooms, she added. (The pants have only had to be given out twice.)
Towers said he’s proud of how “alive” The Haunt feels.
“We have the guys from Universal Studios come up here every year, because they like to see what we do,” he said. “They say that we’re one of the few that the building feels like it’s alive, because there’s such the mix of animation and physical actors. So you always get the best of the rooms.”
Towers and Andersen-Tarica both said they plan to keep The Haunt going well into the future.
“It’s taken a long time to get there, and we’re so grateful we have an army of volunteers to pull this off,” Towers said, “It’s more fun every year and more people are screaming. So that is a win.”