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Los Angeles Haunted Hayride: Q&A with Creator Melissa Carbone

The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is a remarkable success story. Whereas many Halloween haunts typically take a year or more to get all their gravestones in a row, the Hayride was a hit right out of the gate, when it made its debut in 2009. Since then, the L.A. Haunted Hayride has consistently proven to be among the best Halloween events in Los Angeles.

The magician behind this magic is Melissa Carbone, a Halloween fan who conceived of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride while working at Clear Channel Entertainment. Since the Hayride’s success, she has left Clear Channel and started her own company, Ten Thirty One Productions, which handles not only the Hayride but also a non-seasonal event, the Great Horror Campout. (Another venture, the Ghost Ship, was not a success.) In December of last year, Carbone got a deal for $2-million on Shark Tank, a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to investors. That investment helped Carbone take the Great Horror Campout up and down the West Coast earlier this year,; it will also help expand the Haunted Hayride to other cities in 2015.

In L.A. Haunted Hayride takes you to Hell!, Hollywood Gothique spoke with Carbone about what she has in store for Halloween 2014. In this follow-up, we focus on the behind-the-scenes story of creating and maintaining the Los Angeles Hayride.

The Grim Reaper Original photo by Christopher Brielmaier, copyright 2012 Los Angeles Haunted Hayride
The Grim Reaper lurking in the cornfield at the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHQIUE: You started at Clear Channel, where you learned about live events. How did that lead to you creating your own Halloween event?

MELLISA CARBONE: The decision came organically. Even though I had been at Clear Channel ten years, which has nothing to do with anything seasonal, I just loved Halloween. Each year, my partner at the time, Allison – we owned a house in Westwood, and we would build elaborate Halloween-scapes. At the time we didn’t know there was a term for it: home haunts. We just thought we were really extravagant lovers of Halloween – me particularly.

One year, I kept count of how many people were going through, and the entire neighborhood was in my yard: parents having drinks, and kids going through two or three times. I was like, “There’s something to this Halloween holiday!”

So I started researching and found it was the second-largest revenue-generating event of the year – second only to Christmas. A dark horse industry that nobody really understood – how much money there was behind it. So I wondered, “Was there something here?”

That was the first part of it. The second part was I grew up going to every Halloween attraction I could in New England, and haunted hayrides were my favorite. Since I had moved to L.A., I was always looking for one. There was never anything here, so I put those two thoughts together, one Halloween night after all the trick-or-treaters went away:  there was a lot of money to be made here; there was no haunted hayride here, so I was going to create my own. I had the skill set to do it, from working at Clear Channel, so I thought I’d give it a try. I actually produced the very first haunted hayride while I was still working at Clear Channel.

Poster for the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride’s debut in 2009.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: The Haunted Hayride’s first year was on the outskirts of Los Angeles, in Calabasas. Was it difficult to draw an audience that far out, for a new, unknown Halloween attraction?

MELLISA CARBONE: My philosophy is when you’re going to name something, if you have a new product, name it exactly what it is. So I think the fact that it was called the L.A. Haunted Hayride – I think people got it pretty quickly. A lot of people from this area, who aren’t from places where hayrides are prevalent, their first reaction is, ‘What’s a haunted hayride?’ But if you just think about it for a second, you can probably deduce what it is. That helps.

Also, our first year, we launched a hardcore marketing campaign. We were on every local radio station and billboard. We tried to be loud about this ‘new’ invention – which is funny because people in Los Angeles think we invented “haunted hayrides.”

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: There is obviously a fun, creative aspect to creating Halloween events, but there must be difficulties bringing your ideas to reality. What’s the biggest?

MELLISA CARBONE: To be honest, the most consistently difficult aspect of these attractions is the cast. We have such a large cast. When you’re dealing with that many people, it’s a hard thing to wrangle. We’re always struggling with that, finding actors that fit the parts, keeping those actors in their roles. Typically, Halloween attractions have a heavy turn-over, so the person we cast may change five times between now and the end of October. When you’re dealing with such a large population, there’s so many different dynamics. So that’s actually the most tedious thing that we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

From a larger perspective, I would say permitting locations is highly stressful. Permitting events where there has never been a model for that place, is incredibly difficult, especially in towns like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. That can take an entire year or longer.

A tractor pulls victims through the gate leading to haunted territory.
A tractor pulls victims through the gate leading to haunted territory.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: One advantage of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is you don’t have the conga line problem that happens in places like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. But that creates its own hurdles: for instance, the timing of the tractors pulling the trailers.

MELLISA CARBONE: The speed of the tractor is critical. We have ten tractors going at any given moment, so they have to stick to their speed. If one is going faster than the other, they start [throwing things off]. We go through a lot of rehearsals with the tractor drivers to get them locked. They’re all on ear pieces together. They have markers, and the soundtrack helps keep them on pace as well.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: That brings me to one of the great advantages of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride: the audience cannot determine their speed as they go through. So when there is something scary ahead, they cannot stop or move to avoid it or wait for someone else to go first.

MELLISA CARBONE: We love that!

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How does that factor into your decisions as you’re sitting around the table, deciding what to do each year? For example, are you going to have someone visible around the next corner that people see, versus someone who is not seen until the tractor reaches the character?

Somehow, some people failed to notice the 25-foot-tall demon in The Congregation.

MELISSA CARBONE: All of that is highly considered when we’re creating these things. We at this point know the sight lines at Griffith Park so well that as we build the scenes, we plot characters, where they’re going to be the most beneficial. Sometimes it’s actually more of a challenge – instead of saying where will this person not be seen, it’s where will this person be seen the most. Oddly, our 25 foot devil in the church – people missed that. It’s such a dark space and we try not to use too much lighting –and the lighting we use we want to look nice – so often times it’s trying to position people in the spot where they won’t be missed.

Because hiding is the easiest and most fundamental thing in Halloween attractions – you can hide in any shadow. One of the biggest scares we got last year was these two giant trees that were hiding in plain sight: they weren’t hiding; they were just in environments that they matched, and [when they sprang to life], people would freak out!

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE : You also need to pace the action to hold the audience’s attention while they drive from scene to scene at four miles per hour. So you need lots of scenes in different areas and space in between to build tension. Outside, you don’t have the space limitations of an interior venue, so you could just sit down and say, ‘We’ll have 15 scenes, or 30.’ What’s the optimum number?’

MELLISA CARBONE: Actually the number of scenes changes every year. It usually is not just the number of scenes but what they are. There have been years when we had smaller vignettes between larger scenes. If we have smaller concepts we have less of the bigger concepts.

It really depends, but ultimately we try to fill the space but also leave enough anticipation in between so it’s not one thing after another. We try to take people on an emotional roller-coaster by starting the ride with something big and then taking them into something beautiful and bring them through several different emotions before getting to the ‘holy shit – how did they pull that off?’ scare. So year to year, it’s just based on what content this team creates.

Nosferatu - one of many past characters seen on the Haunted Hayride.
One of many past characters seen on the Haunted Hayride.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How much is the action structured versus letting the actors run free?

MELLISA CARBONE: All of it. If it wasn’t, it would be like the wild, wild west – 150 actors doing what they want. It would be messy. So it’s incredibly scripted, right down to where their feet are planted at the beginning of a scene. It’s good that way, because when it’s that scripted, if it’s not working, we can change it, because we know every single time how something is being enacted. So if it’s not working, we’re not asking, ‘Well, where were you this time – where did you come out?’ We know exactly where everything was, so if we think it’s not playing well on Night One, we can make revisions, which we often do.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How much does the experience of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride change from opening day to closing night?

MELLISA CARBONE: That’s a really good question. It depends on the year. In Year One, it changed a lot. Last year, we probably changed 15 to 20%, I would say. They’re not big changes – like structural things. They’re blocking changes, character revisions. The start points or the jump points for some of our startle scares, music cues – things like that we go over after opening weekend.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: When you get audience feedback, what were some of the biggest surprises? Reactions that were bigger than expected or less. Horror is such a subjective experience. When people get scared, it messes with their perceptions, and a lot of times what they see is different from what was intended. For example, you mentioned the demon that some people missed…how do you miss that?  What were some of the biggest surprises like that?

MELISSA CARBONE: Actually the thing I was most surprised about last year was that those trees became such a big hit. We built those here, and that was just a very woodsy type scene that looked cool, and I thought the vine creatures in that scene were going to be the bigger scare. Those trees were … everybody remembers the trees! That was really surprising.

The other thing that was surprising was the Congregation scene with the Devil – people still loved that scene last year.  That was the only scene that we brought back, and usually when that happens, not so many people claim it as their favorite scene. But that was still the favorite scene of the season – that was surprising.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Which raises a question: What’s the shelf life on these scenes?

MELLISA CARBONE: It depends. Usually the shelf life is one year in a verbatim kind of way. But periodically if we have something people love, we’ll bring it back. The shelf life on the finale – the clown scene – has been five years, and this year it’s gone, and I’m nervous as hell about it. I don’t want to piss people off.

Most of the others are one year. We don’t bring them back. But that demon scene was special, so we wanted to bring it back. But it’s not back this year.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHQIUE: Some people take comfort in the familiar. Do people often say, ‘I wanted to see that same thing again!’

Menacing Mechanical Men - who sing!
Menacing mechanical farmers come to life – and sing!

MELLISA CARBONE: Yes, people loved the first year we did the marionettes – the farmers that sing and come to life. People still talk about that scene and would like to see it again. The demon scene, the clown scene. People love Wicked Wonderland. That scene is a challenge to keep reinventing every year, but people loved it. That one’s not back this year either. We had something with a Christmas theme for I think three years. Last year was the parade.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: You mention inventing new versions of Wicked Wonderland. Are there certain types of scenes or certain tones you want each year? Obviously you want some variety: the intense scene versus the eerie scene versus the weird scene. Are there a certain number of things you want to do each year?

MELLISA CARBONE: I don’t know that we break it down that structurally: ten of these and one of these and three of these! But for sure we want the gamut of the emotional appeal. We want the super-easy fundamental tree scare that make people scream, and that’s all they do. But we also love – and this is what we love the most –trying to invent something completely new that has never been done before in the space.

So last year we made it rain blood. After we saw EVIL DEAD and that finale where it was raining blood, I said to my partner, Keith [Greco], ‘We need to make it rain blood this year.’ He was like, ‘No’ – his head was about to spin around and pop off. But once you say that to him, he needs to figure it out; there’s nothing he can’t do. So he figured it out, and we were the first people to make it rain blood, every 90 seconds, on cue. It poured; it didn’t just trickle. It poured on these actors that came to life in these plastic [body] bags.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Since you scored a deal on SHARK TANK, you’re expanding out of L.A. You’re going to do a Haunted Hayride in New York next year.

MELLISA CARBONE: Yeah, right now on the radar is San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and potentially Georgia.

Great Horror Campout Logo

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: And you took the Great Horror Campout on tour.

MELLISA CARBONE: The tour ended last summer. We were on tour all summer long. We went up to Seattle, all the way down to San Diego, and everywhere in between. It was awesome.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Explain how the Great Horror Campout compares to the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. It’s an overnight outing that offers a much more personal and interactive scare.

MELLISA CARBONE: At Campout, you actually will be touched. You can have hoods put on, gagged, bound, tortured – simulated torture.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: People pay you to do this?

MELLISA CARBONE: The Great Horror Campout has surprised all of us with the passion we have had. I have never gotten reviews of an attraction like this one. If you look at the posts we get on Facebook from campers, it’s crazy! It became this weird thing that people cannot get enough, so Campout’s going to be around for a while.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Was there concern it might not be a success if it wasn’t during the Halloween season?


Melissa Carbone on "Shark Tank"
Melissa Carbone on “Shark Tank”

MELLISA CARBONE: I don’t have that concern because it’s not like we’re open twelve months a year. I think attractions that try to stay open all year, with the exception of Sleep No More and things like that, are very unique. Horror is the largest revenue generating genre in the movie industry, so clearly there is not just a market for it one month – horror movies come out all year long. So we operate on that premise.

You have to be strategic. You can’t just put something up for six months in the middle of the year and think  you’re going to sell out every night. Doing one weekend in the summer in each city is sustainable.