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Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012: Interview

Pop quiz, Halloween Hot Shots! What’s better: a haunted house or a Halloween haunt? Are the staged illusions better than the real thing (assuming there is a real thing)? Come to think of it, why choose one or the other when you can have both?

Winchester Mystery House – renowned because of its mysterious secret passages, corridors that lead nowhere, and staircases that descend and then ascend without landing anywhere – launched Fright Nights, its first ever Halloween haunt, to glowing reviews and immediate success in 2011. The 2012 version of Fright Nights is currently scaring audiences up north in San Jose, California. The year-round tourist destination – whose architectural oddities were designed to confuse evil spirits – exploits its allegedly haunted history with a night-time, flashlight-only version of its standard daytime tour, featuring silent actors in period costumes for atmosphere only – no jump-scares. This serves as a sort of backstory of the Halloween haunt, “The Curse of Sarah Winchester: The Resurrection,” which takes place on the grounds around the Mystery House. The interior tour takes 35 minutes; the exterior haunt lasts forty minutes. Both are included in the price of admission.

To learn more about Fright Nights, Hollywood Gothique conducted this interview with two of the movers and shakers behind the Halloween attraction, Kathrynn Cobbs (show director, formerly of Halloween Horror Nights) and Brett Tomberlin (President of Imagination Design Works, which produces Fright Nights).

Fright Nights Interview

The Winchester Mystery House, built by rifle heiress Sarah Winchester, is a California State Historical Landmark that has been designated as one of the World’s Most Haunted Places by the Travel Channel. With its allegedly haunted history, it seems a natural for a Halloween attraction. Why did none emerge until 2011?

BRETT TOMBERLIN: They had a success with their flashlight tours for many years. They were doing them on Friday the 13th and a few Halloween nights; they were selling out, and they didn’t want to mess with success. It wasn’t until, quite frankly, the “Comment” boxes started filling up, asking “Why don’t you do a themed maze at Halloween?” that the board at Winchester Mystery House finally decided to give it a shot. Also the upcoming movie had a hand in that. We’re doing a WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE movie. I’m producing it with Exclusive Media Group, who did THE WOMAN IN BLACK with Daniel Radcliffe. We begin filming in early 2012, so it’s a very exciting time for the Winchester Mystery House.

After the initial decision to do a Halloween attraction, the next question was: What sort of Halloween attraction? The goal was to tie in with the history of the house itself as much as possible.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: What can you do with this? How can we incorporate the history to make it a scary experience without over-the-top gore?

KATHRYNN COBBS: It’s more about the legend and the house itself than the typical gory-gross Halloween attraction.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: Very much away from SAW. Our story line for this year is that Sarah [Winchester] actually had her front door boarded up, and no one could ever enter, so our story is that one of the tours – Tour 13 – one of the kids decided to leave the tour and the kid unfortunately goes through the front door, which acts as a portal between heaven and hell. Now all the souls that perished by the Winchester rifle are seeking revenge upon any tourists they can find.

The 2011 Fright Nights Halloween event at Winchester Mystery House earned favorable response. Cobbs and Tomberlin attribute the strong debut to their combined experience.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: I come from working at Disney; Kathryn comes from working with John Murdy at Halloween Horror Nights. So we both have that experience.

KATHRYNN COBBS: Universal is one of the top haunted attractions in the world. We wanted to compete with them, to be on the same level – from set design to training actors, every tiny detail matters. That’s why it was so successful last year.

Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012
Ghoul by tombstone

BRETT TOMBERLIN: I have to say preparation. It’s a full time job; you start prepping November 1 for next Halloween. We didn’t want to buy things out of a magazine; everything we do is custom-built through a great company, Sinister Pointe, which does a haunt in Brea. So we work with him for a year leading up to the event.

The Winchester Mystery House’s designation as a historical landmark prevents Cobbs and Tomberlin from doing anything that might damage the building itself. Therefore, most of the Fright Nights maze is situated elsewhere on the grounds. (Those who want to see the house itself can still take the flashlight tours.)

BRETT TOMBERLIN: We try to incorporate elements and outbuildings – for instance the garage and the greenhouse – but we also go into the first floor of the house quickly as well, but mostly the flashlight tour is incorporated into the house.

KATHRYNN COBBS: This year, we have an all-new attraction inside the house, so there’s going to be a free-flowing audio tour with a few extra “Fright Night” elements included as well.

The flashlight tour plays to the Halloween crowd somewhat, although relying on subtle scares, since introducing major effects into the Winchester House itself was out of the question, for fear of damage.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: There is always a concern, because the location just gets beat up so quickly. Unfortunately, we’re in a house that has a ton of artifacts; a good portion of the wallpaper and everything else is original to Sarah Winchester, so we’re always careful when we bring people in for a flashlight tour, because with a scare popping out, someone could freak out and fall down a flight of stairs. It’s not uncommon; it’s happened many times before. We wanted to make sure that whatever we put in the house had an eerie quality to it.

KATHRYNN COBBS: Much more that paranormal experience that guests on the flashlight tour are expecting.

Cobbs and Tomberlin attempt to include scares that are consistent with the house’s paranormal reputation.

KATHRYNN COBBS: A lot of people feel trepidation when the walk on the grounds – which is great for us, because we don’t have to lay the groundwork. At the same time, one of my favorite things is to create a scene and bring them into that scary-movie type of feel, so that they’re not just having people constantly jump out. They’re being stalked by an actor who’s making eye contact. That is where the mental scare comes into play.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: We’re fortunate that we’re not a theme park putting up flats and tents and trying to convince people they’re in a house. We actually have a the best back drop you could ask for, as you’re walking through areas known to have paranormal activity. We went out to Sarah Winchester’s grave in Connecticut and had some great sculptors replicate it. We have you walk through the Winchester Crypt, and everything is authentic as you possibly can get it. It really puts you in the scene.

These scenes are all part of a deliberate attempt to build the Winchester Mystery House’s haunted history into the back story of the haunt, hopefully in a way so that visitors can “follow the plot” as they walk through.

KATHRYNN COBBS: Last year we started off with an old Winchester Mystery House tour bus, with audio effects inside that told the story of Tour 13. As you travel down the maze.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: Sarah Winchester is in her room with all these crazy projection effects telling you which way to go to escape. We try to have our actors, who have an improve background, speak to you and enhance the story line that way. So it isn’t just you trying to get the story from the set design.

For all the efforts at establishing ethereal atmosphere, Fright Nights includes in-your-face scares as well.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: They [the monsters] definitely break down the boundary. There is no bubble. They get in your face. They have no problem following you for two scenes.

KATHRYNN COBBS: They get as close as they can without touching you. I always tell them to be aggressive. They take that to heart.

Characters are scripted to fit within certain scenes, but the actors have room to improvise.

KATHRYNN COBBS: For character creation, after we finish production design, I go into my mode of watching as many horror movies as possible and pulling characters that will fit each location in the maze. So each actor has a specific role, a specific location, and a specific scare in the maze – to carry that story line. They’re trained also to own that character. It’s not just: “Here’s a mask and a chainsaw.” It’s: “Here is the story of what your character is.”

BRETT TOMBERLIN: Once Kathryn gets them trained, they take the liberty to stalk their guests – sometimes a little bit more than we would like them to! But this comes from becoming familiar with the role.

Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012
Chicken farmer with victim

One of the more successful character moments from 2011 was one of which Tomberlin was initially skeptical.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: I have to say, Kathryn came to me with an idea about a chicken farmer. I was like, “Okay, I don’t really see how this is going into the haunt; we’re losing our theme here.” Then we looked at one of Sarah’s pieces on the property that actually was a chicken coop. Kathryn’s idea was to glue all these feathers onto his face and bloody it up, then work with a girl who looked like she was a tourist. I said, “Okay, we’ll see how this goes.” By the time, she coached them and went through the training and scare school, it was a situation where people were getting freaked out because they thought someone was actually being pulled from the line of tourists seeing our haunt. This guy was a big 350-pound guy; he would lift this girl and slam her against the side of a fence. Her feet would be two feet off the ground; she was very petite. It looked as real as real good get. People just tapped out of the maze at that point.

KATHYRNN COBBS: It was a great scene. The stunts were great, and they were both first-timers – this was their first haunt ever.

Most of the lessons learned from last year were administrative in nature – making the board of the Winchester Mystery House realize that a Halloween event is actually a year-round job.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: It’s … prepping the [board] to realize that prepping an event like this is not like prepping a flashlight tour. It’s something they need to prep for the whole entire year. It can’t be starting in June or July. So it’s getting everyone motivated. It’s getting them to realize that every year has to be better to retain your audience.

Making Fright Nights bigger and better for 2012 included a few new ideas…

Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012
Jack o Lantern scarecrows

BRETT TOMBERLIN: We wanted to do a pumpkin patch this year and put a lot of scarecrows in. In addition, we wanted to put something in that we’ve seen in movies like…

KATHRYNN COBBS: Edward Scissorhands. There’s always that snow scene, where it’s just something beautiful, magical, and also terrifying at the same time. That’s something we wanted to bring to life.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: We want you walking through a winter wonderland, where the climate has suddenly changed. We’ve mastered it. It takes place right underneath Sarah Winchester’s bedroom, where she passed away, so it will have that creepy element.

Fright Nights is a big local draw for the Winchester Mystery House, but this Halloween Cobbs and Tomberlin expect to see more tourists driving in from out of town, now that word has gotten out.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: The biggest challenge we had for the haunt was getting people to understand our first year that we were different from the flashlight tours. While we may have catered to families, we are not going more for young teen-agers. That’s a totally different demographic. Now that word’s out, we’re expecting people to travel a little farther to get here.

Of course, as Fright Nights broadens its demographic appeal, it may attract Halloween horror lovers who want chainsaws rather than clanking chains and ectoplasm.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: We have the chainsaws. We just didn’t want to go too heavy in the gore area. I’m not going to say the haunt doesn’t have a ton of gore, because there is a lot of it. It’s just not over the top. We wanted to make it classy and spooky…

KATHRYNN COBBS: But no haunt is immune to blood. There is no way you’re going to walk into a haunt and not see a drop of blood – most of the time. We definitely have intenstines hanging out somewhere.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: It will fit under an R [rating]. We toned it down a little, so we’re a step below SAW.

Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012
Scares feature a spooky Halloween flavor rather than gore.

The big question for tourists is what the Winchester Mystery House has to offer that makes it worth traveling to San Jose.

KATHRYNN COBBS: It’s a haunt at a haunted location – and a very famous one. Before starting on this event, I knew about this house because I had seen it on Ghost Hunters and all of these paranormal shows. It has this track record of interesting stories and legends. A lot of people who aren’t into the demographic of these haunts – they want to see a real ghost more than a scare. That is something that can happen at Winchester Mystery House. I have had reports from actors who returned this year but requested not to be in the same room because they saw lots of things and felt lots of things. That element – we can’t guarantee it, but it’s possible.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: There’s a lot of weird things that happen. The other thing I can say is that, going through this maze in forty minutes, you can probably go through three times and still have a different experience every single time because the level of detail that’s in this maze is absolutely incredible, including stuff that you have to look very closely at. And there’s a lot of show scenes – 29 show scenes. It’s a very long walk and it wanes on your emotions.

Fright Nights has a fairly long run at the Winchester Mystery House, having started in September, with performances scheduled through the beginning of November. Why continue past Halloween night?

KATHRYNN COBBS: The house is still haunted in November!

Is this an indication that Fright Nights could evolve into a year-round attraction, exploiting the Winchester House’s reputation?

BRETT TOMBERLIN: I have to say, I think the owners would be scared to do it year round, because it is a very costly event. But they are creating a great tour that is going to cater to the paranormal; they are in development on that, which is wonderful news. I know with Halloween, going into the second or third [of November] we’re going to have an audience; we’re going to do fine. But we do need to have a [paranormal] tour, and that’s why it’s been put into development.

KATHRYNN COBBS: We did a test this year because every Friday the 13th they do a flashlight tour. So we did a test to see what the reaction is like and what kind of elements we should add.

BRETT TOMBERLIN: I believe we got a 9 out of 10 on the experience inside the house.

To some extent, this “paranormal tour” would be an enhanced version of the flashlight tour, complete with “ghosts” – although in this case, they would keep their distance rather than getting in your face.

Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights 2012
Female ghost lurking inside the house

BRETT TOMBERLIN: Basically, we take actors in period attire and we put them scattered throughout the house. We reign them back because we don’t want that intense, in-your-face scare. We want the creepy scare of them being down a hallway – thirty or forty feet away – and someone catching them in their flashlight. That’s enough to freak people out. I was in the house on Friday the 13th, in Sarah Winchester’s side room, which leads into her bedroom, and I could tell that the tour group was already really on edge, based on some of the stuff they had seen. I missed a step and came crashing into the door, which hit the tour guide in the back. Everyone flipped out and started running in different directions. The whole tour got completely disbanded! We’re gradually increasing the experience, but I’m afraid if we go even a little bit father, we couldn’t have the tours!

Watching what Jeff [Schiefelbein ] has done with Sinister Pointe, opening for Christmas and drawing a crowd, it’s amazing how Halloween has taken over. People are saying that in five years, Halloween will surpass Christmas in terms of spending. It’s remarkable how people are willing to travel to experience these kind of events. I think people would come out even a month later if it’s a really good haunt.

The Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA 95128. Fright Nights’ remaining dates are on October 25-31 and November 2-3. Call (408) 247-2101 for more information, or visit their website.