Haunted houses had humble beginnings

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

Haunted attractions today are well-oiled machines, staffed with professional actors, makeup artists and run by fast-thinking marketers. But they started out a lot simpler.

In the late 1960s, seasonal haunted houses began popping up across the country and were run as nonprofit fundraisers by local organizations, said Leonard Pickel, founder of Hauntrepreneurs. But in the early 1980s, entrepreneurs began capitalizing on their popularity.

"So very quickly, it went from $3, $4, $5 per ticket to $10, $15," Pickel said. "But to do that, the size and quality ... had to rise with that."

Soon, haunted attractions grew into 20,000- to 50,000-square-foot productions that spent tens of thousands of dollars annually on marketing in order to draw crowds big enough to pay for it all. Eventually, they squeezed out the nonprofits.

Still, as enticing as it is to make all that money in the span of a month, most haunted attractions fail within the first five years.

"I've had way too many friends lose their life savings, lose their house, lose their wife over this," said Pickel, who is also a consultant. "It can be a moneymaker, it can be a get-rich-quick scheme. But it can be a backbreaker."

Of those who own a thriving haunted attraction, Pickel estimated as many as 50 percent have other jobs during the year. And for many, their business is more of an elaborate hobby than a moneymaker -- a creative outlet for workers who are bored with their day jobs.

"Scaring people is fun," Pickel said. "You can get hooked on it."

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