What It Takes to Launch a Successful Haunted House Business
Haunted houses are a fan fave all through Oct., but when we're in the midst of our festive frights, we rarely (if ever) stop to think about everything that goes into them.
It seems like a lot of work for just a temporary attraction, so we were curious to know more about it. We reached out to Denver, Colorado-based haunted house-owner Michael Talarico, who has been operating The Empty Grave for more than a decade.
Keep reading for everything he told us about the business.
Sweety High: How did you decide to start a haunted house business? When did it begin and how did you come up with the name?
Michael Talarico: Growing up, we had a really great home haunt in our neighborhood. I believe it was two guys who worked for Universal Studios. There would be a completely new maze every year, and it was amazing. Every kid in our neighborhood would look forward to their haunt every year. It was the best part of Halloween for so many of us. One year, we noticed a for sale sign in their yard, and we knew our little neighborhood would be devastated.
My buddy and I decided that we needed to continue the tradition for all the kiddos, so we went to work trying to figure out how to do it. The first year was terrible, but the kids loved it, so we kept at it. Over the years, it's gotten bigger and more elaborate until we took over the front yard, side yard, driveway and, garage!
Finally, at some point, my mom just said it's too much, go pro or find somewhere else to do it. At this point, we were starting in August, and being kids still, we'd absolutely demolish the house. From there, I went to work trying to figure out the logistics and details of what it takes to put on a haunt. Turns out it's way harder than it looks! I worked two full-time jobs over two summers to save the money. Then, thanks to my incredibly supportive family, we made it happen.
The name came from our original backstory, which featured a character who came back from the dead and escaped from his grave—hence the empty grave.
SH: What are the main things that go into conceptualizing a haunted house experience?
MT: For us, it's all about sharing the fun of the season. We're a small haunt, and we like it that way. We try to create an experience that's unique, scary and a little bit funny. We try our best to create an environment where our actors can really interact with our guests and tell our story.
SH: How does your haunted house stand out from others?
MT: We stand out mostly in our size and our show. We're the small guys compared to the bigger "corporate haunts." We do our best to let small groups in at any given time, rather than the never-ending "conga line" that some of the larger haunts are forced to run through.
SH: How did your business gain popularity, and what was that process like for you?
MT: We were in Southern California for over 11 years. I think our show gained traction because, although we moved the location, the name and the quality remained. Now that we've relocated to the greater Denver area, we're starting over and hoping to do the same. So far, our guests in Colorado seem to welcome us with open arms.
SH: What was the hardest part about launching a successful haunted house business?
MT: There is a long and detailed process that includes meeting with city officials and submitting detailed plans. I'm not an architect, so creating the blueprints every year is quite a challenge. I'd say it's the part I enjoy the least, although once they get approved, the feeling of accomplishment is pretty amazing.
SH: What's the easiest part about launching a successful haunted house business?
MT: Loving what you do, and putting your heart and soul into each design and event.
SH: What are the most important things to know before getting into the haunted house business?
MT: You have to truly love it. I know that sounds like common sense, but I think a lot of would-be haunters go to their local haunted house and just assume it's a get-rich-quick scheme. It takes an incredible amount of time, money and energy, and the return can sometimes be just the joy of sharing the season!
SH: Where do you find your haunted house actors, and how much money do they make on average?
MT: I've been fortunate enough to have a team of dedicated actors who've been with me for many years. The pay can vary from volunteer to salary.
SH: Have you seen a substantial profit from your haunted house business, or is it more of a hobby?
MT: This depends on the year. Some years have been good to us, while others have not been so kind. Overall, we do it for the love of the season and sharing the fun. So yeah, it's mostly a really elaborate and expensive hobby.
SH: What are some of the main components you need to make a haunted house happen? How much does it cost to put everything together?
MT: The main components are a building, lighting equipment, sound equipment, animatronics, actors, costumes, props and the walls. Luckily for us, we try to build most everything ourselves. Our expenditures are very low comparatively because our build crew is comprised of a few of my friends, my dad and me.
If you're excited about Halloween, HERE's how to avoid FOMO on the big night!