Monday, September 24, 2012

In the news...

OK, so it didn't make the web version, but it made the headlining story of the Halloween insert for the Charlottesville Daily Progress on Sunday:

Bring Scary To Life

One Greene County Resident’s Recipe for the Perfect Do It Yourself Haunted House

By Theresa Reynolds Curry

Every year about the first of September, Derek Karnes begins on a massive fall production, one that will consume more than a hundred hours of his time, use boxes and boxes of costumes and props, employ terrifying mannequins as well as human actors, and require many pounds of paper mache.

Karnes, a software engineer, stages an elaborate haunted house for a party each year at his home in Greene County, picking a new theme every Halloween to guide his ghoulish set construction. The themes are as elaborate as a feature-length horror film: last year the whole scene revolved around a a little girl’s nightmares; this year’s theme introduces zombies created by alien experiments on humans.

It was moving to a new house with a huge basement that first suggested the Halloween tableau in 2006. “It was my first Halloween in the house,” Karnes said, “and the basement was just calling to me. I think it started because I had so many decorations, but living rurally I had no one to show them off to. We don’t get any trick-or-treaters this far out in the country.”

Karnes didn’t have to start from scratch that fall. He’d always been interested in scary things, from reading Stephen King in middle school to the scary movies of today. “I’m a bit of a Goth at heart,” he says, “so I’ve always got an eye out for ‘dark’ things. I would end up shopping at the after-Halloween sales and picking up things that I use to decorate my office.”

Like many of us, Karnes has a complex relationship with horror: “I have a big fear—and love—of being scared,” he said. “I remember my aunt taking me to see ‘Amityville II: The Possession’ when I was 9, my first horror movie. She thought I could handle it because I read Stephen King all the time. I spent most of the movie buried in her lap and didn’t sleep for a week. Not long after, I watched ‘Trilogy of Terror’ at my cousin’s house, and haven’t dangled my feet over the edge of the bed since.”

As Karnes got older, his fear of manufactured spookiness diminished but his fascination with it continued. Over time, he’s learned the best way to approach the complex orchestration that transforms an innocent storage space to a homemade chamber of horrors. His creation is solely for family and friends, but his ideas are a great start for others, whether planning a haunted house for a fundraiser, or simply a room for a great party.

First, he researches the web and other sources to find his theme. He’s found wonderful ideas from the Internet (, with hundreds of projects. He also picks up ideas from Pinterest, the DIY network, and

He’ll see something on one of these sites and—if it’s too complex for his time or skills—he’ll try to adapt it so it’s a little simpler. Sometimes, he’ll make mostly decorative ideas a little scarier: he’s found that Martha Stewart has some great ideas in the annual Halloween issue, made more terrifying by adding more teeth or fake blood.

Another source is from someone not known primarily for horror.“Hugh Heffner puts on the best haunted house on the planet every year at the Playboy Mansion,” Karnes said. “He puts a lot of money and experienced people into it, and the things that group comes up with are great.”

Karnes especially likes a video from the 2007 Playboy Mansion party that he found on the travel channel. He’s reproduced more scenes from that than any other source, including a room of hanged corpses, where one suddenly moves; a werewolf cage; and a polka dot room.

The next step is to clean out the basement and open out all the crates of Halloween items. Then Karnes maps out the basement and decides what to do in each part. Once the rooms are designated for each scene he wants to create, he makes any new props that he needs and creates the individual rooms with thousands of square feet of black tarp that he suspends from the rafters to make separate rooms and mazes. “The basement ceilings are 10 feet high so there’s a lot of ladder climbing,” he said.

Next, he decorates each room with the props, figures out what part the human actors will play, and makes sure all the costumes for each room are ready. Somewhere around October first, he’ll put up some outdoor decorations, too.

One of the final—and most important—steps is the lighting. “It can make or break the experience,” Karnes says. “Too much light and the duct tape and bubblegum that holds everything together shows through. The illusion is broken and people remember they’re in your basement, not a burial chamber. Too little light, and people don’t know where to go when they’re scared, and they start tearing down walls, or you have to break character to show them the door.”

Karnes tries to do a rehearsal with the actors shortly before the party. “They’re just kids, too,” he says, “so some of them need acclimating to the strobe lights and the music so they’re not scared or lost on opening night. It also gives me a chance to see who can really act and which ones have to rely on their sense of timing to get the scare right.”

Finally, on the night of the party the actors arrive early for makeup, and Karnes puts the finishing touches on lighting before the guests arrive.

The enormous amount of advance planning means that everything usually goes smoothly, although there have been some glitches. “Most of my props are homemade,” Karnes said, “so they don’t take much wear and tear. Some rambunctious teenagers have messed up the lighting in the past, for example, and stolen some fake eyes out of the dummies.”

Last year Karnes had to chase down a young guest who lost his shoe as he was trying to get away from him in his role as an axe murderer. But he soon realized that chasing him would only compound the fear, so he waited until the end of the production to return the shoe.

Often, people can’t tell the actors from the dummies, and it’s fun for the actors to hear guests trying to figure out who is real and who is fake. To make sure the activities are appropriate both for younger and older children, he’ll have a time when the lights are on and the sound is off for the pre-teens. Many of his older daughter’s friends enjoy being actors for the teenage party.

Karnes does most of the work himself, with family pitching in as he gets near the deadline. He keeps costs down by shopping after-Halloween sales and making many of the more elaborate props himself. He’s ingenious in his horrifying creations: for instance, he has an automated grim reaper made from a clearance floor fan, and a “pool of death” made from a painted kiddie pool. He also checks out and Goodwill year round, and recommends that anyone wanting to set a scary scene do the same, and to also develop a sense of what really works. “I’ve found the key to really scaring someone is suspense and timing,” he says. “A bloody axe isn’t scary. A bloody axe coming out of the painting you’re looking at is scary.”

Why does he do it? It’s an undertaking that uses up huge amounts of time and energy. “I love scaring people; I always have,” Karnes says. “I can’t count the time I’ve spent hiding under beds or around the corner of a hallway to scare my wife or kids. The anticipation of the scare is addictive.”