By Julie Ritzer Ross
Rodney Geffert has always loved Halloween and, in particular, haunted houses; as a high school student, he worked at several such attractions. Reluctant to explore other career options, Geffert eventually opened a haunt of his own and, with his wife Melinda, operated it in the Akron, Ohio area for eight years.
The first few seasons were difficult, but the Gefferts persevered, re-investing 100 percent of their earnings back into the business after each event. Still, they were not entirely happy with their endeavor.
“Attendance wasn’t what it could have been,” Geffert said. “We knew we could do so much more.”
Fast-forward to today. Each year during the several weeks leading up to Halloween, some 800,000 visitors descend upon 7 Floors of Hell Haunted Scream Park, a haunt operated by the husband-and-wife team (who also own Vacuform panel producer NightScream Studios) on the premises of the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. Established in 2002 and billed as “Cleveland’s largest and scariest Halloween event,” 7 Floors of Hell has become one of the most popular venues of its kind in its area (if not the most popular) and is consistently ranked among the city’s best haunts. And while there were more than 20 haunted attractions in the Cleveland area when 7 Floors of Hell commenced operation, that number is far smaller today.
Sought Viable Market
Moving on from their original haunt was not an easy decision for the Gefferts. However, they knew the desired growth would come only from transitioning to a larger market in a well-traveled location. This clinched their choice of the fairgrounds, which occupy a prominent position at the intersection of a major interstate highway and a local thoroughfare, and of Cleveland itself.
The couple was aware that future success would also be predicated on conceptual change. Visits to the haunt components of theme parks like Universal Studios sparked the idea to open a venue which, with seven haunted attractions instead of the traditional one or two, would provide sufficient diversion for guests to enjoy an entire evening of entertainment rather than a mere few minutes. The moniker for the venue came from a legend Geffert had been hearing all his life, “about a haunted house that was named 7 Floors of Hell and was so scary that you got your money back if you could make it all the way through. But that was just a legend; it didn’t exist.”
Seven Scary Themes
The fact that it comprises multiple haunted houses, rather than just one, clearly helps 7 Floors of Hell stand out from the pack. However, other attributes contribute to its uniqueness and merit emulation by others in the haunt business. Notably, each house is rendered in a theme that widely differs from that of its six counterparts. Featured attractions in 2013 included:
Blood Barn. Showcased in this 7,000-square-foot farmer’s barn was a bloodbath scene replete with slaughtered farm animals and hillbilly farmers. Crazed farmers and mutant animals attacked visitors as they perused the scene.
Body Snatchers. The Body Snatchers house touted a voodoo swamp or voodoo tribal forest theme. Voodoo warriors chased visitors through the attraction amidst low-hanging branches, dripping vines and other elements reminiscent of a swamp. Once past the warriors, guests had to escape the clutches of a massive, grabby “body snatcher.”
Clown House. Here, evil clowns sought not to entertain guests, but to have “fun” with them by pushing them into three-dimensional “mind traps” (spinning tunnels), onto spinning floors and the like.
House of Nightmares. In a crumbling, haunted 18th-century Victorian mansion with moving walls, portraits that came alive, bizarre animal heads and more, dead “inhabitants” ran free in an attempt to keep visitors out of their collection of old dolls, stopping at nothing. In order to exit the house, guests were required to pass through the attic and avoid being trapped there by the dolls themselves.
Killer Theater. This attraction was outfitted inside and out like a dilapidated movie theater, complete with aging posters advertising films starring Freddy Krueger, Jason and other iconic horror cinema stars. At every turn, visitors encountered live versions of Hollywood’s most famous killers.
Mental Ward. The Mental Ward was a recreation of a psychiatric hospital that had been taken over by crazed patients. It incorporated, among other components, a black-and-white “chaos room” and a laboratory where experiments on patients were being conducted. Special effects encompassed loud noises and screams, among others.
Zombie Apocalypse. A smoke-filled chain maze with green fog ranked among the elements of this house, a recreated city taken over by zombies.
Just as the themes used at the attraction vary greatly from house to house, the annual roster of haunts changes annually, as do some or all of the features of each one. “If there’s one key thing we’ve learned over the years and would urge anyone with a haunt to follow, people don’t want to see the same show year after year,” Geffert said. “You have to keep it fresh and keep them guessing.”
Every year, three or four houses are retired. The remainder are retained for a second season, but are altered significantly through the addition of new props, characters and/or décor and the rearrangement of existing elements. “It’s a lot of work to get the job done, but it’s worth it,” Geffert asserted. “If we only changed a room here and a room there, no one would even notice. We do what we have to stay fresh, and to remain on the cutting edge.” One year, the couple invested in a Distortions Beast inflatable figure to spice up the attraction for a single season.
Similarly, more than 100 actors work in and around the houses. Their attire and “script” also changes on an annual basis.
In addition to looking for ideas for new themes at the TransWorld Halloween & Attractions show as well as at other venues, the Gefferts listen carefully to visitors’ comments as they peruse the venue, elicit suggestions and monitor comments on the attraction’s Facebook page.
“We want to know what they thought was cool, what they didn’t like and what they want to see,” Geffert noted. “Along with a fresh show, it keeps (visitors) coming back.” While it is too soon to reveal many details about how things will change for the 2014, Geffert said the House of Nightmares, Killer Theater and Zombie Apocalypse, all of which made their debut last year, will be back this coming season with some twists.
Taking the venue’s uniqueness to an even higher level, all houses tout elaborate custom-built facades with detail that sets the tone for what visitors will find and experience within. For example, the Zombie Apocalypse façade was configured to replicate a brick wall surrounded by a chain link fence behind which life-size aliens and zombies dwelled. The Blood Barn façade was shaped like a barn; depictions of bludgeoned farm hands and animals decorated the expanse. An Insane Asylum house created several years ago had a custom-manufactured electric chair out front, while that same year, a 14-foot-tall evil clown loomed outside the Psycho Circus in 3D attraction and two kicking pigs hung outside The Butcher Shop.
“People can see these facades from the parking lot, and it really adds impact,” Geffert noted. “Everything just looks more real, not to mention, scarier, with the facades as part of everything.
A theme park atmosphere and theme-park style also up the uniqueness ante. Once guests have purchased their ticket, they can explore the seven attractions in any order they desire, for as long as they desire. A Monster Midway offers horror-themed games and several concessions; the latter sell such theme park favorites as pizza and deep-fried Twinkies. Seating near the concessions is available, and 20 actors hover around the area to provide extra entertainment. A Halloween merchandise shop sells an assortment of items, including costumes, masks, T-shirts and shot glasses.
About 80,000 guests frequent the haunt each year, an attendance figure with which the Gefferts are content because they believe handling a larger crowd would be difficult. Nonetheless, the couple continues to use advertising to build excitement and spread the word about 7 Floors of Hell and what visitors will find there. Commercials, aired on eleven stations and targeted toward a core audience of individuals ages 13 to 30 years old, account for 60 percent of advertising expenditures. Billboard advertising is leveraged as well, as are sponsorships by five area businesses, among them a pizza restaurant chain and a restaurant chain whose specialty is chicken wings. Collectively, sponsors distribute approximately two million 7 Floors of Hell coupons at their establishments each year; the coupons are good for $2 to $5 off the regular admission price of $25 per person.
At present, plans call for opening a second haunted theme park in the Cleveland market in time for the 2014 season. “We’re exploring new options for a much larger event, as the site we’re looking at has almost 200,000 square feet of space,” Geffert concluded. “It’s another change, and in our business, change is always good.”
(To contact NightScream Studios, call (330) 338-8508 or email NightScreamStudios@yahoo.com. )