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NIGHTMARE ON 13TH Haunted House

NIGHTMARE ON 13TH – Upping the Evil Ante


Frightening people is serious business at Salt Lake City, Utah’s Nightmare on 13th. This attraction started out as the Institute of Terror, a small haunt that was purchased (and is still owned) by Troy Barber and Mike Henrie. It kept that name until 2001, when tragic world events gave the word “terror” a new meaning. Changing it to Nightmare on 13th was a major turning point: The moniker reflects the building’s location (1300 South, or “13th South” to locals) and marked the development of a fresh look that defines the attraction to this day.

As new college graduates, longtime friends Barber and Henrie decided to go into business together; after buying a couple of storage units full of props and a few hours of guidance from the previous owners, they were proud purveyors of their own haunt. Their business plan included an important principle: With every price increase, there would always be a bump in perceived value to customers. This has helped propel Nightmare on 13th to becoming one of the most successful scary attractions in the country.

FANGORIA had a chance to pick the brain (only figuratively, of course) of Jimmy Dilley, Nightmare’s casting and art director, who helps design, build and manage the attractions. Dilley is a lifelong fan of the genre, making this job a dream—or Nightmare—come true. “I have vivid childhood memories of Halloweentime, and watching the spotlight beams from the local March of Dimes haunt,” he recalls. “I always wanted to be where those spotlights were, knowing they were the sign that the haunted houses were open. I was also the kid who hid behind the couch from my father as he watched Tales from the Crypt—though I’m pretty sure he knew I was there the whole time. From a young age, I always knew the two were connected, and that they would be a part of my life.”

Horror is also a job he takes very seriously. “Rather than just hire anyone who walks in the door, I really look for actors when we cast. I hire over 200 each season to keep the attraction running smoothly. I look for those who love to scare people, and are just generally odd. I love to hire ‘misfits,’ because they become the most devoted employees. We become family. As for my training process, grueling would be a good word to describe it. I don’t want weak actors; I need people who are strong and confident about their parts. We don’t have scripts, we have character descriptions, and we do a ton of improv training before the season starts. Sometimes we may have a few lines for inspiration, but I want my actors to make their roles feel as real as possible. A lot of haunts in our area do not pay their actors, but we’re the exception. They can earn good money working for us, so my expectations are pretty high.”

Dilley is no suit sitting in a corporate office, hiring and firing with impunity; he’s been there. “Before I was the casting and art director, I was an actor. I was known for being a raging juggernaut, breaking walls, props, you name it, all in the name of fear. I got a little too much into character sometimes … OK, all the time!” he laughs (a little too evilly … ). “My part was a lab assistant who had injected himself with a virus to bring on the next evolution of humans. One night, I leaped onto the counter, grabbed a door and smashed and broke its window against the wall. My poor victim that evening cowered in a corner, absolutely petrified, eyes popping out of her head, a puddle of pee developing underneath her as I continued to rage. It was totally worth the broken door—no matter what my supervisor said.
Needless to say, when I design the haunt now, I make sure the room is totally Jimmy-proof!

In addition to the flesh-and-blood frights, Dilley notes, “We are known world-wide for our computer-animated Nightmare Theater show. It is a room where customers wind back and forth watching a 4D series of sketches on a stage, while scary things happen to them out in the audience. This gives them a taste of what they’ll experience when they enter the Nightmare. This section rivals the major amusement-park technologies, and has been compared to Disneyland.”

That’s high praise, though Dilley says Nightmare on 13th occupies a sweet niche in that it’s also very immediate and feels like a best-kept secret. “It’s a mix between the smaller, more intimate haunts and the larger attractions like Universal. Just like Universal, we have themes that are separate from each other and change every year. We create three brand-new attractions annually, and each has its own plot; as you traverse the nightmare, the characters you encounter force the victims to truly become a part of the story. The fact that we’re a local business, have been around for 24 years and create new scares each year ensures that we have a returning fan base.”

That’s another thing Dilley loves about his job: upping the ante to keep faithful fans coming back for more gore. And size matters: “Nightmare on 13th is two stories and covers 36,000 square feet. Each year, we change about 90 percent of the haunt, which requires a lot of design work. The final decisions come from the owners, but the planning is done as a team, with the majority of the designing being separated between Val Bagley and me.

“The themes and plots begin with the characters, which I mainly create myself,” he continues. “Each element, from makeup and costumes to the actual set, accents the initial character concept. That’s another reason I don’t just focus on the art direction, but am also in charge of training the cast and crew. I know where all the bodies are, because I put them there-in a very particular way.

“All the designs are then taken into the space, laid out and reworked by technical director Michael Klint and owner Mike Henrie. Val and I build the sets while Michael Klint creates the effects for each room, like animatronics, automations, lighting and sound. The characters are made up at the house by up to five makeup artists, and issued their costumes. After all that work, something magical happens: We have a believable atmosphere that sets up an amazing scare in every single space.”

Darkness and close quarters are universal fright-inducers, and Dilley lists some other enduring terrors employed by Nightmare on 13th: “We always want to have the staple scares—fear of heights, spiders, snakes, etc. But we find new twists each year. Keeping our victims interested is a year-round process. I have street teams who stay active in the community year-round, attending events and making sure we’re using social media to create interest in what we’re working on. We don’t want to be seen as an attraction that disappears for 10 months of the year.”

One very important aspect is to offer an “incredibly immersive” experience for the guests. “If you have a room full of corpses and it doesn’t smell bad, that is not going to be convincing. We scrutinize all this, walking through the haunt and discussing what elements we need to make this area or that as frighteningly real as possible.”

And it helps to have a longtime Fango reader and horror-movie fan calling the shots. “A lot of my design inspiration comes from watching cult classics such as Trick ‘r Treat, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Return of the Living Dead. I also love watching obscure one- or zero-star horror movies, as they often have amazing, if poorly executed, concepts. I have to keep up on current trends in horror films; it’s part of my job. I can never be expected to design a good haunted house if I don’t know what is scaring people now.

“I really like character-driven horror films; Rob Zombie and Guillermo del Toro are filmmakers who really push the edge when it comes to character design. I’m a ’90s kid, and some of my greatest inspiration comes from rewatching the terror of my youth, Tales from the Crypt. I want my audience to feel the way I did all those years ago, watching from behind the couch: terrified, but unable to look away.”

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