2008-10-09 / Dining & Entertainment

Haunted house expands to meet demands

By Jodai Saremi Special to the Acorn

Cast of characters from last year's haunted house Cast of characters from last year's haunted house Allhallows Eve approaches. As darkness settles into the hills surrounding a small Thousand Oaks neighborhood, the air fills with screams, thunder crashes and fog billows up around gargoyles perched above revelers at the Reign of Terror (ROT) Haunted House.

Over the last eight years, Bruce Stanton's home haunt has become a central attraction for Conejo Valley citizens' Halloween celebrations. Profiled on Fearnet.com, ROT is part of Stanton's dream to create an event that would attract the attention of the surrounding community and become a venue for everyone's horror fantasies.

In 2007, over the course of four nights, 4,400 people visited just to get their chill on. With gorespattered monsters, decaying skeletons and heart-pounding thrills, Stanton lured his fans into a complex web of fear and laughter. Visitors to the attraction described it as "outstanding" and often left the haunted house only to get back in line and go through it again.

Stanton's reputation as the "Haunted House Guy" has grown as his house has evolved over the years from a yard haunt to a fullscale walk-through scarefest. Last year ROT was listed as one of Hauntworld magazine's best home haunts in the nation. The honor is impressive, considering Stanton's day job is selling dental implants.

Now, after eight years and tens of thousands of dollars invested in his hobby, Stanton's goal of reaching more people is about to be realized. After presenting a proposal for a community event to the Conejo Recreation and Park District board, where proceeds would be earmarked for the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and the Young Artists Ensemble, he was offered a space for this year's haunted house atttraction at Hillcrest Center for the Arts.

"We are always looking for recreational opportunities for the community. It's what we do," said Steve Wiley, manager of recreation services for CRPD. "And this will also provide another source of funding for the Teen Center and Young Artists Ensemble."

Stanton is excited to be expanding but does not see this ever becoming a full-time job "because that would take the fun out of it," he said. Still, he has no qualms about traveling across the country for "haunt conventions" or devoting all of September and October to building and setting up his house.

In the beginning, using the guidance and free advice offered online by fellow haunters, Stanton put his handyman skills to work on props. Soon he had controllers, foam and latex body forms, pneumatic skelerectors and rebar structures littering his garage. Through trial and error, he taught himself how to create animated undead creatures that rival those of special effects creators in Hollywood.

Although Stanton works alone on the prop designs, layout and themes, fellow Halloween diehards Frank Balzer and Rick Ehrlich have assisted him since 2004.

Balzer remembers being wowed by ROT the first time he visited. "I just knocked on his door and asked if I could help him out," said Balzer, now 19.

Balzer's influence can be seen in the details that have been added to the house over the last five years. His penchant for thrift stores has yielded Victorian-style antiques and other items that enhance the realism of the sets. This year Balzer constructed the entire façade of the house on his own. "I've decided to make a career out of this type of work," he said.

Rick Ehrlich, a longtime friend of Stanton's, volunteered his services after going through the house and thinking, "That was really cool!" Ehrlich, who had experience with audio engineering and lighting, saw an opportunity to take the house to another level.

Under Ehrlich's direction, rooms have taken on new dimensions. He works on increasing the thrill factor through tricks of lighting and sound. Mood is created with color, shadow and ambient noises, whether the guests are walking through an eerie cave or entering a living room lit only by a fireplace. He and Stanton have also added scents such as mold, dirt and smoke to the rooms.

"I like the challenge of hiding the real scare by lighting the distraction props," Ehrlich said. "The best thing is the looks on people's faces when the unexpected happens. It isn't about how gross it can be. It's about the element of surprise."

Stanton is grateful for the hours of help he receives from other friends who troop out every year to put up the wall panels, decorate and run the house for four nights.

"If it wasn't for everyone's help, I couldn't do it," he said. "It has grown bigger than my space can handle to meet the demands of the devoted fans. But if big is good, bigger is better," he said with a laugh.

"It's a place where you can let go and be scared in a nonthreatening environment," Stanton said.

For more information, visit rothauntedhouse.com.

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