DarkWood Manor: Will You Survive The Legend?
By Noah (AKA Jolly Pumpkin)
DarkWood Manor is one of those special haunts that is located in a small town. The first year they start off small, but slowly get better by the year and their following gets stronger and stronger. It's the passion the workers have for DarkWood Manor that truly makes it a great haunt. We speak with owner Louis to find out how this haunt started and where it may be headed in the future.
Give us a little history of DarkWood Manor and how you first got involved in this haunt?
I got involved, in general with the world of haunting, about 10 years ago. Like most haunters, I have always been a big Halloween fan. I use to organize some very elaborate Halloween parties during my college years, and after college they continued to get more detailed. The year before I did my first haunted house, I was asked by a friend to produce an event to help raise money for a charity race she was taking part in. I had never given much thought to haunted houses, because the ones I had seen as a child where little more than black plastic and strobe lights, but when I started doing some investigation of what haunts had become during the 90’s I got completely drawn in.
That year I did a haunt/party event to help my friend and it was a big success. The next year I did my first haunt in the local American League building, and I have been hooked ever since. Haunting appeals to me on many different levels. I have an interesting side bar to that story. On Halloween night of the first year I put on a haunted house, I asked my now wife and partner to marry me. She was working as an actor in the haunt, and at the beginning of the night I gave her a white pumpkin. I told her to carve it into a jack-o-lantern for her scene. I had secretly placed an engagement ring, and note asking her to marry me in the pumpkin. It also so happens that it was a Halloween night that fell on a blue moon. I like to say that ‘Once in a blue moon’ I discovered the two great passions of my life.
What are two words that best describe DarkWood Manor?
Halloween theater. Ever since I started DarkWood, one of my main goals has been to create an environment in which to tell a story. I did a lot of installation art in art school, but I got away from that type work after college because I couldn’t find any practical applications for it. When I discovered haunting, it gave me the opportunity to create environments that would get an audience involved. I try to do that with DarkWood.
What is your annual attendance and have you seen a big increase over the years?
Because of our rural location, we are not as widely attended as haunts in large metro areas. We are a 45 minute drive from 3 small cites. Luray, the town in which DarkWood is located, has a population of 4,878 people. That isn’t a big population to pull from when running a haunted house. However our attendance grows every year, but we still only have several thousand people attend during our season. Having such small numbers continues to allow us to put on the kind of show we like to do, and generates enough income to keep us in the black. We have a pretty good following. We get people that come from as far away as New Jersey and North Carolina just to see us.
So, I imagine our attendance will keep growing slowly over the coming years. I have some one tell me every year that if I would move my show to a bigger area I would make a lot more money. I tell them that if it was money I was after I wouldn’t be putting on a haunted house. I have toyed with the idea of opening up a year round attraction here in Luray because it is a tourist town. Our large draw is the Luray Caverns, which during the Sumer pulls in over half a million people a year.
What is the hardest room to construct and which is your favorite?
The hardest room to construct usually depends on what theme we are going for that particular year. Last year, I built a cabin inside the haunt, which was difficult, but I love the way it turned out. My favorite scene is a mad scientist lab. No matter what story line we go with each year, I manage to keep a lab scene in it. It must be the sci-fi nerd in me, but I just love the whole ‘science gone wrong’ thing.
It looks like you have some really dedicated actors that love what they're doing. What do you look for in an actor?
Passion!!! They really have to have a love for it, or it just won’t work. I’d rather have a bad actor that loves to haunt rather than a good actor that doesn’t. We can teach a passionate actor how to get a scare, but if someone doesn’t love it, then it makes no difference how good they are. All our actors are volunteers, and I stress with them every year that they are key in making DarkWood a good haunted house. Most of our actors come back year after year. We have become a strange little family. We get together year round for haunt and non-haunt related activities. Their passion and dedication really helps keep me motivated.
How many years has DarkWood Manor been open and how has it evolved over those years?
This season will be our 8th year. It has grown a great deal since the first year. Our sets have gotten better, our acting has gotten better, and we have gained a pretty loyal following over the years. Every once in a while, I have to separate myself from the everyday hassles and headaches of keeping DarkWood moving forward in order to see just how far we have actually come. I started with a zero budget. I converted my old painting/sculpture studio into a prop shop, and pumped every spare dime I could beg, borrow or steal into creating my show. The me of 8 years ago would be pleased at how far we have come since then. I hope I can say the same thing in another 8 years.
Tell us a little about the other people who are instrumental in the success of DarkWood Manor?
My wife and partner in haunting, Wendy Brown has been really key in making DarkWood work. Where my first love in haunting is building sets and props, hers is acting and make-up. She comes from a theatrical background, so she has really been an important part of how DarkWood has grown over the years.
Alex Seal, a life long friend, has been with me from day one. He is also an artist and a great actor.
The two other instrumental people in making DarkWood run is Eddie Mason, make-up artist and general creative mad man, and Don Campbell who has a range of talents from acting to helping keep our little family together. John and Erika Faunce, a father-daughter duo, put in endless hours, night after night of painting all our sets. DarkWood is really a group effort, and our entire cast and crew have become instrumental.
How early in the year do you start working on DarkWood Manor and when is it usually complete for opening night?
We start working on DarkWood, on different levels, in January. That is when we start having our theme meetings and actor meetings. Actual work on the house slowly revs up from there, and by June we are in full swing. From my perspective, things are never complete with DarkWood. There are always details and ideas that have to get shelved because we are just not going to have time to get them finished before opening. I usually end up adding new stuff after opening night. It’s like a painting, and any artist will tell you that a painting is never really finished. The only thing that stops me from continuing to work on it is the arrival of November.
The characters I've seen look pretty impressive. What is involved in transforming a seamlessly normal person into a creature of the night?
Thank you for saying so. We do all original characters at DarkWood. There is no Freddys, Jasons, or Michaels. I tell people that those guys are way too busy at other haunts to make it to DarkWood. Usually in early spring we come up with what characters we will need for each room. We talk about the characters and what we would like them to look like from costume to make-up. Then around mid summer we finalize what the character is going to look like when we have our ‘make-up day’. That is when we put all the pieces together, and test it out on the actor.
We also have a “Stress your Costume” day for the crew to take all the costumes we’ve been accumulating over the past months. It is a fun and silly day full of fun in the sun to see who can come up with the wildest way to destroy an outfit. Some of our more experienced actors get a say in what their character will look like. I have found that if you give people a say in what creatures and characters they play, they do a much better job at it. The rest of the creature magic takes place in the make-up room each night we are open. A handful of dedicated make-up artists get 30-40 people into make-up in 1-2 hours. I’m still amazed by the process.
Where do you see DarkWood Manor ten years from now?
I hope we are still entertaining people, and ourselves, with new stories and scares. Our major motivation in DarkWood is to keep ourselves amused and amazed, and if we can continue to do that, then we can still keep giving people a good show. That is what I want to see DarkWood do for the next 10 years, and hopefully beyond.
Are there any funny stories you can tell us about DarkWood Manor?
Due to our detailed back-story of DarkWood, and how we tie in real historical events to the story, we get a lot of customers that believe the DarkWood legend is real. I have always encouraged cast and crew to let these customers continue to believe it is real. One of the questions we always get is “Is this the real DarkWood Manor?” and our response is, “No, we can’t disclose the location of the real DarkWood Manor.
The owner of the house does not want us to reveal its location due to legal reasons.” This always seems to peak their curiosity, and some more than others. Last season we had a couple of would-be ghost hunters get arrested for trust passing in our county, and they told the arresting officers they were looking for the real DarkWood Manor. Our local police got a good laugh out of it. People really want to believe.
Does DarkWood Manor follow a certain theme or are there many themed rooms people will experience when they tour the haunt?
DarkWood has one base story line, which is about the DarkWood Family that built and infected the manor in the late 1800’s. There is a rather detailed back-story that you can read on our web site. Each year we tell a story that centers on the history of the house. So, all our rooms try to stick to that theme as much as possible. And, some years we create completely knew mythology that is connected to the house and its original history, so we switch room themes as needed. Last year we did a story that I have wanted to do for several years.
The show was called Killcrop: Legend of the Iron Coffins. I took some old German folklore, added in some real local history of our area, and brought it to new life in DarkWood Manor. The Killcrop back-story has been the most detailed back-story I have written for DarkWood since I wrote the original back-story.
This year’s story will center around Ed DarkWood (patterned off infamous bad film director Ed Wood). He is a distant relative of the DarkWood family that inherits the house to discover a cursed camera that he uses to create 13 b-grade horror films. These 13 films come to life within the walls of DarkWood. Part of show this year will be a miniature drive-in theater we are building in our cue line to show clips from old B-films and trailers for the 13 films that people will experience inside the haunt. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
For more information on DarkWood Manor, please visit www.darkwoodmanor.net.