One of the most recognized names in the haunted attraction industry today is
Leonard Pickel. You've probably heard about Haunted Attraction Magazine and you've probably
heard of D.O.A., but how much do you really know about the man who has helped revolutionize
this industry as we know it? In this issue, we talked with Leonard, 1-on-1, on a wide array of topics,
ranging from his beginnings, to current issues and a few lucky readers got the chance to
ask Mr. Pickel some questions. So kick back and enjoy, as you go "Behind The Haunt".
people know you for what you've accomplished
in recent years, but I'd like to ask about your early
beginnings. Where did you grow up and how
did you get your start in the haunting profession?
Leonard Pickel: I
was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but
lived most of my young life in Dallas. Graduating from
high school there and went to college at
Texas A&M. Studied architecture there got a degree and
stumbled into my first haunted house.
HS: Speaking of
your first haunted house, what got you
involved in these seasonal operations? LP: I did my first Haunted House as a dorm fund raiser at Texas A&M.
The attraction was open for 2 nights, cost 50 cents per person and we
grossed $1,000. It opened my eyes to the money making potential
Once I graduated I apprenticed Architecture in Dallas, and
volunteered with the March of Dimes Haunted House in
1982. (I ended up) Chairing that event until
1986 and then did my own haunt in 1987. I built my
first haunt on credit cards, pocket change
and with stuff I have collected over the years. We
grossed about $20,000 that first year, which
was enough to pay back the credit cards and late fees.
The next year, I thought if one haunt
could bring in 20k then three haunts would make me
HS: Were you right
in making this assumption?
LP: (I ended up)
doing one in downtown Dallas, one further
north and one in the suburbs. (We were) way over
stretched and running into problems with the
downtown Dallas haunt, due to it being in an historic
building, we lost our butts. Just barely even
got the one show open before Halloween, and discovered
even if there are people walking by the
front door with cash in their pockets, Halloween is
like a light switch. (One minute it's on,
then the next, it's off) I carried that debt again on
credit cards for years after that, and it
humbled me greatly.
HS: What is the
history behind "Haunterpreneurs"? How did this
idea come about?
LP: My dad was the
one who told me to stop doing my own haunts
and start building them for other people. Less risk
and more money, or at least it appeared that
way. 1987 was when I coined the name Hauntrepreneurs
and used it as part of the name of my first
haunted House company,
"Elm Street Hauntrepreneurs".
There was an article in around1989 about Joe
Jensen, Drew Hunter, David Bertolino and myself in the wall
street journal, It was titled
"HAUNTREPRENEURS!" It was then I knew I need to
trademark the name or everyone would be using it!
I still have to ask people not to use it. What people
do not understand is that if I do not
protect the name, I take the chance of losing it. I am
not trying to be mean, but the name is my
"property" and I do not want to lose my rights in the
name. It has pissed some people of though!
HS: Over the years,
do you have an estimate on how many haunts
you have created?
LP: I am in the 70
range. I personally did 6 last year through D.O.A.,
Hauntrepreneurs International, and for myself.
HS: What was the
concept behind the first haunted house that
LP: My concept
has always been that each actor placement should be
fillable by any actor in any mask. After
we had designed the haunt that year, I noticed that each of the
rooms could have been from the Elm Street
movies, and having the same character in all of the
scares was the next step to any actor in any place. (I have used
this single character haunt several times since). So. I decided to
theme the show as all Freddy haunt. We had tall skinny Freddies,
short fat Freddies, and Freddies that sounded like girls.
But it was about 1988 and we had just lost our
tails with the three haunts. One of the haunts was
going to be up all year and we decided to open
it in the spring. I invited a bunch of other haunters
to come and act, Lance Pope brought several
people out to and we had a great time. We didn't
make any money, but we had a great time. The advertising
I did for the haunt was made to look like a movie ad, and the
sales rep suggested we use the PG rating on the ad.
When that hit, we IMMEDIATLY got a call from
the movie people (MPAA) telling us to cease and desist
using their trademarked ratings. We apologized and said
we would never do it again. They were happy, but they told New Line
Cinema about the "Freddy's Home" name of the haunt on the ad.
They were not as easily appeased, but in the end we
were small potatoes to them and it would
have cost them more to go after me then they would
have ever gotten. That was the last time I ever used a licensed
character in a haunt.
HS: What happened to Elm Street
LP: At it's height,
Elm Street Hauntrepreneurs was the largest manufacturer
of haunts in the world. We were the first company to offer "kit
a turn key approach to buying a haunted house. We built 13 kit
haunted houses in 1996. These kit units were great for amusement
parks, but the model was wrong for the average person wanting to get in
haunt business. We were no making any profit and kept having to raise
the price of the kits to where the average person could not make money.
That is when I decided we needed to change the concept. My partner
at the time refused, so I sold the company to him. He still sells the
kit haunts under the name Elm Street Haunted Construction.
HS: Ok, so after
you sold your company, what was the next move
LP: When I left Elm
Street, I started Hauntrepreneurs International, which
is a brokerage company for used attractions.
I also focused on the magazine, which I
had started with a different partner in 1994, I
believe. There was a non-compete clause with the elm Street sale,
so I could not design haunts for the next 2 years or so. I also took
time to get the Haunted Attraction Association off the ground.
HS: What sparked
the motivation to create
"Haunted Attraction Magazine"?
LP: After the article in the Wall Street Journal, all of
the people mentioned in the article started talking to
each other. Some of us were going to be at the Chicago
convention that year, so we agreed to meet.
People started coming by David's booth and mentioned
the article so he invited them to the
gathering. Before long we had about 20 people crammed
into David's hotel room complaining about
codes and fire marshals and stuff. At one point David
stood up and said, "You know what we need,
we need an association!" I remember thinking "That will never
happen, haunters are too secretive." (It was
not until I got on the Halloween L and discovered how
sharing some haunters are and saw 300 people
pay $300 each 3 years in a row to attend the TransWorld seminars,
that I decided an association was possible, but I digress!)
Although I did not think it was likely to happen, I
said the way to start an association would be to
start a newsletter. Something I had wanted to do for some time, but
did not have the time to do it. I did have a mailing
list of several hundred haunters that I had built
through the Pickel Theory books I had been
selling since 1987. (Some business seminar I went to
said, if you want to become an expert in
your field, write a book...so I did!) I offered the
data base to mail out the newsletter, but
only if the rest of the people in the room would send
me articles for it. I contacted each of the
people in the room after the show and got one article
back from Cydney Neil! So the news letter
went on hold. Then I heard rumors that TransWorld was
having a seminar called "Fun and profits in
the Haunted House biz". Earlier that year TransWorld
had purchased my mailing list, and had sent
out invitations to the show. I called and offered my
help to the speaker, but he said, no need. He
figured there would be about 10 haunters there and we
would just have a round table discussion. I
explained that I already knew 20 people who would be
there and that he better have a BIG ROOM!
Over 200 people showed up, most of which I recognized
were on my mailing list. The next year TransWorld
started the Haunted Attraction Seminar series. At the end of
the first seminar, TW announced that they were starting a
newsletter. RATS!!! I had just tried to get
Oliver Holler to help me start one of our own, and
now TW was going to beat me to the punch.
So we came home and gathered up all the articles I had
been collecting and using the data base mailed out the first
issue of Haunted Attraction, an 8 page newsletter, with a
two color cover. Hoping that we would keep TW from
coming out with theirs. Fright Line did come out, but it only
lasted two issues or so. What started out as a newsletter has
grown into the 48 page glossy color magazine that you see today.
HS: How long did it
take before HAM gained a staff and became
a prominent force in this industry?
LP: What staff? The
magazine is my wife and I. We have a great graphics guy in
California, a printer in Colorado and proof reader in Michigan.
I edit, write and try to deal with ad sales, while Jeanne does the
fulfillment. Just keeping track of who has how many issue left,
inputting new subscribers, and mailing out back issues is a full time
HS: Speaking of
your wife, if you don't mind, When did you meet
LP: I met Jeanne in
1980, we started dating in about 1984 and got married in
1990. She has a degree in Physical Education, but ironically
no "business" education. But then if I had known I would some day
own a magazine, I would have taken a journalism class at
least once in my life as well! (smiles).
HS: May I ask, in
your off-time, when you're not quite so
busy, what do you like to do to relax and unwind?
LP: That is part of
the problem, there is little time for vacations! I am a work-a-holic
(diagnosed by Jeanne), and when I am not working, I cannot relax
because of all the things I should be doing. One well kept secret is
that I am a roller skater, but even that is not for leisure, I speed
skated competitively for several years (roller skates, not roller blades). In fact I
Jeanne in a roller rink, where I was DJ at the
time. Seems like another life now. I have some skating
claims to fame, but I was never fast enough
to be really good. It was a lot of fun, and I still go
skating every once and a while.
HS: It seems as
though this has been a hot topic among
haunters as of late, but where do you see a lot of
haunts making mistakes, and what do you think,
can be done in order to re-establish haunts as a
LP: Same thing I
have been preaching for some time. You have
to approach haunting as a business. How many haunters have a
business plan?? Without a plan, how can you
succeed? How do you know where you are going without
goals and a plan?
HS: I know that
some haunts have been raising their prices
without actually raising the quality of their shows to
match the price. How do you feel about
LP: I agree that
haunts are over priced, but as long as people
pay it, you will not get an owner to decrease (the
price). The bigger question is "Have Haunts
EVER been a viable business?" I know they are not a
get rich quick scheme. I know some people
have made some money doing haunts, but a whole lot
more of them have lost their shirts.
HS: I think that
there are some haunters who put on shows that are
well worth the money. I think that haunts used to be
worth the money, but as of late, with the
increase in price and decrease in quality, we (the
industry) have been losing credibility.
LP: Over the past 20 years,
I have seen some haunts that were not
worth the price that were FREE! If that did not hurt
us then, then why now? The missing piece of
the puzzle is an industry wide survey. Asking hard
questions that most of us do not want to answer.
But until we know those answers, and know where
we came from as and industry, we will never know where
we are going. People call me all the time asking who
is the keeper of the numbers? "Where do I find out what
kind of money can be made, what are the average start
up costs, advertising costs" etc. But no one
knows those numbers. One year a guy in Canada was doing
some research for an FEC that was looking into
doing a haunt. He called me and Haunted America and
asked who had the numbers? Now he has a
problem. Someone has paid him to come up with the
(task) of doing a feasibility study for a haunt and there is no data
for him to look at. So he says why not do a survey?
Okay! I had done one back in 1998 or so and
was interested seeing what had changed, so Haunted America
and Haunted Attraction hosted the survey.
You would have thought that I had enacted the greatest
sin of mankind. A few haunters came down on me like
there was no tomorrow. Accused me of wanting
to take over the industry! That anyone stupid enough to
fill out the survey would find me building
a haunt right next door to them, the following year. The
truth was that all of this info went directly to the guy in
Canada, and all I was privy to was the results (which are
posted on the Haunted Attraction Magazine web site to this day)
So, the information that this guy got was
tainted, and there has not been another one since. I
have since tried to ask the IAHA to do one, but
there is always some one who does not want to share,
or will not let you in on his little gold
mine, which kills the idea. Is the Haunt industry in a
down cycle or is it dead? No one knows
because we do not know what Haunts did 10 years ago.
And 10 years from now, we will not know what
they did today.
HS: Speaking of the
IAHA, an association you helped get started,
how did this come about?
LP: When I decided
to sell my interest in Elm Street, I knew I
would have some time on my hands. I had seen all those
people pay big money to sit in a seminar at TransWorld
and decided that an association might be able to work
for the industry. I also looked around at
the "big names" of the day and realized that I was the
only one who did not have a Haunt. With Elm
Street gone, no one could accuse me of starting an
association to benefit just me, (or so I though). So I called a
meeting at Chicago one year. About 300 people showed
up and we talked about whether we needed an
association or not. The consensus was yes and a board
was formed. I had never wanted to run the
association, just to start it. So I have been a loyal
member, but never held office. The IAHA now has
over 400 members.
HS: I have seemed
to notice a lot of arguing and name calling
in this industry. How do you feel about all this? Is
it holding the industry back?
LP: This is a young
industry, with big egos and thin skins.
It does hold us back, makes us look worse to the
entertainment industry and to outsiders, but
people will be people. The best decision I ever made
was to not let what people say about me
to me and just do the best I can at what I do. I cannot
control what people say, and arguing with them just keeps
the mud splashing on you longer.
HS: How do you feel
about many haunted attractions feeling the
need to fill their halls and rooms with props, as
opposed to using an all actor staff?
LP: I have never
found props to be scary. Scaring people is just
like telling them a joke, it is all in the timing.
and I have seen very few props, animatronics
or not that could tell a decent joke! (smiles)
It is that live element that a haunt needs to be scary.
You still need props and set dressing to make the
space feel real, but it is the actor that
scares you! Even the animations that I do use are set off
by an actor to get the timing right!
HS: There has been
a lot of speculation as it relates to your
relationship with Larry Kirchner, of HauntWorld, would
you like to elaborate, and perhaps set the
record straight, putting an end to the rumors?
LP: Larry and I
have agreed to bury the hatchet. Most of the problems
we were having were simple misunderstandings. We even speak
on the phone every once in a while now.
HS:Some of my
readers have sent me questions they would like
for me to ask you. Michael Maxim, of Maniacal
Productions asks, "How does it
feel being in one of the questions in a recent version
of the Trivial Pursuit?"
LP: I was blown
away. It's embarrassing more than anything. To this day I get
embarrassing when people ask me for an autograph. I am
very flattered, but I do not think of myself as any more than
they are. I am just a haunter, doing what I love to do. I feel like
for theirs in return.
HS: Michael Bruner,
of The Monster Maze asks "What results have you seen
personally since you've subscribed to the 'Share
LP: Years ago, I decided that I
can only go to a certain height by myself. At that time I made
a conscious effort to share what I knew, the tricks I have
developed (like the Triangular Grid System, and other aspects
I have developed and I do seminars on), so that people can take what I
have learned, and take it further. This allows me to learn from
what others do with my ideas and to go further than I could with
out the new input. This made DOA possible. If I had been
secretive about what I did, than I could not
collaborate with John Burton. I have learned a great deal
from him in the short time we have been working
together. I hope he would say the same about me.
HS: Speaking of
DOA, Michael Maxim also wants to know, "There
are quite a few haunters that are hyped about your new
DOA project. We are all wondering when you
are going to have the website up and will it contain
more examples of your work?"
LP: We had a site
up, but it disappeared! Still looking into
that. People always ask me how I do everything I do;
VERY SLOWLY I am afraid! We do have plans to
upload more photos of our work, as soon as we can get to
HS: What I want to
know is, what compelled you to form DOA,
and what services does the company offer?
LP: John Burton and I
stared talking a few years after I sold my interests in
Elm Street, and he agreed to join forces and start D.O.A.,
a design, consulting, decoration company. John and I
had known each other for some time, but never worked
together. I needed someone to take some of
the on-site work time off my hands and John needed someone
in an office to help land the projects.
At the time, we were two very similar companies doing the
same thing at the same time. The difference
now from when we were not working together is we
collaborate on stuff. He has really cool ideas, in-depth
knowledge of horror and film, and I help with architectural
nuances and room design concepts. We are proving that two heads are
better than one and you get both of us for the same
price that you would get any one of our competitors.
HS: I understand
that your partner, John was the first to create
a 3D haunt. How did this idea come about and how do
you feel about how widespread the 3D craze
has swept haunts nationwide?
LP: I thought 3-D
would have caught on much faster than it has.
It is an easy less expensive way to do a haunt. John had
considered doing a 3-D haunt back when Jason in 3D
came out. He was trying to use the old red and blue glasses
to make the images 3D, but had given up because
the art was to hard to paint by hand. Then, years
later, he was at the IAAPA show, and some guy
in a booth handed him chromadepth glasses and said
"Look at this isn't it cool?!" Immediately the
wheels started spinning and he experimented with the
art work at a haunt he was doing in Louisville, KY.
The next year, he had a full 3D haunt
at the same place.
HS:I know this must
be a tough subject for all of those who
knew him well, but how has Lance Pope's passing
affected you personally, and how do you think it
will/has affected the industry?
LP: Lance was a
dear friend of mine. He had a rough life and I
knew he would not live to be 100, but his death was a
shock. I will miss him. I hope it will make
haunters realize that life IS short and you can go at
any time, so make the most of the time you
have. AND USE A RESPIRATOR!!!
HS: Lastly, what
advice would you give to somebody trying to
break into this business, whether it be by starting up
a haunt, building props, or any other avenue
they may take?
LP: Do your homework!
Buy every book, every video, every magazine, go to every
seminar, and every gathering. From this knowledge, be realistic and
business plan. If the plan shows you will not make money,
change the plan until it does. If you open a haunt without a plan
you deserve to fail. If you open a haunt on a business plan that
does not prove you will make as much money as you need to make,
then you have only your self to blame when it does not.
I would also recommend you hire a consultant to help you NOT make
the same mistakes that others have made before you. A good
consultant can save you 10 fold the money you will spend on his fees.
small, take baby steps until you get your balance. You do not have to
compete with SpookyWorld your first year!
Pickel is Editor-In-Chief of Haunted Attraction Magazine, as well as
one of the founders of Elm Street Hauntrepreneurs, D.O.A., IAHA. If you
would like more information on Haunted Attraction Magazine and Prion
Inc, be sure to visit their website at www.hauntedattraction.com
Hauntrepreneurs(TM) is a registered trademark of Leonard
Pickel and is used with permission. All photos on this page are
courtesy Leonard Pickel and may not be reproduced without permission.