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Frightmares Haunted house is a labor of Halloween love

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Some haunted house patrons say hello to a friendly clown at last year's Frightmares.

Some haunted house patrons say hello to a friendly clown at last year's Frightmares.

John Rusnak has spent the last three weeks — 15 hours a day — preparing a gauntlet that should elicit adrenalin, fear and piercing screams from the anyone willing to pay for the pleasure. It’s his second year at the helm of Frightmares Extreme Haunted House, part of a love affair with scaring people that goes back more than two decades.

“I first worked in one 25 years ago,” explains Rusnak, “at the old Gulf Gate Mall, back in the day.” The next year, he built one of his own in Desoto Square Mall, then was recruited to help with Tomb of Terror at the Sarasota Fairgrounds.

In 2004, he began helping the Sailor Circus with its annual haunted house, but when it closed two years ago, he knew it was time to branch out on his own. As a hobby more than a business, mind you.

“We’re not like up north, where there are shows that make millions of dollars,” says Rusnak. “Here, most shows break even at best.”

Rusnak explains that if you tried to make Frightmares from scratch, it could easily cost you over $100,000 to set it up. That’s why his annual love affair with Halloween is more of a year-round hobby.

“Basically, my buddies and I spend all year going to auctions, hospital Dumpsters, buildings being torn down, stuff like that,” says Rusnak. “We scavenge doors, hustle up props, find stuff that could be useful.”

Rusnak describes himself as a “struggling independent filmmaker” who loves entertaining and uses his own movie prop collection to accent the haunted house.

So, what scares people?

“You have to try to find different phobias that people are bugged by — small rooms, clowns (people really hate clowns), some people are scared of gore effects. You just go deep into your brain and think of what would freak you out.”

He plays with light and darkness to set a mood and augment frightening moments, uses classic techniques like blasts of air, pneumatic characters that leap at the guests and lots of “jump-out scares.”

Even after all those years, he’s still surprised by what frightens people.

“You never know what’s going to scare people, you could have a $10,000 prop that looks great and people yawn,” he says. “Then you can have a $10 air blast that freaks people out.”

He’s assisted by a big group of volunteers who help set up the house, as well as actors who perform nightly, some from the days of the Sailor Circus haunted house. Like Rusnak, they’re working because they love Halloween.

Frightmares kicked off last year at the old Sam Seltzer Steakhouse building on Tamiami Trail, but this year moved into bigger digs in the barn at the Sarasota Fairgrounds. Rusnak hopes that will help grow the haunted house, which he would like to expand as it builds momentum.

“If it keeps building, little by little we want to bring in a carnival to go with it and do multiple haunted houses and make it all inclusive,” says Rusnak. “Without the big funding and sponsors, we have to do it small, but I want it to become a big Sarasota event that everyone comes to.”

Rusnak mentions that the Fairgrounds are haunted, so I ask him if he believes in paranormal activity.

“I don’t know, man,” he says, laughing. “But it is cool, isn’t it?”

 

FRIGHTMARES EXTREME HAUNTED HOUSE 7:30-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and Oct. 24-25; 8 p.m.-midnight Oct. 26; 7:30-11 p.m. Oct. 27; 7:30-10:30 p.m. Oct. 29; 7:30-11:30 p.m. Oct. 30-Nov. 1. $16. Sarasota Fairgrounds. frightmareshauntedhouse.com.
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Brian Ries

Brian Ries is the editor of ticketsarasota.com.
Last modified: October 17, 2013
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