Ryan Pluta has 26 seasons of Halloween haunted houses under his belt — from his days as a chain-saw-wielding teenage monster to his years as an entrepreneur and industry veteran.
And he still asks himself every year: How can he build a better scare?
This year marks his 10th as the owner of Carnival of Horrors on the grounds of Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, where his campus of four distinct attractions has grown and evolved every year.
Each night, he posts himself outside the Freakshow and greets survivors, where a simple nod and “Hope you had a good time” gives folks the opportunity to open up about their experience.
Comments, along with his own observations about human behavior, are what he relies on in crafting his haunts.
After 26 years, one thing hasn’t changed.
“I just want people to be scared,” he said. “That’s how I grew up, that’s what I think is fun. I want them to be scared first, impressed second.”
Visitors to the Carnival of Horrors start at the Fun House, with an “extremely high-intensity scare” experience, he said.
Those who don’t turn back move on to the Wicked Woods, where each group is given a flashlight and let loose in a forested section of the Blossom grounds.
There are no props here — just 50 monsters waiting to find them.
“It’s most people’s worst fear: walking through the woods in the dark. So we let people’s imaginations do the work,” Pluta said.
Then comes the Insane Asylum, a cage maze with strobe lights, thick fog and pulsing music.
This maze has no dead ends. Some folks get through in 10 minutes. Others have been known to walk around in circles for half an hour, he said.
The grand finale is the Freakshow, a 3-D house where bright neon images have visitors so wowed by the technology, they may not notice that some of those 3-D images are real human beings.
“It’s art, yes, but again, you design around the scare,” Pluta said. “It’s the scare that’s important.”
The last decade has been a relatively successful, steady journey for Pluta, who suffered a series of setbacks before beginning his run at Blossom.
His back-to-back-to-back nightmares began in 2000 when an E. coli scare at the Medina County Fairgrounds — where faulty underground water pipes sickened patrons — forced him to shut down his haunted attraction there well before Halloween.
The next year, terrorists struck the World Trade Center three weeks before he was to open.
“After 9/11, it just wasn’t the same. I think psychologically, people didn’t want to go get scared,” he said.
And the year after that, arsonists set fire to where he’d moved his haunted houses to Lorain, wiping him out.
In 2003, without so much as a plastic skeleton to his name, he approached Blossom Music Center, which was running its own attraction.
“I talked to them about taking it over. I didn’t want to run it. I wanted to own it so I could do things my way, so we worked out a deal for me to pay rent, and I bought some of their stuff and we got started again,” Pluta said.
The three houses are created out of pavilions that Pluta’s team encloses as Blossom’s concert season winds down.
When Carnival of Horrors opened last Saturday, Pluta had about 100 monsters on the payroll.
“I lost a lot of animatronics in the fire, but they’re not so unique anymore and I don’t think they’re all that scary,” he said. “It’s more expensive to rely on people. If you invest in a prop, it gets paid off and you’re done. But I like real monsters, and people interacting with them. At the end of the day, we just want to be proud of the experience we provided.”
Admission to Carnival of Horrors is $19, although $3 coupons are available at several businesses. Check the main Web page at http://www.carnivalofhorrors.com for a list of sponsors.
For parents who are driving their children, or folks too unnerved to make it through all four attractions, there is a concession area with picnic tables and a “no monsters allowed” policy.
“It’s a safe zone,” Pluta said.
Otherwise, there is no age restriction to ticket purchases.
“I see little kids go through and have a good time, and I see people my age who are out of there the first time they see a fire exit,” Pluta said.
Carnival of Horrors operates Friday, Saturday and Sunday, starting at 7:30 p.m., through Nov. 2.