Oh, What a Fright: Fairgrounds opens Four New Haunted Houses

Artist Craig McInnis has one of the wildest seasonal jobs imaginable: creative director of Fright Nights at the South Florida Fairgrounds. This means that McInnis and his team of designers are the slightly demented minds between the four haunted walk-throughs—and the dozens of roving “scare-actors”—that transform that normally placid fairgrounds into what McInnis calls a “carnival of creeps” for four ghoulish weekends.

For this year’s Fright Nights, which opens tonight (Oct. 11), “we have almost 200 different kinds of zombies, demons, witches, clowns, ghosts, vengeful spirits, you name it, all trying to get people,” Mcinnis says. For the dozens of volunteers suiting themselves up in horror garb and makeup—in addition to the paid cast of 120—the appeal of scaring strangers outweighs the potential drawbacks.

“I mean, it’s hard as hell,” McInnis says. “You might sprain your ankle, you’re going to scratch your arm, you’re going to be tired, your voice is going to be thrashed. But it’s an adrenaline rush that’s hard to explain. And once you do it, you’re addicted to it. … People get hooked. There’s nothing like it.

“It’s good for the soul,” he adds. “It’s good for the person that’s being scared, and it’s good for the scarer too. Everyone gets a little jolt of endorphins, and it keeps the blood flowing. I see it as a positive, even though horror has this negative vibe to it, because of the fake violence associated with it. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about all of us having fun.”

We asked to McInnis to comment on each of the four rooms at this season’s Fright Nights, and here’s what he had to say.

Sunny Shores Hotel

“That is the brainchild of Travis Martin. Travis has been honing that layout for a while. We’ve used it with different themes. The fact that we wanted to put zombies into it this year didn’t come from anywhere particular other than that we have an affinity for them, and we love to put zombies into everyday scenarios. And a hotel is a great place to do that, because it has the repetition of the rooms, and some of the utility areas, which just become super-creepy when you know that something could be lunging out from behind a washing machine, or from the closet of a hotel room. It was a way to combine two of our favorite things: The mundane, everyday set design mixed with the undead is just a nice juxtaposition.”

Dead Time Stories

“Dead Time Stories is the brainchild of Jeremy Schroader. He’s one of our veteran designers who’s been with us since day one, in 2002. He has an affinity for books and reading, so he often pulls from history. He had something with plague doctors a few years ago, and Dr. Frankenstein, and Nosferatu. He likes to put that historical edge into it. Those stories have so many colorful characters—and a lot of them, if you read the originals, like the Brothers Grimm, they don’t have that cute Mother Goose edge to them. They are kind of dark and mysterious. So it’s a fertile place to get ideas from, and his house kind of meanders through a bunch of different stories. Room by room, you’re taken through a big fat storybook.”

Cukoo’s Nest 3

“This is like a little franchise for us. It’s always done so well. We do refurbish the map—we try to add new things every year when we do a repeat. People either love or hate clowns, so it’s a nice fertile ground for haunted house ideas. And then you take the insane asylum edge to make it a perfect monster. We love to do insane asylums, because we’re all fans of the second season of “American Horror Story.” I think it’s still my favorite. So we pull a lot of visual cues from there, and then the clown thing is our sweet spot. We’re all clown fans. There probably will always be a healthy dose of clowns, and Cukoo’s Nest 3 is a culmination of that—wrapping up this big story that Kelly Goodman put together over the last three seasons.”

El Orfanato—Evil Between the Walls

“We did an orphanage a while ago called Sunnyville Orphanage. This is not a pickup on that; it’s a little bit different in the way it comes across. Jon and Klaudia Cramasta joined us last year to bring us their first haunt. In this one, the kids have been mistreated and abused for decades, and now the orphanage is full of vengeful spirits. It’s almost sad at times, if you really get your head in the game, but as a haunted house, it’s really super-creepy. I would say it’s the other side of the spectrum—you’ve got the over-the-top-ness of the zombies in the hotel, and the clowns in the asylum, and then you’ve got the dismal feeling of the orphanage, with these creepy kids in it.

“They managed to cast a couple of actual kids, so that always adds to the creepiness. That scare is coming at you from a lot lower of a level—literally. When they come running out of a closet or something, it’s really scary!”

Fright Nights run through Nov. 2 at South Florida Fairgrounds, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach. Admission costs $25, and includes 30 Fright Tickets; haunted houses cost eight Fright Tickets each, with midway rides and attractions running two to five tickets apiece. Visit myfrightnights.com.