On a recent Saturday night, I found myself being chased through a claustrophobic maze by a maniacally laughing clown. I was visiting the Haunted Hayride–a Halloween-themed extravaganza, helmed by an radio industry transplant, that is expanding across the country with a little help from the ABC series Shark Tank. The clown didn’t get me, but the dozens of other people in the maze with me all enjoyed the scare.
The Haunted Hayride is the brainchild of Melissa Carbone, a former sales manager at radio firm Clear Channel (now iHeart Media). It currently operates in both Los Angeles and New York; the Los Angeles iteration of the event, held in and around an abandoned zoo in Griffith Park, employs hundreds of actors and attracts an average of 15,000 guests each weekend. This West Coast location includes 24-minute-long hayrides on giant flatbed trucks slowly driving past a series of scary tableaus, a child-oriented theatre where young visitors can reenact scenes from movies like Jaws, a (considerably scarier than the hayride) Halloween maze, an interactive theatre installation, and more.
Carbone’s Halloween-themed firm Ten Thirty One Productions is at the center of a massive industry. Back in 2010, market research firm IBISWorld found that Americans spend about $6 billion annually on Halloween. Older revelers use the holiday as a rationale to squeeze into sexy costumes and have a few drinks and younger celebrants busily keep America’s candy companies in business.
The popularity of the holiday also propelled Carbone onto Shark Tank. In her 2013 appearance, show judge and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban invested the biggest sum ever seen on the show–$2 million–on the Haunted Hayride. But before that, the event had to get established.
“There was a short learning curve,” Carbone told me on the phone when I asked about the Haunted Hayride’s beginnings in 2009. Her roots in advertising showed up when she explained that “We were a small first-year attraction but we marketed it like Disney. There was a spot an hour on some stations that year. Radio in Los Angeles was pretty much the prevalent medium at that time; Spotify and Pandora didn’t have the market share they have now.”
Flash-forward a few years later to 2015, and thousands of actors showed up to the Haunted Hayride’s auditions to try out for approximately 260 roles. To hear Carbone explain it, Shark Tank reached out to them several years ago because they were looking for companies for a Halloween-themed show. Her company declined because they didn’t want to give up equity, but they gave it a shot the next year.
“Everyone on Shark Tank was game, and they were easy to work with,” she explained. “I did a pitch for $2 million and I didn’t think anyone would take the deal…but that’s how things came about, and I’m happy we took that path because Mark has been a great partner from a networking and mentoring standpoint. It’s been super beneficial, and I am super grateful.”
But with the new funding came tweaks to the Haunted Hayride’s feel. In order to expand and in order to scale, they tweaked the scariness down a few notches and increased the family friendliness a bit. In previous years, the Hayride’s script and efforts were quite a bit gorier. Ten Thirty One began a separate spin-off event called the Great Horror Campout for the scare fanatics, and modified the Hayride to become more appealing to families. The end goal? As she puts it, “We take city-dwelling Angelenos, and put them in the dark woods at night.”
It’s also a massive logistical task. Ten Thirty One begins planning each year’s Hayride in January, and goes scene-by-scene for the entire hayride, writing scripts and figuring out scenes and props. “We create a theme, and go scene-by-scene and figure out what we want the world to look and feel like,” Carbone explained.
“We build and source a few months after that. The process of loading in each year becomes more streamlined, at least. Our site in Los Angeles is 30 acres, and we actually build it in 10 days. That’s an incredibly short timeline to work with–prior to that we build it in warehouses, and 10 days before opening we bring pieces to the site in trucks. We have a sound and lighting crew that adds sounds to each scene. As cast members turn their head, it triggers beats and musical changes in the music, and it’s a very dramatic experience. Setting that up takes time.”
Ten Thirty One’s next goal is expanding their footprint in New York and launching in further markets after that. It hasn’t been easy; in New York, they’ve contended with fickle weather, a much smaller site footprint on Randall’s Island, and even thieves making off with outdoor speakers. But the profits are considerable–in Los Angeles, tickets start at $30 per person and soar upwards to approximately $60 for premium packages that allow guests to skip the very long lines that show up at every attraction.
Visiting the Hayride is also, as it turns out, incredibly fun. Guests ranged from small children to senior citizens, and everyone was having a ball. Some guests, despite the event’s big-budget aspirations, were even having too much fun: I walked past an inebriated gentleman relieving himself on his friend’s car within two minutes of parking in the event lot. Ten Thirty One may have toned down the blood and the gore, but you’re still sitting in a flatbed truck while actors do wink-and-a-nod tributes to The Purge and Children of the Corn as you drive through the hills. Long may it ride.