Behind the Screams: One Night at The 13th Floor

The 13th Floor in Denver is one of the top-ranked haunted attractions in the U.S. We took a look backstage to see how horror is made.
The Denver-based 13th Floor Entertainment Group is taking the business of fear to horrifying new heights.

Founded by Chris Stafford and Warren Conard in 2002, today the group has eight haunted attractions in Denver, Phoenix, San Antonio, Austin and Chicago.

Stafford has been logging a lot or frequent flyer miles this autumn. "I try to hit all of the locations at least once, if not twice, a season," he says.

But he tries to be in Denver for Halloween weekend to be with his kids. "I've got a nine-year-old and a 12-year old," he says. "They think it's cool in theory but they want to keep their distance. . . . We kind of say the haunted house is rated PG-13."

This is no seasonal side gig. Stafford worked in banking when he and Conard launched their first haunted house, now Asylum in northeast Denver, in 2002. He still had his day job through 2008, when The 13th Floor opened in the RiNo area.

That was also the year the financial crisis spooked the markets. "It was scary in 2008," says Stafford, noting that he's difficult to frighten. "It's the fear of the unknown that really gets me."

He quit banking in 2010 to focus on the haunted houses full-time. That was also the year the company merged with Austin-based House of Torment.

Now organized under the umbrella of The 13th Floor Entertainment Group, the combined operation makes a majority of its masks in-house, creates characters, sews costumes and even has a new call center in Denver for all eight attractions.

Each market has a year-round GM. "That's unique," says Stafford. "We tell them to take ownership of their own property and run it the way they'd run their business."

Stafford says he knows of no larger company in the haunt industry. The offseason staff of 25 swells to more than 1,000 around Halloween, and the company is set to rake in more than $10 million in 2015.

And there are plenty of opportunities for growth, he adds. "What we're coming to realize is we created an event platform with administration, finance and marketing," he says. "We've branched out a little bit."

The Great Room Escape, new in 2015, is year-round at five locations, plus those of two licensees, and the company produces events at other times of year, including Valentine X in February and the Zombie Apocalypse Tour that paired laser tag with haunted houses to multiple locations. "It's nice to have a consistent, year-round revenue base," says Stafford, noting that the group is also looking at opening haunts in other cities in the future.

Running the show

"I've always loved Halloween," says Tye Olmsted, the Denver-based Senior GM of 13th Floor Entertainment Group. "Ever since I remember, I set up decorations at my house and tried to scare the neighbor kids."

He went pro after college. Olmsted started at The 13th Floor part-time in 2006 as a seasonal manager and became a full-time employee in 2010.

13th Floor Senior GM Tye Olmsted says it's about creating the unexpected.He initially had to balance a day job at the airport with the haunt. "I had to be there at 5:30 in the morning," he says. "I was in my twenties -- who needs sleep?"

When Conard and Stafford expanded into San Antonio, Olmsted became their go-to employee in Denver. "They needed somebody there full-time," he says. "In the offseason, it's a regular nine-to-five job." During peak Halloween season, he gets to work at about 4 p.m. and works until midnight.

Now his schedule clashes a bit with his non-haunt life, but it's not because of a day job. "I've got a seven-month-old at home. She sleeps through the night -- but not on my schedule."

A big part of the job is managing the crew of monsters and maniacs. "On our busy nights, we'll have 80 to 90 people employees," says Olmsted. "Most of them are actors." The cast includes "all walks of life," he adds, with everyone from high-school students to lawyers on a given night.

He's always on the lookout for big guys to man the chainsaws, but size isn't everything. "A lot of out werewolf costumes come in small sizes and they're built up, so they've got to be pretty small."

Olmsted the end goal is giving customers "a good scare. We want the rest of the experience to be invisible."

"We're always looking for the unexpected," he adds. "We're always trying to surprise people."

That means improving the attraction year after year. But some things don't change, like the Laser Swamp, a layer of glowing green mist obscures the tight, waist-high passage. "Everybody loves the swamp," says Olmsted. "I don't think we could ever get rid of that. The two things people talk about the most are the laser swamp and the spinning tunnel."

"As we've grown, it's about trying to figure out how to cater to larger crowds," says Olmsted. The company doesn't release attendance numbers, but Olmsted says, "Halloween's never our busiest night, but we'll be pretty busy the night before. I think it's scarier on the weeknights because there's less people."

Olmsted would know. "I go through a couple times a night," he explains. Because the actors know what the boss looks like, he's difficult to spook, but it's not impossible. "It's when someone is not where I expected them to be -- that's when they get me."

Backstage at The 13th Floor

At about 6 p.m., the actors start to arrive and by 7 p.m. the wardrobe and makeup trailer is a madhouse, with a frenzy of creepy costumed characters coming to life.

Jenn Burback needs 30 minutes to an hour to transform into Mayhem.In her ninth season, Jenn Burback plays Mayhem, a demonic clown who roams the parking lot and spooks the crowd. She freelances with 13th Floor for other events and also makes costumes for the company. It takes her about 30 minutes to an hour to transform into Mayhem.

What does she love most about the job? "I think it's the adrenaline rush," Burback answers. "I love entertaining people."

But you get used to the nervous energy that comes with performing, she adds. "It's just another night. It's normal."

Dustin Salas helps out with makeup and is playing a caged, chainsaw-wielding clown this season. The role belies his soft-spoken nature when he's out of costume and not ranting homicidally.

"I've always been into acting," he says. "I like working with all of the other actors and scaring the customers."

Stephen "Pip" Roffi moved to Denver in part because of The 13th Floor. He's worked at haunts for 13 seasons in Massachusetts and two in Colorado. "It's weird," says Roffi, "When you start, you meet people that have been working the haunt for four or five years, and think that's a long time. I'm now at 15 years and it’s not nearly long enough."

At about 7 p.m., the makeup trailer is a frenzy of monsters, mutants and clowns.It almost goes without saying that he has no plans to retire. "I'll be doing this til I die. It's something that's in your blood, no pun intended."

"We're a bunch of people who never stopped playing make-believe," Roffi adds. "For me, make-believe is what I do the other 11 months. This is where I feel comfortable being myself and playing with the dark side I know I have."

Another actor, Josh Causey has portrayed most every monster imaginable. He says he was an "outcast" in school, and notes, "This is like a family. There are people here I trust with my life."

Johnny Livermore is getting ready for showtime, dressed as a twisted clown with a pointy hat and a shiver-inducing grin.

What does he like most about the job? "Getting paid to be weird," he laughs.

Livermore takes his place in the haunt just before the doors open at 7:30 p.m., the first customers enter the attraction, and the screams and revving chainsaws begin to echo out to Brighton Boulevard.

In other words, it's just business as usual at The 13th Floor.

Additional reporting and writing by Mitchell Gilmer.
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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