Screamworks on the 13th Floor and Rising

Screamworks has been in business since 2002, but the RiNo-based producer of the 13th Floor and other haunted houses has soared to terrifying new heights in the last three years.
Screamworks Co-Founders Warren Conard and Chris Stafford met working at a haunted house in the late 1980s, and went into the business as operators 13 years later by buying an existing attraction and branding it The Asylum.

The duo opened the first 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver in 2008 after developing the idea for several years. Now they're at six haunted houses in all, after opening three more 13th Floor locations in Phoenix, San Antonio and McAllen, Texas, since 2010.

The 13th Floor is their signature concept, a boundless universe of horrors from every corner of the genre. "At a place called The Asylum, you're kind of locked into an asylum," explains Conard. The 13th Floor is much more flexible. "Each one is a little different. They're all based on the premise that buildings don't have a 13th floor. What's on that 13th floor that you can't see."

To this end, the 13th Floor haunted houses up the ante on fear with everything from mutants to ghosts to serial killers and a host of "giant, crazy, weird animatronics," says Conard.

Don't Be A MonsterChris Stafford, Screamworks Co-Founder.

Last year, Stafford spearheaded the launch of Don't Be A Monster, an anti-bullying nonprofit that brings costumed characters and a video to middle schools to raise awareness of bullying.

Frank Shelly, a Frankenstein's-like monster, is the target of a bully in the program. "Monsters belong in a haunted house, not in school," says Conard of the premise.

Don't Be A Monster has taken off in year two, with a number of top dark attractions getting on board. The "thousands" of kids exposed in year one could quickly snowball to "millions," he adds. "It's spreading like that."

Conard and Stafford are now pushing for an official National Haunted House Day -- targeted for the second Friday in October -- and an initiative where the country's 2,500 haunted attractions donate a portion of ticket sales to Don't Be A Monster.

Seasonal spikes and stormy weather

Headquartered in RiNo, Screamworks has about a dozen year-round employees, but the staff jumps to about 500 for the month of October. "That's a lot of people," says Conard. "The HR part of things takes so much time."

Weather is the prime factor that impacts sales. "The weather can have any Monday or Tuesday it wants, but don't take a Friday or a Saturday," says Conard.

"We know wherever we are, there's some types of weather or local phenomena that can affect us," he explains. In Phoenix, monsoons were expected, but the October heat caught them by surprise. "Now air-conditioning is worked into our budget."

There are plans for more 13th Floor locations, says Conard. "We don't know how many we're going to open," he says. "There's no way we could do 15 haunted houses. We'll probably open two new ones next year."The horrors of the 13th Floor Haunted House come from every macabre corner of the genre.

"The majority of the haunted-house industry, they don't work on it from November on," says Conard. "For us, it's our job."

That means developing proprietary 13th Floor characters like Mr. Hollows, Eris and John Doe, designing and making latex and silicone masks in-house and working on custom effects and animatronics with such vendors as Greeley-based Distortions Unlimited. They used the 2012-13 offseason to write an 80-page operations manual for forthcoming 13th Floor locations and are looking at opening a centralized production facility to support future growth.

"If we buy masks, we have the same masks everybody has," says Conard. "People are spending a lot of money for tickets and we want to deliver. The reason people come to a haunted house is to see things they don't normally see. What we're putting together, you can't see it anywhere else."

Conard and Stafford appeared on Making Monsters, the Travel Channel reality series that covers Ed and Marsha Edmunds of Distortions Unlimited, as they developed "The Dogs," a pair of demonic canines and their monster that's got some artificial intelligence and sensors powered by Microsoft Kinect.

"It's the only one like it it the world," says Conard. "It senses who's in the room and picks out one person as the enemy and everybody else is neutral. It follows the enemy through the room and harrasses them. It even knows when you are talking to it."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts