When I landed in Carbondale, Illinois for my MFA program at Southern Illinois University, the local paper announced: “SIUC Voted Number One Party School by Playboy”. I thought to myself, this is gonna be quite an interesting ride. I had no idea I would eventually meet some of the most superb, big-hearted, and truly talented theatre-weirdos who I’d adore to this day. One of the standouts was a warm, open, mop-haired character with a big laugh and a tribe of like minded friends. He’s living proof that creativity, ingenuity, smarts and a “let’s put on a show, kids!” attitude can take you pretty far.
For John LaFlamboy, it made him one of the reigning kings of haunted houses across the country, an idea he had as a teen, later developed and supported through a professor at SIUC. His company, Zombie Army Productions, has been producing award winning haunted houses, events, films, and theatre for the past 20 years in Chicagoland. His production of Statesville Haunted Prison has been a nationally ranked attraction, and holds the distinction of being the most critically acclaimed haunted house in Chicago history. His latest project, HellsGate Haunted House, has just been named “Top 13 Scariest Haunted House in the World”, by Hauntworld Magazine, in just its third year.
And, let the record show, that he’s confirmed I’m his favorite tall, blonde SIUC alum, especially when I’m dressed like Mrs. Cratchit from A Christmas Carol. But that’s another story for another day…
Tell us about your humble beginnings, and how they relate to your early affinity for haunted houses.
At the end of the day, I am a storyteller. Growing up the oldest of seven in the southwest area of Chicago, my family didn’t have much. So, creating games and telling stories to entertain my brothers and sisters was how I would babysit and help my mom. The better the story, the longer they would sit still….the safer it was for the whole neighborhood. As the kids got older, my stories would get scarier and ultimately, I would add a walk outside to heighten the tale. Eventually, I found myself bringing friends from school on walks in the woods or around the local “scary house” while I told them my stories. This evolution of ghost stories lasted a few years and would gather crowds of sixty kids that would meet me in a parking lot and eagerly follow me into random forests or abandoned buildings as I told them a story.
How did SIUC encourage you to go forward with your first haunted house project?
In high school, I proposed that our theatre department should produce a haunted house as a fundraiser. It made sense to me. We had all the necessary talent and materials. By using our costumers, designers, artists, builders, actors and more, we would eliminate any middleman and get straight to those profits. Not to mention, I believed haunted houses were just another form of theatre, and that was our field of interest. Unfortunately, it was 1992, haunted houses were not yet mainstream, and I was a sixteen-year-old kid. It was a hard pass for the powers that be.
Luckily for me, just a few short years later, I had the opportunity to present a clearer vision of my idea to the Dean of the theatre department at SIUC, Dr. Sarah J. Blackstone. My idea was not just to produce a haunt, but to create a company of theatre makers that would develop their own market in haunted houses. We would use our theatre education to produce haunts, and the haunted house market would keep us from bussing tables while we pursued theatre. As a test of concept, I wanted to produce a small haunted house in the mall to raise money that would send the theatre students to a theatre conference.
While everyone else in the room thought I was crazy, Dr. Blackstone wrote me a $900 check from her personal bank account, and said, “show me what you can do”. After two weeks of scaring and entertaining families in the mall, the $900 investment created $6,000 in profits. We used that money to pay all the expenses for twenty-six theatre students to travel to Miami and audition or interview for a professional theatre job. Of those twenty-six students, twenty-three of them received a job and I had my “a-ha” moment. I knew I found something special.
After University, when you were first producing haunted houses in Chicago, what was your budget, and how did you raise the funds?
After graduating, thesis in hand, I started my first year at Statesville Haunted Prison. We didn’t have anything like we do today. Our sets were repurposed garbage from the scrap yard and the entire budget was less than $16,000. But our theatre background led us down some really creative repurposes for that trash and it forced us to think outside of the box. Our acting crew of twenty was made up of a few friends from school, my brothers and sisters, cousins, and a handful of local high school kids. We didn’t have money or a large team, but we had passion and we were having fun.
What was your big break in the business?
There is no “big break” here. Just our mission to be better tomorrow than we are today. That is our promise to our audience each and every year. This is our personal challenge to ourselves as artists, dig deeper, reach further and fail greater. To that end, we tear out 30% of our show every year and create something new. Once you tear it out, the challenge is set. Above all, I think this mentality is what keeps our audience returning year after year.
What was your worst day on the job?
In 2014 I invested my life savings into a high concept “Comedy/Horror” haunted house that would be featured at Riot Fest Chicago in September and on a barge at Navy Pier Chicago in October. On Halloween, 2014, a 100-year storm ravaged Navy Pier with twenty-three-foot waves and sunk my haunted house.
I stood there in the apocalyptic like storm and watched my life saving sink to the bottom of Lake Michigan in slow motion. Yeah, that was a tough day.
Best day on the job?
Opening HellsGate! I had been fighting to find the perfect location and capital investment for my dream haunted house for over ten years. Life has a funny way of really making you work for it….and sometimes it sinks your life saving first to really make you appreciate it. But after all those years of creating something that only lived in my mind, watching it all come to life for thousands of other people to enjoy was an incredible feeling of satisfaction and relief. It was a little like giving birth to five-hundred-pound evil baby with a dark sense of humor after ten years of labor and several false contractions.
How do you get kids involved?
We have an internship program for local high school students. We offer workshops for acting and building to all the kids that have found a home at the haunted house. We also arrange field trips, help some kids get their GEDs, and host game nights and movie nights throughout the year.
Why “Zombie Army”, and how can someone become an un/official member?
The name “Zombie Army” was actually more of a nickname in our early years. We had the reputation of working incredibly long hours and our crew would keep working way past exhaustion. So, people kept saying, “You guys look like the walking dead, like a Zombie Army.” I figured the nickname regarding our work ethic, and our love for zombie films and haunted houses, it seemed like a perfect fit. It also allowed me the opportunity to create a unique branding “look” for the team and our projects. The haunt industry is a sea of black hoodies and black t shirts. I, of course, wanted to be different. So, I used army green as our color, and repurposed military gear to create our look. When we roll into a convention or event, we travel with the green Zombie Army Bus and our crew is dressed in our green Zombie Army jackets. The unique branding separates us from the sea of black and lets everyone know just how large the army actually is.
Tell us all about your new space, and all the cool things people can look forward to this season.
Our newest haunted house is HellsGate Haunted House. It is a 1920 mansion hidden in the woods. Our audience must take a shuttle bus down a deserted road, get dropped in a vacant lot, walk into the dark forest, across the cemetery, and up the hill before they even find the entrance to the house. Once inside the mansion, they must find their way through the secret passages, up to the attic, down the slide to the basement, navigate through the Dragon Caves, and if they find the Key to HellsGate….their ticket is free. We are going into our third season here at HellsGate and we just added the Dragon Caves for our 2018 show.
What’s the most off-the-wall haunted house thing you did/made/produced/can’t believe you did or tried?
Putting a haunted house on a barge.
Why are haunted houses important these days?
When I started, I believed that we had a mix of horror fans, people that wanted to be entertained, and those that wanted to face down fear in some sort of primal rite of passage tradition for young adults. I still think all of those apply, but now more than ever, I believe we are all craving live interactive experiences. In a world of people contently feeding from tiny digital screens, streaming and downloading all of their entertainment to watch alone, the human animal is craving connection to the herd. To that end, haunted houses are live interactive experiences. People travel here with friends, family and dates to not just have the experience, but to share in the group experience. They celebrate each other as they get scared or face down the monster, and the monster itself is here for all the same reasons.
Tell us something only an insider would know?
1 Almost all blood in a haunted house is corn syrup, chocolate syrup, and red food dye.
2 The original Michael Myers mask from Halloween was a William Shatner mask turned inside out.
3 Disney’s Haunted Mansion was originally designed to be a walk through haunted house.
What’s your dream for haunted house world domination, if money, time and manpower were totally unlimited?
Ever since I was a student at SIUC, I dreamed of owning a building set in a forest. A facility that would house my vision of a new kind of haunted house, a studio space to create films, and place in which artists of all kind would feel at home creating their art. That was my dream. I am now two years into realizing that dream. HellsGate Haunted House is what I have been chasing all these years. After eighteen years of carving out our path, I am incredibly grateful to wake up every day and go play with my friends and family at our job.
To visit John’s scary dream house, go to hellsgate.com.