Woods of Terror is Eddie McLaurin’s heartfelt Haunt
Eddie McLaurin remembers the time a cop punched a performer at Woods of Terror.
“We don’t tolerate customers hitting our actors, not even when the customer is an off-duty Asheboro police officer. My kids bust their butts to put on a great haunted house, and I look out for them.”
While the off-duty officer wasn’t there working security, an off-duty Guilford County sheriff was. “He went up to the cop and said ‘you ain’t in Asheboro now, boy,’ and threw him right out.”
McLaurin opened the Woods of Terror at 5601 N. Church in Greensboro in 1991. It seems safe to say that the popular Halloween attraction has become his life’s work. It’s certainly his year-round job.
“I’ve been doing it full-time for 12 or 13 years now, and I put 90% of my profits back into it,” McLaurin said. When he’s not running the show as his character Bone Daddy along with his big yellow python, Spawn, he’s working on the next one.
“I’ve been wanting to do an insane asylum, and it’s been almost a two-year process so far, and won’t open until September of 2020. The spot where it will be was originally nothing but a gulley and maybe 30 trees, so first there was all the groundwork, cutting, clearing and leveling, filling in that gulley with 500 Bobcat loads of dirt, and building a retaining wall.”
Next, he had to build the structure, complete with code-approved electric work, and “distress” it, meaning paint or otherwise make the sturdy and safe new building look old and run-down. Then it was time to decorate the set.
“Traveled up through Virginia, down to South Carolina, and to the tip of Georgia, buying old medical equipment, gurneys, all kinds of stuff you would see in an insane asylum,” he said. “That stuff is very hard to find, and when you do find it, it’s expensive.”
All for an attraction that won’t even open until 2020, and will have required several years of work. “Probably with that one, we’re going to require the kids to shave their heads. It’s going to be a big level of commitment; if you want to act in the asylum, you have to shave your head. That will just take them to the next step, and create a tighter bond from what those kids had to do to be in this attraction.”
For almost three decades, McLaurin has been running what’s known in his trade as a Haunt (aka a Haunted Attraction). In my own childhood, they were mostly rickety carnival attractions, the interiors of which rarely delivered on the gory, garish promises of their painted plywood ballyhoo. Decades later, larger attractions sprouted across the country in the woods outside of city lights, glowing in the darkness like sinister spectral mushrooms in graveyard soil.
One ancestor of the modern Haunt was Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (“The Theater of the Great Puppet”), which despite its name, used live actors and was a tiny Parisian venue specializing in gory plays. Another was Marie Tussaud, a refugee who made wax sculptures of the French Revolution’s victims, and in 1835, she opened a London museum where the most popular attraction was the Chamber of Horrors, displaying a working guillotine and famous murderers.
The first actual haunted attraction was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House, which opened in 1915 in Liphook, England, and is now part of the Hollycombe Steam Collection. Like later carnival haunted houses, both the walk-in variety and “dark rides,” it relied on dangling skeletons and figures behind mirrors or in glass cases that suddenly lit up, usually accompanied by a horn and a blast of air.
In the ‘50s through the early ‘70s, second-run cinemas held Halloween and Friday the 13th shows, which included not only horror films but performers dressed as monsters emerging from behind the screen (or curtains) and “attacking” the audience.
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion opened in 1969, its expensive animatronics inspiring big year-round Haunts in major cities and theme parks. Perhaps more influential were Halloween Haunted Houses held by the Jaycees for charity. In high school, I performed in one, wearing a mask borrowed from my neighbor Tom Savini (the future special makeup effects maestro who would create Jason), and carrying my boa constrictor Rocky Balboa the way McLaurin carries his much bigger python (sadly for teenaged me, no girls wanted to pose with Rocky the way thousands have with Spawn).
Jaycee Haunted Houses proved such dependable fundraisers that Bloomington chapter head Tom Hilligoss wrote a manual and formed the “Haunted House Company” to help other chapters. The first haunted house expert, Hilligoss traveled and gave seminars on constructing houses, training actors and applying makeup. Inevitably, others started doing the same thing for profit. Today, it’s a $300 million industry, with 2,500 haunted attractions, most in the U.S.
I asked McLaurin if, when he was a kid, he’d been as fond of even the cheapest carnie spook show as I’d been. Surprisingly, he said no.
“I lived a pretty sheltered life, a Christian-based life, where I didn’t watch a lot of horror movies and didn’t even listen to much secular music. I do remember going to one at the Greensboro Science Center when I was 7 or 8, and then again when I was 13.”
So, how did he get his start in the Haunt trade?
He said he just sort of fell into it as a young man when he and a couple of friends went on a lark to a local Haunt, in which another friend was acting.
“We thought that was pretty cool,” he said. “Later, my friend who acted in it said he worked four weeks and only made $50. When I asked him what the guy who hired him made, he said $18,000. I was working minimum wage when it was $5.25, and after taxes, I wasn’t making but $15,000 in a year. So, I thought, let’s do that, and I said, come work for me, and I’ll pay you a hundred bucks.”
From there, it just grew. “About 10 years in, I found out about something called Transworld’s Halloween & Attractions Show, which was then in Rosemont, Illinois, now in St. Louis. It was about 10 times the size of the Greensboro Coliseum. I went there and met a couple and asked one what he did for a living. He said, ‘I do Halloween.’ I said, no, I mean year-round like I do heating and air. He said, ‘I just do Halloween.’ And I knew I had to figure out how he did that.”
For the next couple of seasons, McLaurin would only open Woods of Terror on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Almost every Sunday morning, I’d fly out and see somebody else’s Haunt, whether in Niles, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; The Headless Horseman in New York, or the Bates Motel in Philly. I learned from what they were doing and from what they weren’t doing, and my attendance quickly grew, increasing by 2,500 people a year. In 10 years, I had Woods of Terror at such a good level where I could just work on it full-time.”
He started out with nine actors. Now he hires 100 every year, and about 75 more staff, plus security. I asked him about last year’s total attendance.
“I don’t have an exact count, because we have so many people with comp passes and stuff, but we’re doing over 36,000.”
He said that, despite being hit hard by Hurricane Michael and multiple severe thunderstorms, last year was his best attendance ever.
“We probably still had our best year by a hundred people. Without the storm, and then all that rain, we probably would have had a thousand more. The year before, on the Friday night nearest Halloween, we made $115,000 that one night. But last year, we were only able to open for about an hour on that Friday. I made about $3,000 and then closed, it was just pouring down rain so hard.”
The year Eddie opened, he had 184 customers, his entire season, at $2 each.
“Now, Saturday night tickets are $32, some Sundays and Thursdays are $20,” he said. “I like dynamic pricing; I wish more people knew we did that. I don’t ever want it to be the cast that people can’t afford my show, and I think if I keep it a $20 price point, they can. Of course, that’s on a Thursday or a Sunday night, and you have to check my schedule. On Saturdays, when we’re pushing 4,500-5,000 people, I make it $32 because I am trying to get people to come on other nights.”
I asked Eddie what he thinks makes Woods of Terror, the first Haunt to open in Guilford County, stand out from any of the others that came after. He said it was a combination of the length of his show, the quality of his sets, design and his actors.
“Some of my sets, they could be in movies,” he said. “Screamline Studios, professionals out of Ohio, they come in and help me with those. I collect stuff from flea markets and antique dealers, often for years, and sometimes put 5,000 pieces for one set. I then build the structure and put on a base coat of paint, and then these guys, a husband and wife team with two other friends, they come in and make every piece look 30 or 40 years old, so it ends up looking amazing. You could probably live in two of my houses; they’re so well built.”
But he said that, as proud as he was of his sets, and of running a 50-minute show when so many of his competitors’ shows only last 30 minutes or less, his greatest advantage was his actors, which he credited to their trainer, Allen Hopps.
“That man is bar none the best actor-trainer I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “Costs us about $3,000 to get him here from Texas, what with plane tickets and hotel, rental car, feeding him, but we’ve had him here for five years straight. The kids just take to him so well, and he teaches them so much so fast, I just don’t think other haunted houses can get the level of training he provides. It’s like having Picasso training you how to paint; it’s just incredible how good this guy is. He’s so popular, and people are trying to book him two years in advance. I’ve actually put down my deposit for the next two years. I told Alan, ‘as long as you’re willing to travel, you’re going to be here every year.’”
He said he expects to always rely on live performance.
“Some of those animatronics can be $10,000 and up, but even if I could afford all them things, I’d still be an actor-driven haunt, because that’s what I want to be, and I think that’s what sets us apart. I think if I bought a bunch of animatronics, the quality of my show would drop. I like it more live performance and less theme park.”
And then there’s the location.
“As the city grows and gets more urban, to come out here to the county on a farm and go to a haunted house, just the atmosphere out here alone is a draw, without even looking at the actors,” he said. “You can’t duplicate that artificially.”
I asked him to name something that some parks do that he doesn’t like. He said his pet peeve are those attractions that advertise themselves with digital imagery that doesn’t represent what their zombies, madmen and monsters actually look like.
“People will use these digital images and promote their haunted houses, and I’m like this is not at your haunt,” he said. “When I put something out, the character you see is at my haunt, and you will see him. Use the characters that are at your haunt, and don’t lie to the people. If you see one of my videos, it was stuff actually filmed here. We show you what you’re gonna see.”
Speaking of videos, there’s an excellent 14-minute documentary about Eddie and his attraction on Youtube. Titled “Woods of Terror: Eddie H. McLaurin An American Original,” it’s the work of Winston-based journalist Chad Nance, recently the onscreen narrator of The Devil You Know, the Viceland series about the Forsyth County serial killer Pazuzu Algarad.
It gives a real feel for both Eddie and his Haunt.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.
Woods of Terror runs from Sept. 20 until Nov. 2. Check the website for tickets, details, actor opportunities and more.