Haunted house takes a different approach to frightening and fun
A noose hangs from a gallows in the woods, twisting in the blowing Lake Dallas wind. Posted on a window at the Swisher Courts recreation center is a sign with two demons from Japanese folklore; each is an Oni, has two horns, skin-piercing teeth and blood flowing from its devilish grin.
These vile creatures announce that you are near Dan’s Haunted House, as does its owner, Dan Baker, who stands beside a ticket booth and fields a phone call from a potential customer.
“The characters are definitely there to scare everybody,” says Baker, who sports a Japanese flag bandana. “Just don’t get mad if [your children] get really scared, because our characters are going to try to scare them.”
Baker, 38, is reluctant to discuss the specific sights and sounds of his haunted house, concerned that if his customers learn too much, they won’t be scared — and he wants them scared.
That eerie fear of the unknown, the paranoia of constantly looking over one’s shoulder, making certain there isn’t some scary creature lurking behind a tall tree, that’s the kind of “true fear” Baker wants his customers to experience.
For the first time in late September, Baker invited people to experience true fear with the opening of his haunted house in Lake Dallas. Unlike the other 30 or so professional haunted houses open for Halloween in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, this isn’t a traditional haunted house, says Baker. There are no clowns. No zombies. No leather-faced men manically wielding chainsaws.
This Halloween weekend for $17, customers can embark on a 25-minute bone-chilling journey of misdirection and shock as they wind their way through a 6-acre maze going deep into the dark woods. Nothing but the silence of the night greets them, save for screams of terror.
Dan’s Haunted House has been the talk of the town lately, even attracting the attention of KRLD radio host J.D Ryan.
“I have got to be honest, I’ve been to almost all of the haunted attractions in North Texas over the years for radio and TV shows,” Ryan said on his “Texas Road Trippin’” show on Oct. 7. “But I’ve honestly never been actually scared … until now.”
Every Halloween night of his childhood, Baker would go trick-or-treating in his Fort Worth neighborhood. When he would go up to the doorstep of some houses, people would come out of nowhere and scare him. And he loved every minute of it.
He can even recall his earliest obsession with fear.
“I’ll never forget, two firsts happened in my life on the same day,” he says. “I saw Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time and I made a hamburger in the microwave. It was just the coolest freaking thing ever. Once I saw Freddy Krueger, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s insane.’ Then it just kind of progressed from there.”
After graduating from high school in 1994, Baker joined the Navy and spent six years in Japan, where he met the woman who would later be his wife. During his time there, he relished the Japanese culture and was inspired by its dark tales and horror movies.
“In Japan, there’s so much scary [stuff],” he says. “It’s a deeper, more sinister kind of fear. A lot of the scary stories, for example, are involved in bathrooms, because when you’re in the bathroom, you’re the most vulnerable.”
Fourteen years ago, Baker moved his wife and two daughters to Lake Dallas where he worked as a national sales manager for an online recruiting company.
He recently quit after the company moved its offices from Lake Dallas to Farmers Branch.
Through the years, Baker maintained his fascination with Halloween and haunted houses.
So, he decided to get into the haunted house business and ran his first one last year.
“I didn’t want to be on my deathbed thinking, ‘Oh, why didn’t I just try it?’” he says.
“I know it sounds silly, but that’s certainly true. I wanted to give it a shot and see what happened.”
His first haunted house was a traditional one with clowns and zombies, but this year Baker wanted to shake things up.
“It didn’t make sense for me to do a haunted house and do the same thing everyone else did,” Baker says. “This is the entertainment industry, trends change.”
A good friend told him about 6 acres of woods behind the Swisher Courts building that sounded perfect for his plans and he signed a five-year lease on the property.
Baker decided to use “ancient fear rising” as his theme, drawing its influence from haunting Japanese folktales that feature frightening creatures such as demonic spirits and ghostly samurais.
These would do battle in a maze with traditional characters such as pumpkins and scarecrows.
Getting patrons into the dark woods with creatures they have never heard of would make his haunted house terrifying, Baker says. To reach that level of terror, Baker wanted to lull his patrons into the false sense that his haunted house would be “fun, but silly.”
That’s why he settled on the simple, unfrightening name of Dan’s Haunted House.
For the creatures, Baker held auditions or asked people he knew to volunteer.
Miki Evridge, a Lake Dallas resident whom Baker has known for four years, agreed to join the cast. Baker gave her the freedom to create her own creepy, people-grabbing character.
“I went home one day, trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was talking to my daughter and I remember acting out stuff and told her, ‘Oh yeah, you hated when I was on the ground [and crawled],’ and it progressed from there.”
After four months of planning, designing and gathering a crew of about 50 people, 43 of whom play characters, Baker opened the haunted house on Sept. 26. For Baker, there was nothing more satisfying than to see everything he put together come to life, and of course, scaring the life out of people.
Scene is set
Dan’s Haunted House is the play, the woods are the stage and Baker is the director.
He sets up a spotlight by the Swisher Courts sign, plugs it in and smiles. It’s show time.
Baker hands his cast of costumed creatures walkie-talkies, and they go over plans about where they should position themselves in the maze. But they’ve never actually rehearsed how they should scare patrons, says Lauren Keller, who serves as a maze tour guide.
Their performance is usually improvised, more trial and error.
“That’s the other thing that’s great about working with Dan,” she says. “He doesn’t make you strictly adhere to anything. He wants you to be where you’re comfortable because that’s where you’re going to be the best.”
Baker runs back and forth from the ticket booth to the maze as he sets up the final touches for the performance.
Nightfall sets and fog can be seen by the Lewisville Lake Toll Bridge, appropriately setting the stage as customers come lining up to buy tickets.
Patrons walk down a small hill across the parking lot and cross a wooden bridge that will lead them to the maze. They wait in line as one group at a time is let through.
Keller informs customers as they wait about the rules such as no flash photos or flashing lights.
The trail leads them down a path to the woods. It gets progressively darker the farther they get from the starting point until it becomes pitch black.
They are by themselves in the isolated woods where only the sound of crickets can be heard.
There’s some rustling in the grass. It could just be the wind. It could be some critter roaming around.
Farther down the pathway there’s a right turn: a light in the distance. Sounds of old Japanese music echo and grow louder the closer one gets to the light.
White sheets hang from clothes lines tied to trees; it’s the entrance to the woods.
The music reverberates. A woman sings hauntingly as if she’s crying for help.
Getting closer, more white sheets and signs with Japanese writing adorn the entrance to the woods.
Then the snap of tiny branches can be heard. Footsteps follow. Anxiety sets in.
The desire to turn around is unbearable.
But it’s too late.
JAVIER NAVARRO is a University of North Texas journalism student.
IF YOU GO
What: Dan’s Haunted House
Where: 501 E. Swisher Rd., Lake Dallas
When: 8 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
For more information: Call 972-821-9154 or visit www.danshauntedhouse.com
6:30 p.m. today — “Tubaween” concert, UNT tuba/euphonium ensemble conducted by Brian Bowman, in Voertman Hall at the Music Building, at Avenue C and Chestnut Street. Free. Call 940-565-2791 or visit www.music.unt.edu .
6 to 8 p.m. Thursday — UNT’s Boo Bash, a free community event at the UNT Coliseum, 600 Ave. D. Student organizations will offer carnival activities, fun and candy. Free parking at Fouts Field across from the Coliseum. Call 940-565-3825.
10 a.m. Friday — Spooky Story Time at South Branch Library, 3228 Teasley Lane. Best for ages 1-5. Children can wear costumes to hear not-too-scary stories, then go on a Halloween trick-or-treating parade. Free. Call 940-349-8752 or visit www.dentonlibrary.com .
6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday — Carnival Thirty One at First Baptist Church Denton, 1100 Malone St. Free event for elementary- and preschool-age children includes trunk-or-treating, bounce houses, a petting zoo, carnival games and rides, and more. Visit www.firstdenton.org or call 940-382-2577.
8 to 11:55 p.m. Friday — The Dark Path Haunt, an actor-based outdoor haunted attraction for adults and courageous kids. Choose your path through the Old Alton Woods, near 2695 Old Alton Road, across from the legendary Goatman’s Bridge, with one lamp per group. Admission is $20. $5 discount for emergency responder personnel and military, plus one guest. Visit www.thedarkpathhaunt.com .
Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday — Old Alton Halloween is a walk through the woods, a candy hunt with face painting, pumpkin patch and photo ops at 2695 Old Alton Road. This Halloween event isn’t scary and is suitable for young children. Admission is $5. Proceeds go to UNICEF, Hope’s Door and others. Visit www.thedarkpathhaunt.com .