Head to the massive, sprawling Mall of Americain Bloomington, Minnesota-the largest mall in the Western Hemisphere, they say- and you’re typically seeking some retail therapy in one of its 520 stores. Or maybe you’ve got your sights set on thrills with the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge roller coaster, one of several rides in the mall’s seven-acre Nickelodeon Universe indoor theme park. But now through the end of October, step through the second floor doors that once led to a well-loved Bloomingdale’s, and emerge in a steamy, marshy bayou in Slidell, Louisiana.
But wait, there’s more. In that bayou lurks a killer. His name? Onionhead. And though the moniker is objectively hilarious, the character is based on a very real, very sinister Louisiana folk story that features a troubled and disfigured young man exacting his revenge on those who wronged him. “He was brutally murdered by a vigilante mob after being falsely accused of the murder of a young woman,” explains Dylan DeFatta, part of the team behind American Monsters: Onionhead’s Revenge, the Mall of America’s first-ever onsite haunted house. “The town furiously hacked him up into 13 pieces, and scattered them in a nearby cemetery.”But Onionhead’s mother, a traditional Cajun traiteur, remained on her boy’s side. She put a hex on the townspeople who killed her son, then sewed him back together and brought him back to life using her healing powers. And here’s where the fun starts. “Every patron that walks through our doors is the next victim,” says DeFatta.
And what each “victim” experiences is the result of years of intricate planning from experts in the biz, devious-minded designers of haunts-a.k.a. hauntrepreneurs-who live and breathe spine-chilling scares. We spoke with two of these dictators of the disquieting, masters of the macabre, sultans of shriek (we could go on) to uncover the perfect recipe for a haunted attraction guaranteed to make you scream… or maybe even involuntarily release some bodily fluids. Be careful what you wish for.
Step one: Get your story in order
How do you take an esoteric piece of hyper-regional folklore and transform it into a series of universally terrifying jump-scare opportunities? DeFatta is a pretty good person to ask. Dubbed the “heir to the scare,” he’s the son of Greg DeFatta, proprietor of San Diego’s Haunted Hotel franchise and co-founder, along with experiential leaders Miziker Entertainment, of American Monsters. Birthed into a veritable factory of fright, the younger DeFatta went to school for woodworking before joining the family business. Several years later, he currently holds the vague but authoritative title, Haunt Director. “In school, [my] friends’ parents were teachers or worked for the government or Target,” he says. “It was kind of cool to be able to give out tickets to haunted houses-I’d figure out who was brave, and who were the chickens.”
All of this to say, if there’s anyone who knows how to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, it’s this guy. When American Monsters first began conceptualizing Onionhead’s Revenge two years ago, they started with a storyline. “For us, it really helps with inspiration and theming,” DeFatta says. “It helps paint a clearer picture of the event you’re designing and keeps things cohesive and digestible.” Adopting a solid narrative is also key to staying fresh and attracting new customers year after year. Each of the company’s haunting concepts revolves around a different bit of folklore, blurring the unnerving lines between truth and fiction. Think Meow Wolf meets Deliverance.
Two years ago, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary traded their single storyline theme for a more layered approach when they swapped their Terror Behind the Walls haunted house attraction for a broader, multifaceted festival. Initially spurred by the pandemic as a means to reduce bodily interactions between guests, social distancing aside, the event’s organizers had already been considering switching gears for some time, says ESP production designer James Travis III. Terror Behind the Walls played on society’s conceptions of “scary” prisoners and “wild” mental patients, a framework that seemed to work against the institution’s dedication to promoting social justice and prison reform. And while the same might be said about hosting a Halloween festival at all, the show also plays a vital role in allowing them to continue their important work. “We’re a nonprofit,” adds Travis. “Halloween Nights does pay for a large portion of our bills, and it’s our major fundraiser.”Stripping the seasonal installation of its single storyline means the team can explore multiple themes over five haunted houses. “We can look at each as a separate entity, we don’t need to try to force them into one storyline,” says Travis. “That really helps us make each haunted house better.” This year, there’s one dedicated to vampires, another to bringing nightmares to life (watch out for the dentist’s chair). And for the die-hards, there are plenty of easter eggs and underlying threads to parse while you comb the former prison’s storied halls. Says Travis, “It’s more of a web of deceit and lies that connects everything behind the scenes.”
Step two: Create a space that transports
Before he gets too far into Onionhead’s swampy backstory, I ask DeFatta if he considered simply leaning into mall culture as a theme. Capitalistic hedonism is pretty terrifying on its own, no? Not to mention, all those teenagers.
“Interesting,” he concedes, perhaps only to pacify me. “When we start the creative process, the first thing I want to do is put customers into a world they don’t find themselves in very often. I love when people walk into our space and completely forget that they’re in a mall. They feel like they’re outside in the bayou at night, and that’s how we set the stage for all the scares that follow.”
The effect is achieved in part by physically using the space to reinforce the carefully curated storyline. “Every scenic prop or set deck is specifically chosen to help enhance those elements,” he says. “Everything from the pre-show, when aerialists perform hanging from the ceiling,to the original soundtrack to the actors all help to tell that story as completely as possible.”Some haunted houses, however, don’t require a transformation to come across as believable. The massive, crumbling Eastern State Penitentiary already stands as an imposing, ghostly anomaly in the middle of bustling, lively Philadelphia. “It was designed to be scary, to say to the populace, ‘You don’t want to go behind these walls,'” says Travis, referencing the complex’s former life as a functioning urban jailhouse. “So we’ve got that going for us.”
But if you’re working with a historic property and legally can’t change anything, you may indeed have to employ a few tricks of the trade. That can mean anything from concocting the perfect peeling paint overlay to wrapping fake asbestos around pipes.
“Most of our haunted houses are freestanding buildings inside of buildings,” Travis adds. “A lot of the walls people see in the haunts, they think are historic, but our set decorators actually built them to look historic.”
Step three: Scare from all angles
Have you ever thought about what scares you? Is it spiders? Heights? Dying alone? Creatures on stilts inciting fear from above? This is the kind of stuff hauntrepreneurs sit around discussing every day, for fun.
“There’s a lot of things that go into making something scary, and there’s a lot of ways to do it,” says DeFatta. “Your classic scares are your jump scares, which are actually really effective and necessary.” This can look like deploying air blasters, small firecrackers, or quick bursts of energy coming from a prop or person. You can throw in some fog-literal smoke and mirrors-strobe lights, high production value AV, animatronics, phony creatures of the night, mannequins, and wow-factor set pieces like sledgehammers that swing from the ceiling or coffins that spring from the ground. And then there’s the reliable, simple scenario that both DeFatta and Travis are fond of: Dropping a guest into a room of clothed dummies where one is not like the others. “You know one of those has to be a person, you just don’t know when they’re going to come crawling at you,” says DeFatta. “And when it happens, you scream, you cry, or you pee yourself, and that is your classic haunted house.”
“I look at fear as being divided into dread, terror, and horror,” says Travis, explaining that a good haunted house can harness all three. “With dread, you know something bad is coming up, but it’s not there yet-it’s a slow build intensity. Terror is all out, like ‘Oh my God, this thing is about to fall and crush me, I’m gonna die!’ It’s that brutal rush.” And then there’s horror: “That’s like, they’re chopping a guy’s arm off and sewing on a robot arm, or they’re putting on somebody else’s face.”
Regardless of the particular tactic, haunted houses should be full-body experiences. “My favorite way to scare people is by removing or intensifying the senses,” says Defatta. “If you put somebody in a completely black room with an overwhelmingly disturbing and loud audio track, you remove their ability to communicate. It’ll be more difficult for them to guess what’s coming next.”
Include the olfactory for even more immersion. “If you have a butcher scene where someone’s been chopped up into a million pieces, playing the sound of flies starts to get your hairs on your neck really tingling, because innately, psychologically, and evolutionarily, we aren’t supposed to be in spaces like that,” says DeFatta. “We hear that and smell the meat and we think it’s time to run.”
Step four: Don’t be afraid to change it up
Both ESP and Onionhead’s Revenge offer add-ons for an even more intense experience. At the Penitentiary, optional glow-in-the-dark necklaces are free, and a sign that tells the actors that they’re allowed to touch you, take you into back rooms, and pull you out of the crowd for one-on-ones. At the Mall of America, $100 gets you the VIP Monster Pass, providing access to secret rooms and additional characters, and extending your time inside considerably. (Though, notes the website, there won’t be any refunds if you get too scared.)
But frights like these are not everyone’s cup of tea. When reimagining the Halloween experience at ESP, the team decided that scaredy cats also deserved to get in on the festive action. “A lot of people I know like Halloween-the fall atmosphere, pumpkins, pumpkin spice beers, ghosts, witches, stuff like that,” says Travis. “But they don’t want to have some actor jump out and scare them. That’s not their idea of a good time.”
Therefore a ticket to the 11-acre property grants guests access to the entire grounds, letting them choose their own adventure. Don’t want to be chased through a dark tunnel by a chainsaw-wielding madman? Maybe you’d be more at home enjoying some campfire s’mores and scary storytelling, or catching ghostly flappers putting on a show outside Al Capone’s former cell. While you’re at it, you can take an audio tour detailing the prison’s history, narrated by none other than Steve Buscemi, or check out their award-winning exhibit covering the state of mass incarceration today.
“It’s more inclusive-if some people want to hang out and eat snacks and some want to do a haunted house, there’s plenty of flexibility,” says Travis. “This year, we bought new animatronics to fill out some of the spaces that were a little bit dead before, so you’re immersed the entire time.
At Onionhead’s Revenge, tickets aren’t required to enter the attraction’s bayou-themed lobby. There, you’ll find Vern’s Moonshine Bar, which serves up themed libations amid corrugated metal ceilings and taxidermied decor. And it’s great marketing-at first, you might not want to see what lies behind the large metal gates, but after a few cocktails, good old liquid courage kicks in.
Step five: Stay up to date on terrifying trends
“I can’t imagine what TransWorld would look like to somebody who’s not in the industry,” jokes DeFatta. Held every March in St. Louis, the horror trade show is a must for anyone in the haunting business. “There’s bodies hanging from every booth, there’s air cannons going off, and the place is filled with fog and lasers,” he explains. “You’ve got people running around with blood all over their bodies-it must be a sight to see if you’re just working the beer stand.”
But for hauntrepreneurs, a trip to TransWorld is crucial, not just to pick up the newest bloody stumps and gory makeup, but to keep up creatively. “It’s a place to meet with peers and talk about trends, how the industry is changing, how we’re going to adapt,” says DeFatta. Though what scares us is essentially embedded in our brains, it’s also subject to external factors, like when The Walking Dead brought zombies back to the forefront. “Zombies were all you could buy at the haunted house conventions,” says Travis. “This year, we started seeing a lot of mushroom-based things because of The Last of Us.”
Something that’s always a safe bet though? Clowns, says DeFatta. “They don’t exist in nature, and it isn’t necessarily built into our DNA to be afraid of clowns, but we are. We’ve had polls on our website about what scares you the most, and the number one thing is always clowns.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.
Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She might now know too much.
The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’. Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health.
Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid.
Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor.
To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power.
Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.
You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks.
It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties!
An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:
‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.”