In Las Vegas, what (if anything) is scarier than a $2.99 all you can eat buffet? That would be ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR, the scariest haunted houses in Las Vegas, Nevada. Competing with the glitter and awe of Las Vegas itself, ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR are the #1 local haunts with national exposure! And Hauntworld Magazine along with Hauntworld.com, the leading haunted house website, concurs with the Vegas locals, nominating them as a Top 13 Haunt plus several mentions in our all-time Top 31 Haunts. Feature articles about these attractions have appeared in the Costco Members Magazine, Continental Airlines In Flight Magazine and USA Today to name a few. They also received the 10 BEST Award for exciting things to do in Las Vegas. They were one of the only four haunts featured in a national promotion for Fear.com. They put a camera in the ASYLUM that had a live video stream, so you could watch your friends go through and see them being scared. It was a huge hit! Last year, they were featured on the nationally syndicated show “Macabre Theatre”. So what makes these haunted houses insanely scary? What sets them apart from their competition? We travel to Las Vegas to find out.
ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR are the brainchild of R&J Productions in Las Vegas. R&J Productions is a multitalented group also creating the new Pirate Fest Las Vegas (www.PirateFestLV.com) debuting in 2013. Professionally conceived in 1999, they had but one mission, to create the scariest, most detailed and unique haunted house Las Vegas has ever seen. Like most of the best haunters, Rich and Jan Strelak (the R & J) started by haunting their yard for Halloween each year. With thousands of people viewing their yard haunt every Halloween night, a decision had to be made. After all, friends had been insisting for years that their yard haunt was scarier than the local paid haunted attractions! Besides, Jan and Rich were no strangers to running events. They operated Nevada Outdoor Volleyball Association for 14 years. They had worked with the AVP at the Hard Rock Casino, ran national tournaments, even an Olympic event building a sand court in the middle of “Glitter Gulch”! Rich has had technical theatrical experience owning and operating a children’s theater company and working in movies from Oliver Stone to cult classic with Ted Mikels. Plus, Jan owned her own business. So they decided to approach the Haunt business as just that…a business.
That first year, they attended the Transworld Show in Chicago, took every class and seminar possible, and bought every video, magazine, book or booklet available. Next, they studied their market, looked at all the other haunts and started laying the foundation that would set them apart. There were over eighteen Las Vegas haunt owners with twenty plus haunts in the market when they entered the haunting business. The real task was to set them apart from the competition.
In analyzing the other haunted houses in their area, they noticed that many of the haunts were just a collection of different rooms without a unifying theme or relevant name. They felt most had little to no detail or originality, all pulling from the same Halloween decorations and masks available in the Las Vegas area at the time. And, if an existing haunt ran into any trouble or received word of mouth of being really bad, (quick fix) they would change the name! So Jan and Rich set about to address these issues and build a foundation to create a unique haunted experience, one that would instill real fear!!
To create a real sense of fear, things have to look real! It is a simple but profound concept. Too many haunts at the time were just a collection of different rooms and ideas. R&J felt that you could not transport your patrons into a surreal world of horror without a unified theme. You might get startled walking from clown room to vampire room to zombies to aliens, but fear is never really instilled. Jan and Rich believe to do that, they must immerse people in what appears to be a real setting, reinforce the reality, and then devise the fear from that reality! To do that, you need a detailed environment. Detail spells reality. In Las Vegas, the temporary haunts of the day could not provide enough set-up time necessary to accomplish much detail. Solution?...The trailer style haunt!
Las Vegas was booming in the 90’s so retail or commercial space was not available. The trailer concept offered a perfect solution with room to work in, and more importantly the same advantages of a permanent location. This gave Jan and Rich the ability to add and keep the levels of detail they wanted. Since everything stays in the attraction, each year you can add elements to what is already there. Now they just needed a really terrifying theme, one that was not seen in Las Vegas…the haunted house ASYLUM was born!
People noticed. The repeated comments coming from the patrons were that they were really scared! The level of detail made customers really feel like they’d been transported into an actual insane asylum. A local TV reporter stated, “...the ASYLUM is awesome! It’s like a living movie. It is a story that you walk through and become part of!” The local market was beginning to be educated. Slowly, the un-themed, non-detailed, miss-mashed style of haunting fell to the wayside. R&J Productions had officially raised the bar!
At the time, Las Vegas haunted houses were all just simple, single attractions dispersed around the Las Vegas valley. R&J Productions was the first to try and develop a multiple attraction event, initially with a competitor on the Las Vegas Strip, and later creating the first real Extreme Scream Park at Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. They created unique tie-in events such as the first Hearse Run, whereby hearse owners were invited to the haunt. They pulled on property in a sort of hearse fashion show, parking in front of the haunts. Customers got an up close and personal view of the vehicles and their owners, many of which were one-of-a-kind.
They were the first Las Vegas haunts to have actual queue line entertainment. They built a stage and had bands, magicians, and other entertainers perform. They were the only attraction that had a live theater presentation on property. Rich wrote an original play, “The Haunted Theater”. They built the sets, rented a tent and built a theater in it! A local company of actors performed the show every hour.
R&J Productions later added their second haunted attraction, HOTEL FEAR. They wanted something different, yet they wanted to blend the attractions to create a single cohesive intertwined storyline. Not wanting to be merely another ASYLUM with different costumes, they developed the Hotel in an entirely different theme and style so you would experience two totally unique attractions.
The storyline revolves around two families: the Vander’s, a family of doctors at the Meadview Asylum, and the Feoray’s, who own the Hotel Feoray. Meadview was a cutting edge facility headed by Dr. Vander and eventually by his genius son Adriane. Adriane was obsessed to not just treat patients but cure them. As he gained success, he took on a friend of the family, Mortimer Feoray. Mortimer’s family owned Hotel Feoray and Mortimer, although never convicted, was suspect in the disappearance of his mother, father and grandfather. The young Dr. Vander treated Mortimer and declared him cured! He returned to the hotel, went berserk and killed everyone!! Everyone except, a girl named Adrianne in Room 13! Was she spared because Mortimer is afraid of 13 or because the name was so similar to the Dr. Adriane? So the sordid reputation of Hotel Feoray made it forever known as HOTEL FEAR! Is Mortimer at the ASYLUM or HOTEL FEAR? Does the doctor still roam the facility to continue his experiments and clear his family name? That is the groundwork set in the detail that starts you down the road to real fear!
So the ASYLUM is just that, an institution that seems to have been taken over by the patients. You experience an admitting area, nurse’s station, patients’ rooms, morgue, therapy room, etc., even rooms where things should not have happened!
HOTEL FEAR has lobby, check-in, parlor, bar, dining room, hotel guest rooms, etc., but there are also secret passages and dark connections that take you behind the scenes and into various areas of HOTEL FEAR. The level of detail accumulated over the years combined with great sound creates complete alternate reality! ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR were the first haunted houses in Las Vegas to “soundscape” their attractions. They worked with local talent to create unique and original sound effects and sound tracks. Inside ASYLUM, you intermittently hear the hospital’s PA system call for doctors from the back story to areas of the building. Rich thoroughly believes in sound. Sound helps to set the mood and tone of the haunted attractions. If you watch your favorite horror movie with the sound off, it’s not as scary. But instead of just utilizing music sound tracks inside his haunt, Rich has individual sounds that make sense for each individual area or scene. For example, a parlor room in the hotel seems to have a ghostly hand constantly changing the stations on a vintage radio. The sound doesn’t just fit the scene, it enhances it.
Another unique feature that sets these attractions apart from others is the use of their “courtyard”. The set up creates a natural inner area that is normally unused. ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR take advantage of these areas to create additional outdoor scares. You may find yourself walking through a spinning tunnel that transports you to an outdoor graveyard or through one of their best known and most intense areas simply known as “The White Room”, whereby customers feel like they may never get out of there!!
Ask anyone what sets ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR apart from the pack, and they always say it is the actors! “Populate a real looking environment with some really intense actors and you can achieve real fear,” tells Rich. In the “old days” of haunted houses, all you had were actors to rely on for the scares. Then animations started taking center stage. Some haunts felt more is better and started adding animations on top of animations. A common statement is, “Animations don’t take breaks.” But can they be as effective as an actor?
Each year, there are stories that tell the effects actors have on the patrons. Rich has one that REALLY illustrates good actor timing. A group of girls came running out of the exit at ASYLUM, jumping up and down and screaming. One looks at her friend and asks, “Where’s your purse?” She exclaims, “My purse!” and hesitantly looks back towards the exit. Only an arm, a zombified arm, is stuck through the exit curtain, and clutched in its hand…her purse. More shrieks! The girl timidly takes a step towards the exit for her purse, as her friend realizes, “Where’s your shoes?” She not only dropped her purse but had run right out of her shoes!! Without so much as a word, another hand outreaches past the curtain with…her shoes!! Laughter erupts from the on-looking queue line as more SHRIEKS explode from the girls.
No animation could have timed it more perfectly!! All this action played out at the exit which is in full view of the people in the queue line. With dramatic exits like that, there’s no doubt…The exit has become part of their queue line entertainment! Don’t get me wrong; ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR have animations. In fact, they design and build most of their special effects themselves. They are designed to become an integral part of the attraction. As owner Rich Strelak states, “We realize that animations are cool, and you need them if you expect to be considered a top attraction, but the real fear comes from people. It’s like going to the zoo. A lion is scary, but you know you are safe because he’s behind a cage or embankment. But if that lion was just walking around freely, you’d be terrified! The same difference between animations and actors, an animation has a limit, but an actor can follow you!”
At R&J Production haunts, the animations are used as distractions by putting the control in the hands of the actors. “No one can time a scare better than a real person. They can see the people and see who will react best. The props and animations become tools in our actor’s arsenal,” says Jan. “Our actors have a basic storyline and suggested dialog but are given the opportunity to add to and improve on their character. This involvement of the actors is what sets us apart. We are definitely actor driven haunted houses.”
So where do they find the talent to operate 2 prominent actor-driven houses? ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR feature an all-volunteer cast! Their actor “Core Group” is an active group that meets regularly throughout the year. They have actor workshops, make-up workshops and social activities. By meeting regularly, they form bonds that become apparent when the haunt season arrives. Why spend the time and energy and not get paid? They are there because they WANT to scare the crap out of people; they love it! They have worked and waited all year, and it shows! R&J spend money on their actors, but just not in the form of payroll. They provide merchandise like shirts, hats, hoodies, etc. They have company funded outings and group events during the haunt season and throughout the year. They have pool parties, ride go carts, play miniature golf, visit the Titanic Exhibit, SkyZone, Madame Tussauds, and this month the cast is attending a Laser Tag facility. Jan says, “The outings are a way we thank the cast for their participation. Everyone gets together and relives past seasons. Heck, they even remember individual scares! We have cast members that have been with us for 13 years. They tell stories like the time a lady ran out of the Hotel, her friends form a ring around her, and she squats and pees right in front of both queue lines! Talk about unique line entertainment!!”
Yes, they really scare the piss out of people! In fact they have a chalk board to keep track of confirmed “wetters” “soilers” and “pukers”! Apparently, there’s not a weekend that goes by without multiple entries being added to the tallies. It is a testament that shows they just didn’t startle people, they truly scare people! Rich says” We have haunters come from all over the country visit our haunts, and when I ask them what they liked, they always say they liked the detail and the actors were intense!”
So to sum things up, I asked Jan and Rich what they felt set ASYLUM and HOTEL FEAR apart. The answer, “We create real fear! Having a cohesive theme in a very detailed attraction transports our audience to an altered reality…OUR reality. When you couple that with a great acting group, we can instill real fear! That’s what people come for! They like the eye candy, they like the social aspects of coming out to the haunts, but bottom line, it’s like going to a horror movie, they come to get scared. So we do our job, we scare them!!”
R&J Productions founded 1999
Creators of ASYLUM, HOTEL FEAR