Ten years ago, when Tim Haskell couldn't find a haunted house in New York City, he did the only thing a theatre producer would do – he opened his own. Today, Haskell runs Nightmare, a theatrical haunted house that draws in thousands of visitors each year around Halloween.
When Nightmare opened in 2003, it was widely thought that having a haunted house in New York City was, if not impossible, at least not profitable. Concerns over building permits, safety and profitability obstructed the creation of a haunted house. Even Haskell, who was working at the time as a publicist and producer, originally envisioned Nightmare as drawing an audience similar to an off-off-Broadway play.
"The first year, I told my wife, ‘If 100 people show up tonight, that'd be really awesome,' recalls Haskell. "The first night, it was literally over 1,000."
Since then, the endeavor has only grown. This year, 30,000 to 35,000 people are expected to walk through the event and tickets at $30 to $60 a piece. The event opened September 27 and will close on November 2.
Every year, Haskell invents a new theme that calls for a new layout, script and characters. This year's event – entitled "Killers2" – is the first year that a theme is being repeated, as Haskell says he had too many serial killers he wanted to represent to fit in last year's first "Killer" theme. Haskell has performed Nightmare in all five boroughs, opened a haunt in Miami and encountered interest for international ventures.
With growth comes a changing role for Haskell. "When I opened the door and there were a thousand people outside, I hated it and I loved it, because I had no idea how to deal with it," he says.
Today, his job has expanded far beyond that of a theatrical producer, as he oversees the planning of the rooms, acquires building permits and manages the 100 people involved in the production. "I wish I only had to worry about the creative, but now I don't," he says.
As Haskell balances the technical and the creative in his schedule, he also attempts to incorporate changes in Nightmare while sticking to its theatrical roots. "I think the theatricality part makes Nightmare scary as hell," says Haskell. Don't come to the haunted house expecting traditional scares of loud noises and masked villains. Instead, Haskell has remained committed to the idea that well-acted monologues are key to terrifying visitors -- though he's not above bloody hands grabbing guests from the shadows.
While September and October are "the craziest time of year" for Haskell, Nightmare has become a year-round job. Haskell continues to direct plays, but the business of Nightmare is a constant – and that's the way he likes it.
"If I could do this kind of stuff all year, I would be happy. It's really fun and artistically satisfying," he says. "I think more about this than any production, ever."
In response to Haskell's success, New York City has produced a growing number of haunted houses. During October, dozens of productions pop up, from trendy immersive theatre to burlesque cabaret. Time Scare operates year round, and not only has a haunted house, but also a "Crypt Café" and "Kill Bar."
However, Haskell's move toward year-round Nightmare is more dedicated to the idea of dark theatre than the traditional haunted house. Haskell already produces a Christmastime haunt, "The Experiment." Instead of a haunted house, individuals are selected to face their fears, whether they be gift-giving anxiety or rodent-induced disgust, in some creative manner as the audience watches with a mix of amusement and anxiety. Haskell says the show typically draws a smaller crowd than the Halloween event.
Someday, Haskell hopes to be scaring audiences every season. He's already working on Camp Nightmare, an overnight haunt in the woods, and if he can find a way to execute an Easter project in the spring, Nightmare would become a year-round terror in a very different way than most full-time haunted houses.