Mike Milburn, along with his family and friends, has been perfecting two haunted houses on his rural Oregon property for the past 15 years.
There's "The Dark," which forces attendees to slowly navigate corridors in the pitch black. It’s claustrophobic and filled with the sounds of rats, a room of giant clowns and one of the most inventive scares using fog and light I’ve ever seen.
The other is more of a classic style haunted house. "Bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, zombies, axe murders — that type of thing,” Milburn said.
Thousands of visitors come to his 7-acre property tucked between Portland and Salem every year to go through the attractions at Milburn's Haunted Manor.
The idea of creating a haunted house came to him in a very unlikely setting; instead of a dark and stormy night, it was a bright and sunny day in Mexico.
“We’re sitting by the pool drinking slushy drinks being treated like millionaires thinking we need to do this again,” Milburn said. “This was going to be our vacation money generator.”
Over the years, he’s honed his craft into something he calls “scareology.”
“Everybody has, let’s say, four bands of safety," Milburn said. "It’s hard to scare anybody when they see it coming from an 8-to-12 safety feet distance.”
But if he can break that first band, around 2 feet, “you can scare almost anybody.”
Milburn plays with the idea in creative ways.
“Walking away from a given threat in my haunted house is what I want you to do because you’re actually walking into the scare,” he said. He demonstrated one scare in a skinny hallway of the haunted manor.
When visitors turn a corner, their path is obstructed by a table. At that point, a zombie pops out from the wall and onto the table, they naturally turn away. Now, they're in front of a painting on a wall, which is actually a drop panel. It falls and they’re face-to-face with another zombie.
“Some of the bigger haunts in Portland have a radio budget larger than my entire operating budget," he said. "So we have to rely on being clever and being tricky.”
That cleverness shines with the DIY inventions Milburn concocted through the years.
There are practical effects like a 7-foot tall bungee monster that can be operated by 90-pound volunteer. And there are also inventive designs, like his hub idea.
Through strategic placement, one volunteer has the opportunity to conduct four scares and only be seen once. This comes in handy when he has smaller pool of helpers.
Over 15 years, he’s also learned a handful of don’ts.
"Don’t take your body bags to the dump. It doesn’t turn out well," he said. Luckily, he returned in time with a second delivery before they called the police.
But above all else, Michael Milburn’s learned if you dedicate your time to an idea and see it through as best you can, people will come even to a haunted house on a farm in the middle of nowhere.