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'We Don't Want To Mess You Up For Life': How A Pro Makes Haunted Houses

How do you build a floor plan for fear? For Florida-based building designer Leonard Pickel, it involves architectural designs, permit drawings and theme development. Oh, and a little misdirection sprinkled with psychological fear.

Pickel, who owns Hauntrepreneurs Themed Attraction Design and Consulting, has been designing haunted houses for more than 40 years. He’s created fright sites for clients all over - from New York to Australia.

Pickel spoke with NPR’s Melissa Block about the opening of his latest scary attraction in Panama City, Fla.

Interview Highlights

On just how scary his latest attraction is

It’s as scary as we can make it. One of the things that we try to do is use psychological fear. And, you know, we don’t want to mess you up for life. We just want to… give you some startles, and then entertain you.

On coming up with new, spine-chilling creations

You’re always looking for the next best gag. And there are some years that I don’t really come up with anything cool or new. But this year, I’ve actually several different room designs that I’ve come up with. And I get my stuff from all kinds of stuff. I was watching a TV commercial one time and got a room design. So there’s all kinds of different areas that inspire me to come up with the crazy ideas that I come up with. And some of them are total accidents.

On what exactly was in that TV commercial

There was a commercial where this guy walks into a kitchen in his underwear, I guess and opens up the refrigerator to look inside. Well, there was no light in the room. And then when he opens up the refrigerator, the light in the refrigerator blinds him, so he really can’t see anything. And I said, man, if a monster came over the top of that refrigerator door when he did that, it would scare the heck out of him. So when people come through, they’ll look in the refrigerator because they’ll think the actors are going to be in there and pop out to scare them. And then when they open it, they’re going to see this partially eaten pizza been sitting around for days. And then when they look in and say, oh, that’s cool, the guy will come over the top of the refrigerator.

NPR Digital News Intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for digital platforms.

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