In the world of haunted housing — which ranges from slightly spooky small-scale productions put on by schools to big-budget, FX-rich professional scares that are reflected in their big ticket prices — the people who commit a big part of the year (and their lives) to these Halloween attractions are known as Haunters.
Like Trekkers, Rennies or, well, whatever the people into anime are called.
Or, as Sheena Leos, who has spent countless hours volunteering for Hangman’s House of Horrors for more years than she cares to recall, says, “Most people just call us weirdos.”
But these weirdos share a special kind of bond, and one that will draw them closer as Hangman’s shuts its creeeeeaaaaaaking doors forever when this season ends Nov. 2. It will close a 25-year chapter on the area’s longest-running haunted attraction, the only one that bills itself as the “world’s largest charity haunted house,” run completely by volunteers.
D’Ann Dagen, president of La-De-Da Productions, which produces Hangman’s, made the announcement just before the season opened on a well-placed Friday the 13th in September.
Each year, Hangman’s holds an internal contest to determine the best rooms and actors. And as someone who has served as a judge nearly every year in the past decade, I will miss the surprises that lie around each corner every year.
I’ll miss the balance-altering, spinning tunnel that you cross through on a bridge, like a chicken trying to get to the other side of an acid trip. I’ll miss the cattywampus black-and-white “Disorientation” room that was like stepping into a Harlequin clown nightmare — the artsy clowns, not the freaky birthday party ones (although you could occasionally find those, too).
I’ll miss going through the second house, a trailer that had been for years inhabited by crazy hillbillies, but this year transformed into a Walking Dead-style zombie theme, “walkers” dithering on the other side of a chain-link fence as you try to escape. And the 3-D maze, which this year is an awesome tribute to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and requires some interaction with the actors.
And I won’t be the only one who’ll miss many things about the innovative Hangman’s, which was always my favorite, even after visiting other haunts that had more expensive-looking scares and, in most cases, more graphic gore. Give me George A. Romero over torture porn any day.
Suzanne Rusher, who has volunteered for Hangman’s since 1997 and met her now-husband, Tony, there, says she was in disbelief when Dagen told the crew that this would be the final year.
“We’ve done so much here, we’ve met so many friends, and I’ve learned so much,” Rusher says. “Before, I couldn’t tell you how to work a drill, and now I can tell you about cutting right angles and that this needs to be supported here, here, here and here.”
The Rushers aren’t the only couple who met while in the shadow of the Hangman. Volunteer coordinator Lisa Kennedy also met her husband, Cory, in 1997. They now have two kids — volunteers in training, as they call them.
All four of them, along with “Monster Mom” Leos, security guy Adam Kellner and Ron Isbell, an accountant by day who has played a Harlequin in the Disorientation room for 20 years, have spent much of their time helping plan Hangman’s. For the hardcore volunteers, it began each November after the attraction closed for the year.
“That’s the one thing that makes Hangman’s completely different from any other house I know,” says Dagen. “Every other house has two or three people who own it and maybe three people do the design and the creative. Here, everybody’s involved in designing how scenes come to fruition.”
In a 2010 interview with DFW.com, Dagen said she was determined to take her haunted baby as far as it could go.
“I can’t back off from Hangman’s until it’s done,” she said then. “It’s gotten too big to take it off site. My goal is to at least take this to Year 25. I would love to find the right person to groom and take over, but so far, I haven’t been able to do that.”
And with the calendar pages flipping over to Year 25, still with no one in sight to hand over the reins, Dagen remains true to her word. As she looks forward to her next adventure in life — there hasn’t been time to figure out what that is — it seems best, for everyone, to move on.
And don’t worry — as usual, tens of thousands of dollars (100 percent of the profits, Dagen says) go toward charity. It was initially only for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, but has expanded to also benefit American Cancer Society, Rocky Top Therapy Center, SafeHaven of Tarrant County, Cenikor Foundation and A Wish With Wings.
Here’s hoping those charities find donors to make up for the loss after Hangman’s — as the tagline for this year’s fairytale-inspired house announces — goes to the place of “unhappily ever after … the end.”
As for the loss that the visitors, volunteers and scores of “weirdos,” as well as Fort Worth itself, will experience? That’s just too scary to think about.
Mark Lowry, a DFW.com contributing writer, is a theater critic and co-founder of TheaterJones.com, a performing-arts news website.