Q&A with the hauntmaster who’s dished out a decade of scares at Screamin’ Acres

As the Stoughton haunted house wraps up its 10th anniversary season this weekend, we look back on a decade of terror with hauntmaster Jacob Eugster.
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Photo courtesy of Jake Eugster/Screamin' Acres

The survivors — the ones who’ve run for their lives through Stoughton’s Screamin’ Acres — know the kinds of spine-tingling blasts offered by one of Wisconsin’s biggest haunts. After COVID-19 closed Screamin’ Acres down in 2020, fright fans have had to wait to re-experience Screamin’ Acres’ four-part extravaganza: the blood-spattered Slaughterhouse, the jump-scary Last Resort, the creepy and confined Crawlspace and the head-tripping Side Effects building. But Screamin’ Acres wasn’t always this extensive and elaborate. As the haunt hurtles towards its final weekend of 2021 — its 10th anniversary season — we spoke with Jacob Eugster, the man who created it back in 2011 and still runs it today, about the haunt’s history, and how he and his staff pull it all together.

How did the idea of doing a haunt come about?
Farm operations comparable to ours almost always have some sort of Halloween haunted house thing at night, just to tap into an adult demographic that otherwise might not come during the daytime, whether it’s a haunted corn maze or, in our case, using an unused building space and some outdoor space that’s not in the public eye during the daytime. I was totally intrigued by the idea, and I spearheaded it at a young age.

As I remember, you guys started pretty small back in 2011.
The very first year we had two buildings. I want to say it was somewhere between a 15-18 minute experience. At that point we had like 25 actors, and I was like, I don’t know where we’re going to put all these people. Nowadays, if we had that many actors, I’d probably have a riot on my hands. We were so slow the first few years we were open. There were some nights where it was like all the actors were just hanging out in the operating room and then we took turns watching out the window for a car to come in. There were some really slow nights.

At what point did it really start to take off and become a thing where you had to start planning and expanding?
For the first four years it was a break-even kind of deal. I remember at that point I was like, if year five doesn’t do something exciting, I don’t know what else to do, because at that point we had a great experience, but it was just not quite there yet. And then boom! Year five rolls around, word of mouth is at its absolute peak and it really took off from there.

Talk about the expansion. How much of it was adding to existing space versus building new space?
I’d say about 60% of the haunt is existing buildings, and that other 40% is either the Crawlspace, which was added on in 2015, or lean-tos or converted office buildings. The Last Resort attraction is on top of our big barn, a building which is just a bakery in the fall and used to be open in the fall for seasonal and corporate events. The Slaughterhouse, for example, we use. My folks used to do elk breeding, so they have a building specifically for handling elk — just massive animals. We don’t really use it for huge animal handling anymore, but it was meant to be an industrial animal handling facility, which makes a perfect setting for the haunt in the fall.

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Photo courtesy of Jake Eugster/Screamin’ Acres

How about Side Effects? The 3D effects are one of the most memorable parts of the haunt.
It’s definitely one of the most memorable parts. It’s such a fascinating thing because when you’re wearing the chrome redact glasses, it’s one of the most elaborate three-dimensional things ever, but when you have glasses off and everything is flat on the wall, there are virtually no props in the area at all. Dawn Maria Svanoe, our makeup artist and mural artist, has done some incredible painting in there. It’s just incredible, the power of a little bit of UV light and UV reactive paint.

This is a year-round thing for you, not just something you start gearing up for in September.
I hear that all summer long at the farm: Are you guys starting to think about the haunted house? We’re actually done with the haunted house, the production, building and set design before the summer is over. Right away in November we’ll tear stuff down and make a whole bunch of notes. It’s an almost year-round operation.

I’ll sit down in November and take a bird’s eye view of the haunted house map, and I’ll highlight about 10 areas that I think are a weak spot or improve the set design while also improving the logistics and the flow and decide whether we should devote resources and funding for it. Finances in a haunted house are just like concerts — it’s one of the riskiest operations you could possibly do. In 2017, it rained like three or four weekends and we closed three nights that year. It always sucks to hit that “refund all tickets” button, but we always value safety over everything.

Can you give me an example of one of those weak spots?
In 2019, we wanted to add a couple of different accents in the cornfield so it wasn’t just the cornfield trail. And we made the Tippy Building, which was essentially like a shed that I made on two railroad ties, so as the guests would walk into it, it’d be set one way, but then as they made an S shape through it, the weight would shift and then the whole building would just shift and throw everyone’s balance off. On paper, it was a great idea. But people were just thrown off by it too much and it became a bottleneck. So that hit the chopping block.

Anything where you managed to improve something?
In 2019 we started our Death Trap, which is a little additional sideshow attraction at the end of the haunt. Maybe a quarter of people do it — it’s a little bit more intense. This year we did a Shock Therapy theme. The first room has tons of chains hanging from the ceiling that you can’t possibly go through without touching 20 chains, each of which has a little bit of a static shock. It was early August, and I was stumped about how we were going to do something shock-related that didn’t slow people down so much. I was lying in bed one morning, and I was like, what if we just put 80 doorknobs on the wall, each carrying a very punishing static shock, but one of them lets you out. And that has just been a slam dunk. People cannot get enough of that. it’s been very funny to listen to people react through the walls.

You mentioned managing bottlenecks. Is that your biggest challenge?
I would say that it is definitely the biggest variable. We now use exclusively online ticketing and we have a cap on how many people can come on a given night — this experience would go downhill if everyone came at once. If everyone walks the same speed, you can run people through the haunted house and be smooth as heck, but that’s never the case. You get someone who wants to really get their dollar’s worth and crawl through the haunted house and then you get the group behind them that wants to run through it because they’re scared. We have four checkpoints that put space between groups. We stumbled onto that strategy and I couldn’t imagine doing the haunted house without it.

What’s a haunt night like for you?
I’m usually there by noon on an open day, just to get things ready, make sure everything’s set where it needs to be. And then once we’re open it’s just a blur, everything goes so fast that the next thing you know it’s 10:30 p.m. and we’re almost wrapped up. The duration of the haunted house is whatever my radio earpiece takes me — one of the light bulbs just burned out, this customer can’t get their ticket on their phone. I pretty much run a big lap around the haunted house every 10 minutes or so, watching the checkpoints, making sure there’s a balance among the people. I’ll be at the haunted house with a handful of other folks cleaning up until two in the morning.

It’s funny, because there are spots in the haunted house where you can hear people through the walls conversing in spots where there are no actors, And you can hear them say things like, “That was so cool. This person in this room just scared the crap out of me.” In a creepy way I get to eavesdrop on people and get feedback.

How do you handle unruly customers?
Since we’ve been doing online-only ticketing, it’s been awesome. It weeds out the spontaneous drunk people that are like, “Let’s go into a haunted house!” They make that decision at 9 p.m. at night after the Badgers game wraps up or they’ve already been out partying. I’m always shocked that people show up after they’ve been drinking, but it’s one of those variables we can’t control. If there ever is an issue, we have two security officers that can be anywhere in about 10 seconds.

You have some long-time actors on your haunt cast, don’t you?
Joe Dempich — the guy in the devil mask at the end of the ticket line — has been manning the entrance 10 years now. Many people have been with us for 8-9 years. It’s an awesome bunch of people from all walks of life — tradespeople, customer service people, all the political spectrums and backgrounds. It’s very, very fun to see everyone come together, especially in such crazy times in the last couple years They’re all just a big, haunted house family.

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Photo courtesy of Jake Eugster/Screamin’ Acres

Do you have a couple of favorite memories?
Probably one of the most fun things we did was in 2017, when NBC New York sent out a crew for the Lester Holt’s nightly news show, and that was just awesome. That was so much fun to do a guided tour around for pretty much a whole day.

Wrapping up that fifth season, where I was just relieved to see that it was a good year, it wasn’t just breaking even. That was probably my favorite moment — to say this place has a future. It’s got endless possibilities at that point.

Aaron R. Conklin is a regular contributor to Madison Magazine.

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