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Kansas City bills itself as the haunted house capital of the world. Here’s why

Haunted houses and the art of the scare

Leonard Hartwig, who has performed for more than 30 years in the haunted house business, explains why he keeps coming back to scare visitors at The Edge of Hell in Kansas City’s West Bottoms.
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Leonard Hartwig, who has performed for more than 30 years in the haunted house business, explains why he keeps coming back to scare visitors at The Edge of Hell in Kansas City’s West Bottoms.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter calls out “Hello, Clarice,” from his cell as I walk through Macabre Cinema.

I pass by an aquarium holding the world’s largest snake in captivity, a 350-pound, 25-foot-2-inch reticulated python, while feeling claustrophobic from being somewhere in the bowels of the sweaty, five-story warehouse called The Edge of Hell.

I slide down a four-story, pitch-black tunnel slide to exit The Beast building, not knowing what awaits me along the way or at the bottom.

Everyone has their own fears and triggers that induce phobias, so it’s impossible to say that those creepy moments will scare you, too. What I can say with some certainty: you’ll be impressed – if you’re able to pay attention while bumping around in the dark and anticipating what might be around the next corner – by the elaborate production that’s behind each of the above haunted attractions in Kansas City’s West Bottoms district.

Each room in these large, converted warehouses is a new set, most with live actors in intricate costumes, realistic props (a few alive, even), animatronics, halograms and a range of special effects.

I’ve seen Kansas City bill itself as the haunted house capital of the world and always wanted to check out the scream scene there, so I finally did earlier this month.

Before I arrived, I talked on the phone with Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, known as Kansas City’s Queen of Scream and also spokesperson for America’s Haunts, a trade association for the industry. Arnett-Bequeaith’s is considered the first hauntrepreneur family.

In 1974, her parents and grandparents hauled their sets, props, actors and theatrical expertise to the Kansas City area in hopes of expanding the short summer season at the outdoor theater they operated in mid-Missouri’s Lake of Ozarks. The concept caught on quickly and by the 1980s Kansas City had as many as 16 commercial haunted attractions.

Hauntrepreneurs came from across the country to learn and emulate the haunts in their own cities, Arnett-Bequeaith said. It’s a tough, seasonal business that faces obstacles, such as bad weather, and competition from other entertainment options, including the Kansas City Royals chasing World Series titles deep into the fall. This year, it’s a strong start by the Kansas City Chiefs and one of the shortest haunt seasons.

Arnett-Bequeaith runs the family business, Full Moon Productions, with her uncle and this season they have three haunts open for a total of 25 nights. Kansas City no longer has the largest number of commercial haunts, though “I still say we are the capital because we are the center point, we are the granddaddy and we are the beginning of an entire industry right here in Kansas City,” she said.

Full Moon moved it’s original haunt to the West Bottoms in 1988, where it now owns 17 buildings. The Edge of Hell is in its 44th season, while the Beast opened in 1991.

“The Beast pioneered what’s called the open format,” Arnett-Bequeaith said. “That’s where we took out all the guide rails and path courses. We actually put the customer in the scene. It’s all about finding your way out and there’s multiple ways to go.”

In addition to Full Moon’s three haunts, Arnett-Bequeaith plans to open two escape rooms inside the same warehouse that houses The Beast. She plans to launch them Nov. 2 and operate daily year-round.

A separate year-round horror-themed escape room opened in September in the West Bottoms by a company that operates similar rooms in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The Basement takes the escape room concept to a new level by inserting a live actor into the experience. It’s not a haunted house experience but the premise is creepy and the props gory. You’re kidnapped by a cannibalistic serial killer who locks you in the basement of his deceased mother`s home. You have 45 minutes to use clues to figure out how to escape so you don’t become his “delicious morsels.”

Outside of the West Bottoms, there’s Halloween Haunt at World of Fun and Exiled, a haunted walk through the forest in Bonner Springs (about a 30 minute drive from downtown Kansas City).

There’s still time to make a trip to Kansas City for the above haunts.

Here are a few tips if you go:

Timing: The wait in line can be hours but there are ways to shorten that. Buy your tickets online in advance. VIP tickets allow you to enter a separate line that is usually shorter. Though it says “skip all lines” when buying the tickets online, there can still be a wait among the VIP ticket-holders. Earlier in the season is slower. As we get closer to Halloween, lines will be shorter right when the haunts open and on nights other than Friday and Saturday. Check updated operation hours and days before you go. Attractions’ social media accounts are the best place to check.

Cost: It can be expensive, though you can save a few dollars with a bundle if you’re doing more than one of the West Bottoms haunts. For example, purchased individually it would cost you $96 to go through all three West Bottoms haunts. A triple haunt pass is $80. Ages: Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Organizers advise the haunts are generally too scary for kids under 10, though they let accompanying adults make the call.

Here’s information on each of the haunts, along with some comments from my experience.

The Beast Haunted House

Four stories that take you through a variety of settings, from a Louisiana mansion and bayou swamp, Jack the Ripper’s foggy London, a medieval castle and a forest filled with werewolves. Visitors can pay extra to jump out of a second-story window to exit or take the slide. Comments: I liked the open-format style of this building. There were a few times we either got lost in the complete darkness … or they wanted us to go in circles, I’m still not sure. Took me about 45 minutes. Cost: Single ticket $27; VIP ticket $37; discounts available with combination tickets When: Open through Nov. 3, opens at 6:30 on weekends and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays More info: www.kcbeast.com

The Edge of Hell Haunted House

Inside this five-story warehouse is a path from heaven to hell paved with phobias, including snakes. It’s going to be hot in there – a trip to hell is included, after all – so no need to bundle up before you head inside. Comments: I went later in the evening, and not only were the lines long but the entire trip through the house was crowded. We moved very slowly. Some people might like this because you’re surrounded by people when the frights pop out; I’d prefer to give the actors time to reset between groups of guests for a real scare. Took me about 70 minutes to get through. Cost: Single ticket $27; VIP ticket $37; discounts available with combination tickets When: Open through Nov. 3, opens at 6:30 on weekends and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays More info: www.edgeofhell.com

Macabre Cinema Haunted House

You enter by walking down the center aisle of a haunted 1930’s cinema. Once you step through a slit in the screen, you wander through four floors of movie-inspired scares. There are more than 30 scenes from classic and contemporary horror movies, including actual movie sets from The Mummy, Hellraiser and Killer Clowns from Outer Space. Comments: This was the least crowded and a lot of fun to explore the sets, see familiar characters portrayed by live actors and get scared along the way. Took me about 30 minutes to get through. Cost: Single ticket $27; VIP ticket $37; discounts available with combination tickets When: Open through Oct. 31, opens at 7:30 on weekends and 8 p.m. on weekdays More info: www.macabrecinema.com

Halloween Haunt at Worlds of Fun

Worlds of Fun offers the Great Pumpkin Fest during the day for the younger crowd and Halloween Haunt starting at 6 p.m. each night for ages 14 and older. A selection of roller coasters and other rides are open along with shows and 13 haunted mazes that take about 10 minutes each to go through. Live actors in costume wander the mazes and the midway. Cost: Tickets start at $38 When: Halloween Haunt operates Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 27. The park is open 6 p.m. to midnight on Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday through Oct. 28. More info: www.worldsoffun.com/play/haunt

Exiled Trail of Terrors

This one-mile hike takes you through the woods at the Zip KC property near Bonner Springs, about 30 minutes drive from downtown Kansas City. You encounter about 30 live actors in scenes, from a lobotomy lab to a school bus crash. Comments: I had high hopes for this because the drive out to what felt like the middle of nowhere was a little creepy on its own. We arrived when it opened and still waited an hour in line. We were told the wait was long because they were spacing groups out, however groups ended up bottlenecking on the walk and ruining the scares. Cost: $30 on Saturday, $25 other nights When: 7 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Sunday (Oct. 28 only); 7 p.m. to midnight on Saturday through Oct. 27 More info: www.exiledkc.com

The Basement

This live action escape room opened in September and dates the rest of the month are filling fast. A live actor is in the room with you and your group has 45 minutes to escape the basement of a cannibalistic serial killer. They plan to open more room concepts to keep the challenge fresh for return customers. Comments: This was my first escape room and it was harder than I expected. We escaped the second the timer went off, becoming one of only 10 percent who escape in time. It wasn’t scare but was a lot of fun and had a horror vibe throughout. Cost: $32 per person When: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 2 p.m. to midnight Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday More info: thebasementkc.com

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