Opechee Haunt, Glendale, CA
We've seen from the past two days that "home haunt" definitely doesn't mean the subpar, cheaply made, plain residential haunted houses that it used to imply. These days, amateur haunters are crafting excellent experiences in horror with home-made props and custom-built sets that have become major attractions in their neighborhoods and beyond. Well, today, we're going to learn that age is not a limiting factor either, when it comes to haunted attraction quality. Because as you'll see from today's visit to the Opechee Haunt, anyone with a creative enough mind and a steadfast commitment and curiosity in figuring out technical logistics can put together a wonderful, charming, surprisingly sophisticated haunt--no matter how young!
Haunt enthusiasts who've been paying attention the last few years know Opechee Haunt colloquially as "the kid haunt." And by that, I don't mean it's friendly for children (though this year's production is absolutely family-friendly and even magical in a way--though we'll get into that a little bit later). I mean it's produced by kids--or, well, by one kid... a 15 year-old teenager named Sam Kellman who is actually mature, detail-oriented, creative, and humble beyond his years, but who started doing haunts when he was still in elementary school.
Sam's first public output of Halloween delight began six years ago when he put together a haunted house in his bedroom as part of his family's Halloween party. The following year, that moved to the front yard as a bit of a plussed yard display. 2013 was the first year Sam attempted a true "haunt," with a scary maze experience stretching to the back of his family's property and out again. In 2014, the haunts caught the attention of our friends at Theme Park Adventure, who visited and were blown away by the commitment to story, professionalism, and detail in this 12 year old's endeavor. The following year featured an enhanced haunted maze at the local community center that started showcasing Sam's interest in technology for interactive purposes, and last year, Sam took the culmination back home and crafted an interactive and immersive adventure that used guests' smart phones to solve a mystery that led to one of two mini-maze experiences in the backyard. That's right--this teenager was creating immersive theater right in his own abode! And this past summer, we saw Opechee Haunt represented as part of the Hall of Shadows, showcasing Sam's sophistication with theatrical showmanship and integration of technology.
This year for Halloween, in a clear display of his multi-faceted interests and curiosity, Sam decided to go in yet another direction, opting to try a show instead of an actual walk-through haunt with live actors. Even though this required diving into a project type he had never really done before (show theater), it would provide the advantage of smoother and more consistent operations during the Halloween run, since it wouldn't have to depend on inconsistent factors like actor availability and staffing complications of a haunted house.
The result is something that's best described as a spooky, charming, hilarious version of the Enchanted Tiki Room--but with jack-o-lanterns instead of birds and plants and tiki gods. It's a variety show that has a distinct Muppets feel that features prop characters complemented by a whimsical soundtrack, smart and comedic voice acting, slick lighting and projections, and even a fun, overarching storyline that unfolds and ties everything together. To put it bluntly: I was blown away at what an amazing show Sam (with some help from his parents and family friends) assembled.
Jack's Halloween JamBOOree takes place on the Kellman front yard. The audience occupies a marked out plot on the street a couple of car lengths long by one car length wide. The hosts of the evening are Jack and Gus, a pair of wise-cracking, Laurel and Hardy style jack-o-lanterns who present a series of acts in succession taking place in various parts of this spooktacular cemetery. From pumpkin musical number to a terribly humorous stand-up act to a splat-defying stunt-pumpkin, these segments are laden with an adorable and enchanting sense of magic and whimsy and a touch of spookiness. Of course, it IS a Halloween attraction, so inevitably, a villainous unseen force does crash the party. But if you want to know how everything resolves, you'll have to make the visit to Opechee Haunt to go see for yourself!
And I really do recommend this show. The production is really exceptionally well done! The synchronization of lighting and sound are expertly done, and the writing (all scripted by Sam himself, with a couple of improv moments by the voice actors during recording) has cute jokes that children will laugh at plus wit that will leave adults smiling. There's a sort of Pixar-like quality in that respect. The use of projections on both Jack and Gus and on the house garage and door and adjacent wall showcase an advanced knowledge of theatrical production and showmanship, and there are also little details Sam throws in that are Disney-esque in subtlety--but which really strengthen the storytelling.
In one scene, for example, a pair of mocking ravens finish their patronizing assessment of the jack-o-lantern variety show acts, then "fly away." As the ravens are actually just static plastic figures, this effect is accomplished by dimming the lights on them and adding a fluttering sound. But a moment later, sharp-eyed audience members might see their silhouettes flying past the garage door and wall. There are numerous such examples of little moments and inclusions that might be missed, but which are added anyway to just enhance and amplify the entire show.
There's no doubt in my mind that Sam is headed toward a great career in themed entertainment or productions, should he choose to follow that path. He's currently enrolled in a film-making program at a local magnet school, and he's unsure if he wants to pursue directing or creating movies or a field in themed entertainment or something else. But certainly, whatever that path ends up being will be something creative and surrounded by innovation.
It's even more incredible that he was able to pull all of this off when one considers that he didn't actually decide what to do for Halloween until after Midsummer Scream, then planned, recorded, mixed, assembled, and constructed everything during his remaining days of summer vacation and in his limited free time once school began. I would have been impressed if this show was the pet project of a Walt Disney Imagineer or Hollywood producer who was doing this with the help of a couple industry friends. The fact that the majority of the work was done by Sam is absolutely, mind-bogglingly impressive and commendable.
And if you think this is inflating ego too much, never fear. In chatting with Sam before and after the show, I found myself enjoying a conversation with a very humble, hard-working, and gracious young man who showcases a devotion to professionalism that many twice his age wouldn't project. He constantly mentioned "we" when talking about the effort and team who helped put this together, and it wasn't until his mom interjected, "lets be honest, Sam, it was mostly you," that he relented with a sheepish smile and nodded.
Jack's Halloween JamBOOree at the Opechee Haunt is one of my top recommended attractions for this Halloween season, and it continues this Friday through next Halloween Tuesday. Shows run every half hour from 7-10pm (7-9pm on Monday, October 30; 7-11pm on Halloween night), although keep in mind that unless there is a crowd late, the last show is actually half an hour before the end operating hour. I'd also recommend arriving early, both to get a good spot and also to enjoy the pre-show announcements and musings that are adorably funny. Admission is absolutely free, but definitely send a few bucks Sam's way in the form of donations. He's definitely earned them!
Sam has a lot to be proud of with Opechee, but he probably won't admit that publicly. In a sign of being a true creative, he was still finding little flaws and technical glitches even during our viewing, taking notes on items to improve upon before the following weekend. That's a standard of excellence that I can definitely appreciate, and I selfishly hope Sam continues to dazzle his audience with more haunted attractions in the years to come!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.