With half a decade of experience, Sam Kellman is one of the youngest, and most talented, haunted house creators in Southern California. Starting The Opechee Haunt when he was only nine years old, it has grown each year, defying a clear classification. Ranging from impressive Halloween audio / visual displays to scavenger hunts to a Donnie Darko reminagining, one thing remains constant: They are incredibly entertaining. As Kellman finishes his last year of high school and prepares for the future, Haunting had the chance to sit down with him and discuss his experiences with being a home haunter, the lessons he’s learned, and get a tease at his upcoming Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree 2, running select days October 19-31.
In your own words, what is Opechee Haunt?
The Opechee Haunt is an immersive “home haunt” attraction based out of Glendale, California. Our experiences have always placed a strong emphasis on storytelling, as my favorite thing to do in a themed attraction is to really place the guests in a world, a story, a situation that they can feel they are truly a part of.
Can you speak to the talented team behind Opechee Haunt and what their various roles are?
Our crew is very interesting, as it varies year by year. I’m the one that stays put, as I always creative direct and tech the attractions. Within creative direction, I decide how everything is going to feel and play out. I come up with all the ideas as far as writing, story, and visuals go. Within my tech role, I’m getting into all the fancier showy stuff like lighting, show control, and media. But aside from me, our crew changes based on what I need that specific year. I have a team of a few regulars, friends who help out year after year, but we bring brand-new people on annually. I always get help with building our set pieces, painting and creating scenic design, and of course, acting! I have some amazing actor and visual artist friends from my arts school, so those talents really come in handy during the haunt, and everyone loves being a part of it.
With vastly different themes between your haunted houses and family friendly JamBOOrees, what inspires your experiences? Are there any specific films, novels, comics, or other haunts that influence you?
Oh, gosh. Inspiration is always such a tricky question, because there’s just too much! It definitely varies from haunt to haunt, since almost every experience we’ve done is completely different from the last in terms of format and tone. Yet there are definitely a few key inspirations that led me to start the haunt initially. Firstly, The Haunted Mansion is a HUGE inspiration. It’s been a big one from the beginning, and it still is to this day. I find that there’s always something I’ll take from it, whether it’s an effect or a type of lighting set-up, to a sound technique or a paint job. It’s such a dense source of material, there’s always something a haunter can borrow from that masterpiece (Happy 50th, by the way!). Aside from Mansion, any other highly immersive themed experiences are prominent inspiration for me. Again, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that you can make people feel like they’ve been transported into a different environment, a different world, and if you’ve done just that, you’ve succeeded.
In 2017, you produced your first Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree. Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience and storyline?
2017 was a big year for us. It was the first time we had an installation at Midsummer Scream, and coming off of that, I found my little inexperienced self very overworked come early August when the convention concluded. I thought that for October, maybe I could come up with something that didn’t involve heavy wall panels or intricately scheduled actors. I just didn’t know exactly what yet. After some thinking, I considered a display of some sort, though that didn’t completely fit the bill as far as the immersive storytelling I always prefer to incorporate. After a few more concepts, I eventually did come up with the idea of creating a show-type experience. Something guests could walk up to the curb and watch unfold in front of them. A sort of light show display, but more than that. It would have characters, it would have conflict, and it would have a STORY. After a few variations of what the experience could be like tonally, I finally decided I would take more of a family friendly approach, as it’s something I hadn’t tackled before, and without the maze format, it was a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of! In the end, I wrote Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree, a spooktacular variety show that took place at the Opechee Cemetery, hosted by a bunch of jack-o’-lanterns that had absolutely no idea what they were doing. It had a very Muppet Show-esque vibe to it in that way, as almost everything that could go wrong DID go wrong, and every single act went absolutely haywire. If things couldn’t get any worse, the Halloween Wind, an arch nemesis of Jack’s crew, had made a surprise visit to blow out all the jack-o’-lanterns and put an end to the show! Luckily, the audience scared him away before getting sucked into an old vacuum cleaner, proving to Jack and his co-host Gus that they were in fact the best act of the night. Now that was a very simple summary of the full fifteen-minute show, but we don’t have that kind of time. Sorry to disappoint you all, I know you wanted an even longer paragraph.
How has Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree grown in the last two years? Can guests expect similar themes and narrative?
This year, the show has REALLY grown, as we are dishing out a bunch of all-new JamBOOree goodness for guests to experience in 2019. We started off our season with Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree Presents: HAUNTED HUNT, a brand-new type of experience for Midsummer Scream. “An interactive scavenger hunt” is probably the best way to describe it, as it led guests all around the convention center in search of Jack’s missing co-host, Gus! At the end of the experience, Gus is found and all is well, except for the fact that a newly-introduced paranormal entity of unknown origin has been proven responsible for this kidnapping! He is technically still on the loose, leaving a few loose ends open for October’s JamBOOree 2 (this year’s main attraction) to explore in the fall. Throughout these new experiences, and guests who went to Midsummer are already quite aware, the same sort of tone and narrative techniques are definitely being utilized for this year’s continuation of the JamBOOree storyline. I will say, though, that while still humorous and charming, Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree 2 will conjure up a few darker and more eerie moments this fall, in line with our new mysterious villain. You’ll just have to wait until October to see exactly what we mean…
With Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree 2‘s lighthearted whimsical theming, how does this resonate with audiences and families alike? Do people generally prefer more spooky tones or do the numbers show that audiences really like family friendly attractions?
If audiences respond anything like they did to the first installment, they most DEFINITELY will resonate with JamBOOree! There’s definitely an audience for the scary and even the gory, and we’ve explored those sort of themes throughout other attractions we’ve created in the past, but that is a much tighter demographic compared to a family friendly crowd. People seemed to really enjoy the fact that there was enough of a lighthearted and whimsical environment for younger ones to enjoy, while we included enough wit and humor in our show’s story that older guests could enjoy just as much! That’s always been a main goal for me when writing any of the JamBOOree attractions: Never to talk down to the audience. I don’t want it to feel as if “family friendly” means it’s a “children’s” show, that just makes the audience sound so niche. It really does have something for everyone to appreciate, and I’m proud of that!
In 2016, you utilized augmented reality technology to help enhance the pre-show and reveal portions of the narrative – and at Midsummer Scream this year, there was an impressive audio and visual show to help give context to the story. Can guests expect a similar bland of technology and storytelling this year? What technologies can they expect?
Yes! We are always about the implementation of tech into our experiences to help tell our stories, and JamBOOree 2 is no different. You can expect to see a dynamic animated lighting package as we had in the original, but we’ve definitely added a lot of new things. Motorized effects, surround sound, and an entire yard covered in map projection technology are just a few of the fun new tech enhancements you’ll experience this October.
With haunts traditionally being walk-through experiences, you have carved your own path, utilizing scavenger hunts as well as more immersive elements. What style should guests expect this year? What size with the groups be? Will there be interactive moments, or is it more of a performance?
You can of course expect a show format, just as the first JamBOOree was situated. Groups can get pretty large for the show, as during the original year we would sometimes get around fifty or so guests a showing! As far as interactivity, it is more of a set-in-stone performance, but like year one, there will be a sprinkling of audience interaction throughout, though we do want to push that in a couple new ways this year, of which I will not reveal. Spoilers!
Locations are integral to the stories they tell. With so many of your experiences being contained to your home, what constraints has this given you? What opportunities has this afforded? How does your space help evoke your narrative and atmosphere?
Obviously, the biggest constraint that comes with a home haunt is limited space. We don’t have the square footage of some larger pro haunts in Southern California, but that really does force myself to get creative with our use of space. People are very surprised when we tell them that The Donnie Darko Experience last year was almost entirely built on our (not very large) driveway outside our house. And aside from having to get creative with things as far as space, another really great pro to being located at our home is the fact that it’s all right here. By that I mean I can wake up in the morning, get out of bed, and walk right into the haunt. I make all the props here, they get loaded right into the haunt just a few steps away. No crazy transport. Compare this to something like putting on a Midsummer Scream installation where we have to pack everything up into a truck, unload it, set it up again, etc., where here at home, it’s all so close and accessible. As far as the narrative and atmosphere being evoked through the space, I think it’s just another way to get creative with what we have. The narrative and atmosphere really stem from everything we install and build up that’s NOT a part of the already-existing house, so I think all the execution really lies in how well that stuff is made.
Starting the haunt in 2011 as a nine-year-old, you have truly made a name for yourself in this industry, innovating beyond the expectations of any home haunt. What will happen to Opechee after you graduate from high school?
As some people are already aware, once I graduate from high school, our home haunt will go on a bit of a hiatus. Now, I don’t know for how long yet, or if when we come back we’ll be at a different location, but what I do know is that I’ve been doing this consecutively for NINE years straight, which is basically half of my entire life, and I’m going to have to take at least a little break for me to get used to college. What I can almost guarantee, though, is that I will either be collaborating with other people or working for other haunted attractions in the near future. So even if I’m not technically working on Opechee for a little bit, I’ll definitely be around. And trust me, Opechee’s not over yet.
In a similar vein, where would you like to see yourself going in the field? Would you like to produce your own large-form haunted attraction, work for one of the theme park giants, or keep it smaller-form and intimate as a side passion project?
I definitely love themed entertainment in general, and while I love haunt attractions and the SoCal community, and will definitely create more haunt content in the future, my end goal in this field would definitely be designing and writing for high-end theme park/immersive experiences. Something as well done as Galaxy’s Edge just WOWS me, and I’d love to be a part of a project like that. But that’s if I go into themed entertainment. I’m also huge on film, as I go to an arts school for film courses right now and really love the art form, so that’s definitely something I’d like to enter into as a career as well, basically just as much.
What advice do you have for other home haunters looking to start their own haunt? What is the most important lesson you learned that you’d love to pass on?
Just START. That’s what I always tell people. Use whatever you have, attempt to accomplish whatever you want to set out to do, but it’s all about your unique vision and voice, and that’s what’s going to make your haunt stand out, that’s what you want to lean on year one. Don’t focus on having the biggest, baddest, most grand year your first time around. Unless you have major resources, it just doesn’t happen. But that’s great, because year after year, it’s going to build on itself. You’re going to gain more experience, have bigger budgets, more of an audience… it all stems from that first time around. That’s totally what happened with me! It took a few years to even get PEOPLE, and patience is a huge lesson I learned! I remember cold October nights sitting outside in lawn chairs with friends, already being open, actually waiting for people, some of which we’d invited, to appear. Nowadays, the people just come on their own, which is amazing, and I never really could have imagined our presence being this known to the community (and even outside) whatsoever. To put it simply, there aren’t exactly real finite parameters to work within to create “a great haunt,” as there are so many different flavors and ideas you can conjure up as far as your material itself. But no matter what your budget is, or how many people you have helping you out, just go for it! You have to!
What do you want people to walk away from your experience with? What do you want them to feel or learn?
This October, I want people to walk out of JamBOOree 2 feeling, first of all, ENTERTAINED, as that is always the goal! But secondly, I want people to simply have had a good time. Some laughs, some ooh’s, and maybe even some screams to look back on. This show has something for everyone, and is firing on all cylinders in that respect. Hopefully audiences enjoy watching the show just as much as we enjoyed putting it all together.
Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree 2 will run October 19-20 and 26-27 from 7pm-10pm, and October 31 from 7pm-11pm. The show runs continuously, beginning every 40 minutes, times to be posted nightly outside the attraction and on The Opechee Haunt’s Twitter. Find out more about The Opechee Haunt and Jack’s Halloween JamBOOree 2 on their website and Instagram. Make sure to subscribe to our Event Calendar, as haunt season is almost upon us!
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