THE BLOG
08/07/2014 02:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2014

Dr. Radley's Nightmare Machine and the Future of Home Haunts

Like so many others, I first came across Ricky Brigante's work on his now-legendary Inside the Magic site some years ago, although it was only recently that we managed to speak for the first time, when collaborating on an article.

It was through this experience that Dr. Radley's Nightmare Machine inadvertently came to my attention, and, once there, it was hard for me to put it out of my mind. The only recourse? Why, what any freelance writer would do -- speak to both Ricky and Cody Meacham, the creator of the Radley Haunted House (and its "beautiful horror" aesthetic), of course.

This will be the seventh year that Meacham will erect his home haunt in St. Petersburg, Florida, although this is the first time that Ricky will be collaborating on the project. The duo is planning to go all-out like never before for this Halloween season, and they're nearing the end of their Kickstarter campaign that will enable them to do so.

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Just to double-check: Dr. Radley's Nightmare Machine will be set at Cody's (parents') house again this year. Is that correct?

MEACHAM: This year's Radley will take place at my parents' house, as it has been for the last seven years.

BRIGANTE: The Radley Haunted House is definitely a home haunt -- but an incredibly elaborate one, featuring a facade, multiple rooms, live actors, special effects, a musical score, and professional quality artistry throughout.

What is some of the expertise or insight that Ricky is bringing to the project? How involved is he?

BRIGANTE: I've been reporting on theme parks for nearly 10 years, with a particular passion for the Halloween season. For as many years, I've been entertaining the neighborhood with my own home decorations on Halloween night -- but it was never completely satisfying simply giving a quick scare and handing out candy. As I covered more haunted attractions countrywide, I gained a lot of knowledge about how they are designed and run, all of which I am now bringing to the Radley Haunted House, along with plenty of my own killer ideas.

MEACHAM: I knew from listening to hundreds of Ricky's Inside the Magic podcasts that he and I shared many common interests and a common criticism for all things theme-park-related. When Ricky approached me about joining forces, it made perfect sense. Ricky has a great eye for details, the kinds of details that make themed experiences stand out from the rest.

Ricky has been very involved this year, even when separated by almost a hundred miles. I really respect Ricky's opinions, and all his advice and input has shifted this year's Nightmare Machine story and plan into something I feel will stand above the rest.

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What was 2006's first haunted walk-through experience like? What did it entail, how many scare actors were there, etc.?

MEACHAM: The Radley Haunted House truly started in 2007, a year after I began decorating my parents' house for Halloween. In 2006, I was inspired to do something for Halloween after my favorite attraction, Disney's Haunted Mansion, went through an extensive overhaul and added new special effects. I figured it was time to take my obsession with the well-known ride from my head and into my parents' yard, so I put up a surround-sound system, created a changing portrait much like the one seen in the Mansion's foyer, an axe-wielding bride projection effect, and a Madame Leota illusion in the porch window. I dressed up my friends and made some entry gates with the famous Haunted Mansion plaques, trying my best to attract attention to my new set-up. Back then, almost nobody came to my house for Halloween. But as the haunt grew, that changed in a big way, now drawing hundreds of visitors.

What's the draw behind home or "amateur" haunts? Is it more a stepping stone to further Imagineering/design jobs, or is it simply an expression of adoration for the Halloween season?

MEACHAM: I'd say the passion comes mostly from the drive to create and to celebrate Halloween. But with the overuse of blood, plastic, and every horror cliché known to man, the traditional home haunt and haunted attraction in general tends to bore me. The one thing I had in mind when concocting the idea of the Radley House was, first and foremost, immersion. My passion derives from attractions that completely envelop their guests and transport them to another place and time, so that's what I wanted to do.

Eventually, when "the Radley" caught on and became a household name in the Bay Area, my determination to create something unique and impressive became even greater and caused me try and outdo myself each year. My hope is that, one day, the right team will form and we can eventually bring the Radley to a larger, professional space. I think with Ricky's help, that opportunity is just around the corner.

BRIGANTE: For most home haunters, it's a chance to combine creativity with a love of Halloween. There's a shared passion among Halloween fans - a desire to not only enjoy all things spooky, but to pass that enjoyment along to others. Not everyone can drop everything in life to take a job working at a professional haunted attraction, but creating a good one at home for the season is entirely possible.

There is no right or wrong way to scare someone. Whether it's done for money or just for fun, it's all done in the spirit of Halloween.

I'm really intrigued by the mention of how the backstory of the Radley family is revealed bit by bit, year by year. Is there some type of narrative master plan, or is it created ad hoc?

MEACHAM: I thought it would be fun to create a fictional family whose roots were woven into Saint Petersburg's history. So I wrote up a simple story of a crazy old woman who was always seen working late at night in her Victorian greenhouse. Rumor had it that she would kidnap and cut up children who would venture into her overgrown garden and use them to fertilize her plants.

Attend the tale of Beatrice Radley,
She murdered her husband oh so sadly.
If she finds you in her garden,
You'd better pray she grants you pardon.
But if she doesn't, be well warned...
You may find yourself amongst the vines and thorns.

And the neighborhood believed it! Somehow, I created a story and an ambiance that people fell for back in 2007. And, each year, I decided to continue to tell the story of this Radley family, a different member each Halloween. I tied them all together under a family curse that I explored further in 2010 with "Thornwillow Valley," the name of the fictional settlement I built for that year's haunted house. Since then, I've told various stories, such as a Radley who owned a funeral parlor and the Radley Orphanage.

Now, for 2014, we're following a sleep therapist, Doctor Elias Radley, who suffers terrible nightmares himself and has spent his life searching for a cure. His search takes him into a very dark place. I'll leave it at that -- for now.

In the beginning, there was no "master plan" as far as unraveling a larger plot, but somehow, through the years, they have all found themselves very well woven together, and now I make it a point to keep it that way.

And, yes, the "Radley" name was inspired by To Kill a Mocking Bird, though the family's characters are all my own creations.

Will there be another "pre-show" video this year? And, if so, who films, writes, and produces it?

MEACHAM: We do plan on having a pre-show video this year. We started doing that in 2011 with the funeral home. I had the pleasure of playing the lead character that year, positioned in the first scene every night, and I couldn't have been happier when I heard the guests say things like "Oh, no -- it's that room from the video! I know what happens here -- run!"

The last couple of years, I had a friend film the video, but he's since moved on to bigger and better things. The Radley has its own writer who expands each year's backstory and also writes the scripts for our videos.

BRIGANTE: This year, I will assist in creating even more video, not only for the pre-show, but also for some online promotion and entertainment for those who can't see the haunt in person. We want everyone who contributes to our Kickstarter to be able to get something out of it, even if they aren't able to walk through the experience.

Please speak a bit about the balance between storytelling and scares in a haunt -- if there even is one. Is narrative even something that should be attempted to be included?

MEACHAM: From day one, I've wanted to tell a story within the Radley experience. I've discovered some hard truths along the way. The only way to get story through to the guest at a traditional, self-paced haunted attraction is to hammer it in when they are forced to watch and listen, because once they are inside, there is no hope. Our fans tend to be less afraid, so they will pick up thematic hints throughout the haunted house; otherwise, people don't get it, no matter how loud and how bright we make the story clues -- they're hiding from the scares and just having a good time.

I'm a sucker for story, so I cram as much inside the haunted house as I can, just in case the more perceptive guests pick up on it. Like any good story, I like to create a very distinct beginning, middle, and finale in our attraction. I think that attention to detail, realism, and storyline is what sets the Radley apart from other home haunts.

BRIGANTE: Story is very important to any attraction, if only to inspire the details within. The believability of an environment relies on its elements being based on a story. Even if visitors don't pay attention, pick up on, or care about the story itself, they'll still get the feeling of being transported into a new place that feels quite real -- and that feeling comes from the story being told.

What, to your mind, is the singularly most vital detail to a successful haunt -- a certain fabric or sound effect? The overall layout and flow? The backstory to get guests in the mood?

MEACHAM: It sounds obvious, but the most vital detail in creating a haunted attraction is a good scare. The overall backstory, layout, and ambiance of the attraction is extremely important to a great haunted house experience, but when it comes down to it, if you don't have good, scary characters, you really don't have much. Guests experience a whole lot of anticipation when hearing about a haunted house, driving there, and waiting in line. If you fail to make all that worthwhile by scaring them, you've failed to do your job.

BRIGANTE: Delivering the unexpected is crucial to a great haunted attraction. The problem with "conga line"-style haunted houses is that guests see the scares ahead of them, ruining the key element of surprise. All haunters, professional or at home, would far prefer to send guests in small groups or one at a time, to allow each scare to be performed and aimed directly at each visitor, offering everyone the best experience.

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What's the end-goal you have in mind for the Radleys' haunts -- to get a professional, year-round space?

MEACHAM: The end goal we have set out to achieve year after year is to "wow" our audience and hope that the right person may come away from the haunt and want to be a part in making it something even greater, making it a permanent and professional part of Saint Petersburg's ever-growing entertainment district.

BRIGANTE: After visiting the Radley Haunted House last year, I knew there was potential for it to become something so much greater. I've joined Cody's team to make that happen this year, with plans for an even bigger event ahead.

What can the smaller underdogs do that the themed giants, such as Universal, won't or simply can't do?

MEACHAM: Home haunts tend to escape some of the expensive and overwhelming permitting and legal bindings because they can be considered decorations.

BRIGANTE: When a haunt is professional, for-profit, and operating out of a commercial environment, it has to be run like any other business, following strict guidelines, codes, and laws. But a home haunt has more freedom.

With this home haunt, we're essentially welcoming hundreds of guests to Cody's parents' house for an elaborately themed Halloween party -- and doing it again for half of October. It's a labor of love that we want to share with as many people as we can, but our goal is not to make a living off of it. We simply want to entertain, and a home haunt allows us to essentially make that happen in any way we want, provided that it all gets torn down after Halloween ends, returning the area to a quiet residential neighborhood.