Send in the Clowns: Why Horror is 'America's Favorite Drug'

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Credit: Melissa Carbone

Melissa Carbone is a real-life scream queen. Her company, Ten Thirty One Productions, bills itself as the "world leader in the horror attractions industry" and operates Haunted Hayrides in Los Angeles and New York (which was looking for a new location this year but plans to be back in 2018), The Great Horror Campout and other spine-chilling attractions. She scared up a $2 million investment on from Mark Cuban on "Shark Tank." Carbone also just published a book, "Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby Into an Empire." She talked to Ad Age about terrifying ads, why horror marketing can model Disney and why fear is "America's favorite drug." The transcript is lightly edited.

How did you get into the haunted house business?
Every Halloween, my partner and I at the time created these elaborate Halloween displays in our yard — and I mean, really elaborate. It was pretty much we threw up Halloween on our front yard. And so these kids in the neighborhood would come through two, three, four times, and parents started coming through.

I started researching the revenue behind it and at the time [2008] it was a $6.5 billion industry, which is massive. It seemed absurd that there was this $6.5 billion industry and really no clear leader, especially in the attraction part of it.

In 2016, it was $8.4 billion [citing National Retail Federation figures.] It's continually grown and it's the one industry that even when we were having a horrible recession and downturn in 2009, that industry continued to grow.

You went on 'Shark Tank' a few years ago. Tell me about that decision.
We had already been around for four years and doing really well and we had been propositioned to go on "Shark Tank" a couple times before we actually went on. We declined the opportunity because we didn't want to sell any equity in the company because the company was doing really well.

At that time we were in an expansion mindframe. I thought to myself, 'If we go on this time and we end up getting money or a partner, we can use that to expedite our expansion plans.' So I came up with a large ask that nobody had ever asked for that much before on 'Shark Tank.' Because of that, I was sure we would not get a deal but that was fine. It was still a great marketing platform to be in front of millions of people on that show. So when Mark (Cuban) actually took the deal for $2 million, I was genuinely shocked.

When you enter a new market, how do you approach marketing?
I've always had a philosophy: Market yourself like you're Disney. If I go into a marketplace, the last thing I ever want to do is start small. When I hear people say 'I have this great idea, I'm going to start small,' I want to gut myself with a fork.

When I go into a marketplace, first we look at the landscape of the usage. How do people use media, how do people use the environment, how do people use the uniqueness of the marketplace?

In L.A. for example, we aren't a big subway culture, we're in cars, we're on the street, we have a lot of outdoor assets and components and people are outside all the time. Here, when we brought in the L.A. Haunted Hayride, we took over some of the most visible outdoor billboard locations in L.A., we were on all the top radio stations.

But then that was a lot different than New York, which is such a subway culture. There we took over half of every subway car in New York.

To me, Ten Thirty One Productions — of course we're an entertainment company that creates and produces its own horror attractions. But we're also a marketing company.

How are sales now?
The L.A. Haunted Hayride, in just 18 nights we'll do almost $3 million. The growth potential for us to get these haunted hayrides up in other markets and to have these working is a huge focus for us right now. Over the course of our existence we've had 650,000 people experience our attractions, which blows my mind.

What's the line between scary and too scary when it comes to ads?
We've actually crossed the line a few times. In New York last year, our creative went up in the subways and then actually got banned and taken down, which is actually fine with me because I'm such a content girl — I don't typically create the content to not be disruptive. I actually like disruptive content. That being said, I don't want our billboards taken down all the time. (Editor's note: Those ads were pulled from the MTA for depicting the head of a woman in a plastic bag.)

How much do trends play into your business? If "The Walking Dead" or "It" are hot in pop culture, do you follow that?

I do keep track of the trends, and I typically will create a ride that doesn't follow that trend. I usually steer away. Zombies were so big for so long, the world had enough zombies, I didn't need to give them more. They were at every other attraction across town. I always want our offering to be unique.

This year clowns are incredibly trendy because of 'It.' It was just a super coincidence. The L.A. Haunted Hayride has always done clowns, we're kind of known for it.

Were in our ninth season, and for the first four years the L.A. Haunted Hayride finale scene was this barrage of clowns with heavy metal, and people loved it. Every single year our Hayride patrons would ask us for the clowns. As creatives, you want to do something different.

We took a left from the clown tent. And it was refreshing for us. But every single year, the amount of people asking us to bring back the clown tent has been too loud to ignore. This year we were at the creative table and we were like 'Guys, I think we need to listen to people and bring it back.' But this year we're going to turn the entire 30-acre attraction into clowns and just annihilate people with a legion of clowns.

It's been great because the preoccupation with clowns that people have has been awesome for this year's ticket sales and enthusiasm.

How do real-life horrors — I'm thinking of the Las Vegas massacre — affect owning a business in this industry?

I think when things like that happen, it perpetuates this need for escapism even more. I think the reason haunted attractions do so well is there is an element of just wanting to leave your head for a minute and escaping. I want to create the highest level of suspension of disbelief that I can to the person who buys a ticket for my event.

Fear is America's favorite drug for a reason. That physical reaction, that release of dopamine, is real.

What's your favorite horror film?

I think my favorite modern-day scary movie because I think it's very disturbing and it stuck with me for week afterward: "The Strangers" is terrifying and feels very real.

I also love high tension. "The Exorcist" is probably my favorite, favorite, favorite of all time.

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