Not many people welcome night terrors. But the ones Vince Stites endures are good for business. That's because the terrors that race through his mind are ideas for new attractions for Hellscream Entertainment.
"The wheels are always turning," says Stites, founder and co-owner of Hellscream. "We want to do stuff that no other haunted house has done."
Halloween was one of Stites' favorite holidays as a kid. "I loved Halloween, haunted houses, trick or treating, the classic horror movies. I went to my first haunted house when I was 10 years old ... and I was hooked. I knew when I grew up I was going to build a haunted house."
And now he has two: Hellscream Haunted House, which began in a field at Powers and Palmer Park boulevards in 2009 and for several years has had a permanent home at 3021 N. Hancock Ave., and Haunted Mines, on the east side of the city near the Colorado Springs Event Center off of Palmer Park. It's Hellscream's second year of running Haunted Mines; it bought the brand after the longtime charity haunted house ended at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry.
Hellscream and Haunted Mines have been named the No. 1 and No. 2 haunted houses in the state by Scare Factor, a national review site.
"The fans love us," Stites says. "We just try to make the show better every year."
Stites won't disclose how many visitors the two attractions draw. "It's a competitive secret; all the haunted houses are trying to figure out what your numbers are." But, he adds, "we've been fortunate enough to have a pretty decent increase every year."
To keep the crowds coming, about 40 percent of each haunted house is changed up each year, says Jesse Clark, Hellscream general manager.
"We're No. 1 for a lot of reasons," he says. "We really push the envelope as far as it can go."
The frights at Hellscream and Haunted Mines are split between actors and "really cool animatronics and projections," Stites says. In the beginning, Hellscream depended heavily on volunteers, but now paid actors provide the thrills.
"Some of them are fantastic actors through different theater groups around town," Clark says. Others have haunted house experience, "and some are locals who are just into Halloween." Clark, with a theater background, started as an actor at Hellscream before climbing the rungs to general manager.
"Instead of having one audience for a long duration, you have many, many audiences for short durations," he notes.
Are the scares too much for some audiences?
"It does happen occasionally" Clark says. "We have a system in place. People get a phrase they can use: Simply, 'I need out.' Our actors and support staff are very well aware of that and will immediately evacuate them through the nearest exit."
Stites' horror baby began as his alone, but he took on two business partners, Jeff Schinkel and his father, Jack Schinkel, after the first few years. The addition of escape rooms at Hellscream in 2014 allowed Stites to quit his day job and devote himself full time to Hellscream.
The idea of escape rooms was new just those few years ago, Stites says. "Unfortunately, escape rooms are incredibly oversaturated right now." So while the escape rooms offer some year-round revenue, "our passion, our focus, is the haunted attractions," he says.
"We have 23 nights this year to make 100 percent of our revenue for the haunted houses," he says. Maintaining and paying for the two buildings, though, is a year-round exercise.
"There's a lot of cost involved," he says.
Stites does look to possibilities throughout the year for bringing the haunted houses back to life — for example, a "Bloody Valentine" event at Hellscream for Valentine's Day weekend. ("The couple that screams together ... stays together," the promotions read.) Dec. 13 falls on a Friday this year, so Stites is looking at the idea of a spooky Christmas event. And a few years ago, he experimented with "zombie laser tag" during the off season. Still, he says, "we keep coming back to the Halloween season."
Stites says he would love to take the Hellscream concept to other cities. "It's on my radar," he says.
Meanwhile, he'll continue to study "the science of fear" as he and his partners dream up more nightmares.
"I think it's in our nature to enjoy either scaring people or getting scared," he says.
Still, even his fear tolerance has limits. He has no interest for example, in checking out a "real" haunted house.
"The real supernatural stuff, that freaks me out," he says. "I like doing the scary stuff, the theater stuff, but the real paranormal stuff, ghosts and all that? I'm out."