Interview with Jim Millspaugh: Professor of the Haunted Attraction by Justin Hamelin
“I was born to scare people. I love it.”
Well that about sums it up doesn’t it?
Jim Millspaugh is one of those men who eat, sleep and breathe the Halloween season. When he isn’t scaring at the local haunt as his alias, The Unknown Scare Actor, Millspaugh can be found teaching classes on the art of the scare. Seminars invite him to discuss the phobias that suffocate our world on a daily basis. He’s a welcome sight at any haunt convention he steps into, although it’s not like he can easily slip into a crowd. Standing a Leatherface-esque six-foot-three and weighing “somewhere near 300 pounds,” Millspaugh fits the bill to a Tee of exactly what everyone should imagine is lurking when they’re pushed into a pig slaughterhouse and forced to find their way out.
Currently roaming the dark halls of The Dent Schoolhouse in Cincinnati, Ohio (a haunted attraction that’s almost always included in anyone’s Top 20 National Haunts list), Millspaugh may be one of the scariest men you’ll ever meet in a haunted house but over the phone, he was quite possibly the most outgoing and nicest gentlemen I’ve ever had the chance to speak with for an interview.
Ladies and gentlemen, keep in line and don’t let go of the person in front of you. It’s about to get spooky in here.
RAVENOUS MONSTER: How old were you when you decided you wanted to make the haunted attraction industry your path of terror?
JIM MILLSPAUGH: I would have to say somewhere around the age of ten. I’ve been scaring my Mom since I was like four years old. I’ve always been fascinated by Halloween and making my own costumes. Funny thing, though—as a child, I was terrified of horror movies. I could not do it. I just couldn’t watch them. I could dress up, but I could not watch them. I actually didn’t start watching horror movies until I was close to eighteen years old. I wouldn’t watch THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW because it had the word ‘Horror’ in the title!
RavMon: How did you get your start in the world of haunts? Did you have a mentor or as inspiration?
Millspaugh: I’d done a home haunt for many years leading up to my becoming a professional haunter, but once I became a professional, I really didn’t have a mentor so to speak. The venue I went to was at King’s Island (in Mason, Ohio) and they have a huge haunt fest every year. I walked in; they said “Ok, we’re going to cast you in a new attraction.”
They stuck me in a role which lasted two weeks. I was a virus-infected hospital victim. I was infected—I sat there and puked into a bucket for six hours a night. I mostly just used a water bottle and spit it all over the place for the effect. It just wasn’t me.
For people who don’t know me, I’m six-three, closer to three-hundred pounds. I’m a large, intimidating man even though anyone who knows me knows I’m a teddy bear.
Suddenly I went from being a victim to an attacker. I became the chief of staff of the hospital. I actually became a mentor for some of the new people who had never done this before. They didn’t know I had never done a professional haunt. I walked in with an air like I knew what I was doing and that was because I’d done a house haunt for so long. All of a sudden, I’m leading the newcomers and the attraction became really successful.
From that point on, I was never going to miss a haunt season again.
RavMon: You and a friend created a Rocky Horror Shadow Show that you were a part of for eleven years. This must have helped you hone your skills as a haunt actor. What was your favorite aspect of being a part of that project for over a decade?
Millspaugh: When I first started doing it, back in 1986, I was twenty-one years old. My roommate and I decided we wanted to do something fun, so we went to the local theater, got all of the OKs and set up a cast. I was the director and producer.
I took over the technical aspects of the show. The spotlights, the little special effects—I arranged all of that. At one point in time, I had performed every role in that show. Janet, Riff Raff, Magenta, Eddie… I’ve played everybody. I can’t say I was very good (laughs) but I did the best I could and I loved every moment of it.
Cool side note: in 1990 I met Meatloaf after a show and he actually took me onto his tour bus and we talked for almost fifteen minutes about everything from (his album) Paradise By The Dashboard Light to Rocky Horror Picture Show and he signed a cocktail napkin from the club for me. It was the coolest thing ever…”To Jim-slash-Eddie, Rock on! Meatloaf.”
RavMon: What are the key ingredients to the perfect haunted attraction?
Millspaugh: That’s a question I’m glad you asked. There are three main keys, in my opinion.
First of all, and this is the utmost important aspect if you ask me, you must have an original theme. I know there are some houses that still use Jason and Michael and chainsaws… no. No. You have to have something frightening, something that is going to draw people to the attraction.
The next thing—and this compliments the theme perfectly—is detailing. Detailing is incredibly important to your theme. Some people say that you can get by with black walls and blood sprayed on them. Absolutely not. A prime example of that is The Dent Schoolhouse, and I’m not being biased at all when I use them as an example. The theme is so immersive in our haunt, the sets are movie quality. I give kudos to Josh Wells (owner and set designer) for all that he’s done.
I’ve worked at The Dent Schoolhouse for four years now and every year, it just gets more and more incredible. When you walk in, you have stepped out of 2013 and right into 1955. But it’s a 1955 that hasn’t been used for a few years. There are cobwebs and lots of dust. It’s an absolute replica of a Fifties’ schoolhouse. Josh has gone so far as finding books, desks, original chalkboards, board games, all from the Fifties. It also helps that the haunt is actually set in an old school house.
It’s all about the smallest details. That’s why Josh makes it so completely immersive. Josh and his partners, Chuck and Bud Stross, have seen The Dent Schoolhouse rated as high as number two in the nation as a haunt. All because of how detail-oriented they are. The theme of the schoolhouse is based on local legend, so there’s that realism for guests too—demented teachers, bloody children, a crazed janitor that kills children.
The next aspect that is so important: the actors. You have to have the right actors. Your actors have to have that passion. They need to be able to scare you with their movements and their vocalizations.
It’s really three simple parts—theme, detail and actors. That’s what makes a successful haunt.
RavMon: And yet there are so many houses that seem to lack those three components, kind of like a lot of horror movies these days.
RavMon: Speaking of films, what are some horror movies that are must-sees for you every Halloween season?
Millspaugh: Oh man, there are a bunch. I love horror movies now. My girlfriend actually just came back from shopping and got me a four-pack of A Nightmare On Elm Street movies that I hadn’t owned yet.
As for must see horror films for the holiday, you gotta go with John Carpenter’s Halloween. I actually met John briefly once. He’s a very nice guy. I admire him and have a picture of him and I on the wall in my home. From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, The Exorcist, The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, The Blair Witch Project… most Stephen King adaptations, American Horror Story season one or two, the remake of Evil Dead… horror films inspire me. Sometimes I might draw a blank on what I need for a scare and I see a film and go, “Ok, that’ll work!”
RavMon: I liked The Blair Witch Project a lot, too.
Millspaugh: The lack of what you see is what really creeps you out with that one. Just like the original Paranormal Activity. The first one actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That scene with the devil hooves on the floor. The old Hammer horrors with Christopher Lee, too. And Nightbreed.
RavMon: Back to haunt questions. When does your haunt season start and end? How many performances do you do on average?
Millspaugh: My haunt season starts in early September and runs through the first weekend of November sometimes. I work for The Dent Schoolhouse Fridays and Saturdays in September and then Thursday through Sunday in October.
When I’m not technically performing, I’m teaching classes, seminars, conventions. March to June is usually convention season. I’m always doing something related to the haunted house genre. It keeps me going all year round.
RavMon: Has there ever been a point where you’ve felt burnt out or considered sitting out a year?
Millspaugh: I’m a haunt actor. I’m not burnt out. I’ve been doing this professionally for seven, eight years now. There are times when I’m tired and sore. I do really aggressive acting, but I survive. I live for every scare I can get. I don’t care how tired I am. There are nights when I think, ‘ Is it ever going to end?’ and then the next group of people enters my room. My goal is to scare as many people as humanly possible. I have made people pee, shit and fall into a fetal position. Just last night, I made a woman face plant into a wall! (laughs) I live on adrenaline when I do this. From the time we open to the time we close. They (the guests) belong to me whenever someone walks into my room. I love my work.
RavMon: Having scared around the country, how does the Midwest haunt scene stack up against the other areas of the country you’ve worked in?
Millspaugh: I talk to a lot of people in the industry and the Midwest is probably your biggest area for haunts. There are haunts all over the place. It’s probably got the biggest concentration in the country. There is a little cluster of haunts in the New England area. The West and the heartland are really missing out on the scene, for the most part.
The Detroit area has the highest concentration of any metropolitan area in the nation. Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana… they are everywhere.
There are amateur haunts, run for charity, that are almost as good as a lot of the professional houses. They don’t get enough credit, but here’s one that really deserves some praise—Backwoodz Oddities in Ohio. It’s a small haunt in a little town that no one’s ever heard of called Waverly.
Allen Shell is the owner and they’ve done it for a few years now. He sets up a piece of property and does it all for charity. Half of everything he makes goes to the charity he decides on for that year and the other half is purely for operating cost. He doesn’t make a dime off of it. He spends his own money, a lot of money, on this. He designs all of the props, sets and lighting. It’s amazing. [It features] volunteer actors that are so passionate about what they do that they are just as good as professional haunters.
I don’t scare easily, but last year, I actually jumped while walking through this haunt. I’ve taught the actors in my seminars and they are amazing. Recently, Allen wrote me a letter thanking me for all of the help and that is the best praise any teacher can get. It thrilled me to death.
RavMon: Tell us a little about the podcast you are a part of, The Big Scary Show?
Millspaugh: The Big Scary Show came about because a void needed to be filled in the industry. I have three partners in the show: Drew Badger, Jerry Vayne and Jason Storm. All four of us were a part of a previous podcast that sort of went away and now we do our own thing. We first went on air on April 13—Friday the 13th, 2012. We put out a new show every two weeks and we’ve done that consistently since we started.
We all have our own little pieces that we do and we fit together. Drew is the voice that you’ll hear most of the time. Jerry does the music, he finds bands that play our type of music and we also have been able to use some bigger artists’ music as well, including First Jason. If anyone sends us a demo or some music you’d like us to use and we like it, we’ll use it.
Jason does his rants and people really love that. Then you come to me. I do a segment and I record the commercials and do a lot of voice work.
My primary segment is called Face Your Fears. I talk about phobias and things that scare you. It’s a fascination of mine and it helps me as a scare actor to scare people better. I also produce the show, with the help of my girlfriend.
That, in a nutshell, is The Big Scary Show.
RavMon: What are your plans for the big day, October 31st?
Millspaugh: I will be working. The Dent Schoolhouse has two separate attractions—the schoolhouse and then the one I work in, The Queen City Slaughteryard. It looks just like an old pig slaughteryard. The first half of the attraction, you have five guys armed with chainsaws and every hall you go down, there’s another fella with a chainsaw. I personally don’t believe in the chainsaw scare.
RavMon: It’s too easy.
Millspaugh: Exactly! It’s a cheap scare, but I will digress because it works. Then, the second half of the haunt, you move from these pig corrals into the slaughterhouse itself. You come into a room and I’ve got four pig carcasses hanging from the ceiling. I’m the first butcher you encounter. There are female victims, a male victim and a freezer full of bodies. It’s a blast.
RavMon: Lastly, any shout-outs or links you’d like to encourage our fellow horror fanatics to check out?
Millspaugh: Check out www.bigscaryshow.com for our podcast. You can email Jerry about music at Vayne@bigscaryshow.com. If you want to report news that you think should be discussed, anything horror, send us the info at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If someone wants to suggest a phobia or an idea for a show topic, you can also get in touch with me at: USA@bigscaryshow.com.
RavMon: Thanks so much for the time, Jim. This was a blast.
Millspaugh: My pleasure! Enjoy the holiday!