There are those who enjoy Halloween and the thrills, haunts and scares that come with it.
Technically Bruce C. Allen fits into that category, but it may understate his devotion to the holiday that he has been helping those in Falmouth celebrate since 1979, the same year he graduated from Falmouth High School.
Just four months after he received his diploma, Mr. Allen created a small haunted house with the support of the North Falmouth Village Association. It was as basic as could be—spaghetti posed as intestines; grapes were eyeballs and fishing lines created a series of spider webs.
Mr. Allen’s first foray into the business of scaring people may have been limited in size and scope, but he made up for that in a passion for creating spooky worlds that entertained his audiences.
So he continued, experiencing the typical growing pains of a highly seasonal business that was only open a few days in October.
His next move was to the Megansett Grange Hall, where he began charging money because “I was putting in so much time and effort into setting these up... It was to offset the cost of putting these together.”
At that time Mr. Allen began to incorporate a stage show into his haunted attraction, writing and performing an original skit on stage before sending audience members through a maze of rooms built out of plywood that featured costumed characters and more professional props than spaghetti, all aimed at putting a fright into people.
One of those happened to be Michael Ernst of Sandwich, who recalled the fear his oldest son Christopher, now 36, had when walking through the haunted house. “He found it pretty scary because at the grange he had put on a nice stage show and then after there was this sound effect as you walked down these creaky stairs where they built a maze. There you had live actors in different vignettes that would terrify you,” Mr. Ernst said.
Becomes a Performer
The next year Mr. Ernst decided he would no longer be a spectator and would help Mr. Allen as a performer, a position he held for 17 years until 2005. He played the role of the “Showman” during the stage show, explaining the character as a “British guy in a top hat and long straggly black hair in a faux tux,” laughing that inevitably “he would have some sort of confrontation with a monster who would escape.”
Performing alongside of him was Mr. Allen in the role of Shredder, who served as the conduit for mistakenly releasing the monster that audiences would eventually meet during their travels through the haunted house.
Through it all, he expressed an admiration for Mr. Allen’s persistence in continuing with a show that has truly been a labor of love.
Mr. Ernst followed Mr. Allen from the Megansett Grange, which was eventually sold and became a private residence, to several storefronts—the Falmouth Mall, the Festival Plaza in Hyannis and the Bell Tower Mall in Centerville, where they attempted to create a stage show and haunted house in a difficult environment. “It was hard trying to transform a clean sterile environment into something scary,” Mr. Allen said. “We sort of pulled it off, but it was really challenging.”
Then 17 years ago Mr. Allen noticed that Tony Andrews Farm on Old Meetinghouse Road, East Falmouth, was running haunted hayrides for its customers. So Mr. Allen approached Mr. Andrews to see “why we don’t just join forces and I could put on the haunted house,” he said.
The first year at the farm Mr. Allen continued the tradition of the hayride before eliminating it the next year in lieu of building a haunted house created out of empty tractor trailers fastened together that formed a series of rooms people would walk through.
Every year, Mr. Allen and his staff of volunteers would change the interior “so people would always be surprised when they came back.”
As with any small part-time business Mr. Allen has faced setbacks amid the longevity he has sustained on the Cape. Perhaps none was bigger than last October when the town building department and fire inspectors closed down the haunted house because it did not meet the current building, fire and electrical codes.
In order to address those issues Mr. Allen estimated he would have to invest $40,000 of his own money to comply with safety regulations which would include adding a sprinkler system, emergency exits and exterior illumination. “It would have been cost prohibitive to do that and just wasn’t worth it,” Mr. Allen said.
Initially, it was a devastating blow for Mr. Allen. “I thought all of the work over the years would be for nothing,” he said.
Instead of shutting down the attraction, Mr. Allen decided to alter the show on the fly, using the 33 acres at Tony Andrews Farm to his advantage and turning the Harvest of Horrors back into a haunted hayride.
Never Compromised Visitors' Safety
In a sense, Mr. Ernst said, last year’s incident was unfortunate. “I understand where the town was coming from, but they had a safe operation,” he said. “It may not have been entirely to code, but it was thoughtful of the safety of visitors and there were wonderful gags in there. They had a huge dragon in a pit in one section inside the maze where you had to walk over the bridge. There was this illusion of great space in there at times.”
Mr. Ernst who decided to leave the Harvest of Horrors to pursue more serious acting at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, where his wife, Christine Ernst, is a senior producer, said his time assisting Mr. Allen was both enjoyable and educational. “One of the great things it gave me was a greater comfort with improvising because you never knew from one night to the next what was going to happen,” he said, mentioning a few examples, from snow, to hecklers in the audience, to the year that celebrities like Jon Provost (Timmy in “Lassie”) and Jay North (Dennis in “Dennis the Menace”) were in attendance, signing autographs.
Harvest of Horrors
Where: Tony Andrews Farm at 394 Old Meetinghouse Road, East Falmouth
When: Weekends in October from 6:30-9 PM
Cost: $10 per person
For more information visit the Harvest of Horrors website.
Through it all, he expressed an admiration for Mr. Allen’s persistence in continuing with a show that has truly been a labor of love. “It’s surprising Bruce’s desire to keep doing it with all the obstacles that have been thrown in his face,” he said. “He’s had to move all of his sets from one place to another until he finally landed at Tony Andrews Farm. He just loves it and I can’t argue with that.”
As to what keeps Mr. Allen going, it is the joy in being able to scare audiences year after year during a time when they are looking for a good fright. He does this even though the work is not glamorous.
Last Thursday afternoon during a tour of the farm he acknowledged “my least favorite hour of the year is the hour right before we open” because of the stress involved with setting up the generators, props and making sure his cast are in their costumes and have the proper makeup on.
Unlike past years he has no time to perform, focusing solely on managing the show and ensuring everything goes right. “We use almost the entire farm and our attraction is 33 acres big so I’m running and crisscrossing the farm on foot or by vehicle all night to make sure the generator has gas, the actors are nourished and in their proper space and the traffic is flowing properly from the ticket booth,” he said. “I get a tremendous amount of exercise now, but unfortunately I haven’t seen a loss of weight.”
The rewards come in small doses. His narrator, Kiernan McDermott of Hyannis, has become a trusted employee who assists with makeup and “is always the first one here.” One of his former employees, Michael Quill, has gone on to create his own haunted house, Fear Town, at the Seekonk Speedway.
And of course there are the audiences, which are the primary reason Mr. Allen does the work, and plans on doing it for the foreseeable future. “It is kind of a rush to scare people and is quite thrilling for the actors themselves,” he said. “It is really a lot of fun to create this environment or different world for people to come and visit and be scared and entertained at the same time.”