Haunted house wants to move to a Baltimore ghost town

The Baltimore Sun

Joe Hudson wants to scare visitors at the haunted house he plans to open next Halloween, but for him the venture already is a little frightening.

The 28-year-old used $225,000 of his savings to pay in August for a long-vacant East Baltimore department store that needs at least $300,000 more in renovations. The property is located in Old Town Mall, a near-ghost town of boarded-up 19th-century buildings that was once a busy shopping area.

He and a group of about 30 friends want the haunted house to draw new visitors to Old Town Mall and make the former Kaufman's store — one of the largest spaces on the block — a major attraction again. His team goes by the name Engineered Fear Productions.

"It's exciting and thrilling, but at the same time it's scary too, because it's a risk," said Kelly McDermott, 29, Hudson's girlfriend, who is working on marketing for the project.

Many of Old Town Mall's stores are long-vacant, shuttered after customers fell away with the influx of drugs and crime in the 1980s and the demolition of nearby public housing high-rises in the 1990s.

The city has tried to revitalize the area for years. In April it issued another formal call to developers for ideas for a 16-acre set of city-owned parcels.

Hudson first saw the four-story property last winter, after three years of scouting for a spot convenient for many of his Baltimore-based crew, as well as a large customer base. He said he was drawn by its central location, ample parking, and the mass of space available — 40,000 square feet in a largely open floor plan.

"I know a lot of people say, 'How can you do business without foot traffic?' But every haunted attraction you have to market and bring people in," he said.

Hudson, a University of Maryland graduate who works as an engineer, said he likes the "creative outlet" of Halloween. The Silver Spring resident hosted his first haunted house in the backyard of his family's home during high school and worked at area haunted-house attractions for about a decade.

"It started as a hobby that has evolved into much more than that," he said. "It's not just red paint and rubber masks. You've got to think about sounds, smells."

Hudson estimates it will take about $300,000 for ground-floor renovations, such as installing electricity and a new sprinkler system, as well as patchwork repairs in other parts of the building. He's taken out a construction loan and is working with his father, a contractor.

Engineered Fear Productions also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000, of which less than $3,000 has been donated so far. In exchange for contributions ranging from $10 to $100, patrons can get tickets for its planned October 2015 opening and other benefits.

The project needs to get more permissions before opening — discussions with the fire marshal started before the building purchase, Hudson said.

But paying for the property was a "Rubicon-crossing moment," said Thomas Wingate, 28, of Baltimore, a team member who knew Hudson as "Halloween Joe" in college and suggested the site.

"Before that, it was all kind of talk and a little bit of dreaming, but once the building was acquired, it was like, 'All right, this is real. This is serious,'" Wingate said.

Halloween has become a booming business. About two-thirds of adults plan to celebrate this year, spending on average of more than $77 each versus $48.48 in 2005, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

Haunted-house attractions represent a growth sector. The 2014 survey found that 20 percent of people plan to visit a haunted house during this season, up from 14.9 percent in 2005.

"There are no real haunted houses in Baltimore that we know of, so this is really filling a need," said Mike Bobrow, 38, of Canton, a physician and member of Hudson's team.

Most of Maryland's haunted houses are found in rural areas, where there is space for multiple attractions.

Urban haunts, such as Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, often use their unusual locations to market themselves, but because they are typically smaller, operators have to charge higher prices, said Dan Dionisio, board chair of the Olney Boys and Girls Club, which started the Field of Screams Maryland attraction in Olney.

"When you sit down and look at all the costs associated with operating a large, safe haunt, it's a business you have to get right," said Dionisio, who also is involved with SHP Productions, which runs the Field of Screams for the club and organizes other events. "People don't realize how hard it is to execute."

Hudson's building served as a showroom for the Isaac Benesch & Sons furniture business and later Kaufman's, but it has been empty since 1997, according to Baltimore Heritage. Paint and plaster peel from the walls inside. Large windows, 17-foot ceilings and ornate moldings hint at a happier past.

Freddie Pressley, 59, who works across the street from the Kaufman building at Ayrdale Variety II, said any effort is better than nothing.

"I think it's OK," he said of the haunted-house idea. "They need to do something with these buildings around here. ... To have let it decline the way it has is really a shame for the city."

Hudson said the group wants the project to help spur interest in the area.

"I see a lot of potential in the Old Town Mall. I know the city's been trying to get things going there. We're hoping, since this is the biggest building on the mall, we can get an entertainment venue going and change things," he said.

Hudson plans to open the first floor of the building to visitors next October, busing in visitors from busier waterfront neighborhoods, and eventually restoring the entire property with reinvested profits. During the offseason, he hopes to work with theater groups that might want a large space.

The team hasn't settled on a name for the attraction, but they plan to make use of the property's ambience, developing a storyline and dressing actors in 1890s-era costumes.

"It's got so much history already," said crew member Brooke Baldwin, 21, of Canton. "It already feels like a haunted house."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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