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Halloween hot spot haunts new home

Terrified, blood-curdling screams have been heard coming from the warehouse at 8934 Shaughnessy in Vancouver lately. They come from children…

By Gudrun Jonsdottir , in Feature story Life , on October 20, 2011 Tags: , , , ,

Halloween is when "kids get a peek into the adult world."

Terrified, blood-curdling screams have been heard coming from the warehouse at 8934 Shaughnessy in Vancouver lately. They come from children and adults alike, and hang in the crisp October air over the industrial street off Southwest Marine Drive.

The screams are music to Brad Leith’s ears. The Vancouver Film School teacher has spent 12-14 hours a day since the beginning of July turning the low-slung building into the Dunbar Haunted House, an elaborate labor of love that had become a fixture of Southlands over the past eight years.

But in that time, the haunt had grown too popular, and the screams too loud, for Leith’s residential neighbours.

He estimated that some 15%-20% “didn’t mind it, kinda tolerated it, maybe gritted their teeth a little bit.” Then City Hall came calling. It was time to move.

Humble haunted beginnings

When Leith, Gideon Flitt and Sakura Iwagami moved into 6478 Dunbar Street in 2004, they put up a modest Halloween display outside their new home and seven trick-or-treaters came over. The following year, the roommates invested a little more effort into it and had 100 visitors.

A donation box was introduced at the suggestion of a trick-or-treater in 2006, and more than 500 people showed up on Halloween night and hundreds more in the week leading up to it.

Leith started the haunt to get involved in the community and later, contribute to charity.

The haunt has grown and is now two weeks long, with “amusement park size” line-ups and as many as 12 people directing traffic out front. One of only two haunted houses in the Lower Mainland (the other one is in Surrey), last year, more than 100 volunteers helped make it the biggest one to date.

According to Leith and girlfriend Annamaria Spanier, who’s been co-hosting it with him since 2006,  roughly 17,000 people came to the haunt, which took three months to set up and raised $67,000 through donations.

Many of Leith’s neighbours loved it, among them Julie Prutton, who called it a “great event.” Some, such as Roger Schauer and Tam Stewart, were part of the show, dressing up as zombies, vampires and other Halloween figures.

Leith believes they’ve been crucial to the haunt’s success, as he thinks one of its biggest draws is the “emotional workout in a controlled environment” people get being spooked by live actors.

Not everyone’s workout is purely emotional, however. Every year, a frustrated guest would punch one of the spooky volunteers.

One spook too many

As the haunt increased in size, Leith started to feel that some of the neighbours were loving it less. Indeed, Frank Schulte, who lives next door, said he appreciated the effort they put into the house, but felt it was turning into an invasion of he and his wife’s privacy. There were simply too many people lined up outside every night.

With increased exposure came pressure from City Hall to get permits, largely due to the fact that this stretch of Dunbar Street has poor lighting and no sidewalks, which meant that most years, the line-ups were a wet and muddy affair.

Leith wasn’t terribly surprised by the municipal attention. “As soon as someone complains, or as soon as you get more interest or popularity, you’re gonna get on the radar.”

He tried to find a short-term lease all over Vancouver, to no avail. He ended up renting the warehouse in Marpole, for $45,000 a year. That means that for the first time, he and the gang are charging at the door — $10 for general admissions and $5 for kids under 12.

In order to match last year’s charitable donations, they’ll have to bring in about $100,000 this Halloween. Leith hopes the effort they have put into advertising online and via signs posted around the old location – never mind the time and money spent undergoing the city inspection and obtaining all the necessary permits – will pay off.

Barbaric B.C.

"Zombies are great; you just buy the cheapest clothes possible and dirty them up."

This year’s theme is “Barbaric B.C.” Victims of horrific chainsaw massacres are dressed as tree huggers, a bloody drag queen salutes her visitors.

The pathway throughout the warehouse splits into a classic Vancouver bike lane, a subtle dig at the mayor, according to Leith.

One area is dedicated to the B.C. smart meter controversy and another — Leith’s favourite — is filled with zombies dressed in Canucks jerseys smashing store windows.

What does the future hold for the Dunbar Haunted House?  They’ve signed a three-year lease on the warehouse and are hopeful that Vancouverites will keep coming over for a scare for many years to come, or “as long as people enjoy it and we can afford it.”

The Dunbar Haunted House is located on 8934 Shaughnessy Street. It is open on Sundays to Thursdays from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 7 p.m.-12 a.m. until October 31st.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the house is open from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. without the live spooks, a more child friendly environment. General admissions are $10, $5 for children under 12.

Follow @theDunbarHaunt on twitter for updates and information on line-ups.