By Tara Bennett
One of America’s most popular haunted houses returns this month, and is celebrating a very special anniversary. Midnight Productions’ very own The 13th Gate is celebrating its 13th year of existence this season, and according to founder and owner Dwayne Sanburn, the Baton Rouge staple came into existence out of a love for Halloween.
“I’ve always loved Halloween,” said Sanburn. “When I was kid, I went to a haunted house and just really fell in love with it, and decided that was what I wanted to do.”
And he made his childhood dream come true. For over 20 years, Sanburn and his wife Katheryn have been building haunted houses, starting together in their home of Alexandria with Louisiana Nightmares. Their company of Midnight Productions was named after their habit of staying up “past midnight,” working on sets for shows.
From 1998-2001, Sanburn created large portable haunted houses on LSU Campus such as The Dungeon, Carnevil I & II, Psychosis and Psycho Cinema. However, he wished for a more permanent venue.
That venue would eventually be found in 2001 where they leased a 40,000 square foot building in downtown Baton Rouge, which was almost a haunted house in its own right. Seeped in history, the massive 150-year-old building was once the home of a slave brick foundry, a slaughterhouse and a mysterious shipping company. After 11 months of construction, the 13th Gate was opened in 2002.
“We have grown so much over the years and it started out as a part-time business and has now turned into a fulltime business for me and my family,” said Sanburn.
The house includes 13 “themed” areas depicting scenes of pure nightmares, including an asylum, a cellar and an outdoor swamp. Currently the house features the streets of England as stalked by Jack the Ripper.
The actual name of the 13th Gate was chosen so they would be able to be more inclusive with their scares. At the 13th Gate, guests will get their fill of crawling rats, real live snakes, torture rooms and fiendish ghouls. All of the sets used in the house are detailed, state-of-the art productions that were purposefully made to keep up with the changing demands of the haunted house scene.
“If you went to a horror movie 20 years ago and watch it now, you’ll say ‘Oh, that’s pretty tame,’” said Sanburn. “It’s the same way with the haunted house industry. What scares people now is completely different. Their expectations have grown.”
Don’t expect there to be an overt amount of blood though as seen in many of today’s horror films. According to head of makeup Blain Quam, he only goes through about two gallons of stage blood per season.
“We don’t use as much as other haunted houses use,” said Quam. “I don’t like the overkill.”
“I think there’s a place when it’s appropriate, like if we’re doing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, obviously there’s going to be lots of bodies and blood,” said Sanburn. “We make it appropriate for the set. We’re not going to bloody things up just to be bloody. The house is quite scary as it is and we’re nationally known as one of the most realistic haunts and most realistic set designs in a haunted house.”
Aside from the Hollywood-style realistic sets and makeup, Sanburn recruits people each year to portray the monsters that inhabit the haunted house. Each year, 250 people take part in playing characters at the house growing from the original number of 25 actors.
“It’s a well-oiled machine now,” said 13th Gate Stage Manager Jaime Schexnayder.
Once Halloween has come and gone, things still keep going strong for Sanburn and his crew of ghouls. A lot of planning goes into the house, and it is always changing and growing with new developments each year. When not in use, the 13th Gate has been used as sets for films such as “Ghost Shark,” “Pitch Perfect” and the upcoming “Dead Still.”
“We had a great time with the crew helping them make [Dead Still],” said Sanburn. “We’re excited to see it come out.”
“There is no off season,” joked Quam.
The 13th Gate, located at 832 St. Phillip Street downtown Baton Rouge, will open on Friday, Sept. 26. The gate opens at 6:30 p.m. and may remain open later than 11:30 p.m. if there is a line. For more information, call 225-389-1313 or log onto www.midnightproductions.com.