North Texas Daily

Walking the dark path

Walking the dark path

Walking the dark path
October 17
14:14 2013

Joshua Knopp / Staff Writer

In dripping, bloody font, the entrance sign simply reads “The Dark Path Haunt.” Passing the sign, patrons of the 2-year-old outdoor haunted attraction are directed downhill. The path veers left over a dark bridge under trees that reach and threaten. A noose hangs limply in the clearing beyond.

Jason Sharp sets the tone for the haunt, watching over the entryway with his 6-foot-long sword and his looming, post-apocalyptic “Doom” costume.

He said the noose became his funniest experience at the haunt when a girl tried to put herself in it for a photo.

“The branch broke and the girl fell flat out on the ground,” he said. “The friend got a picture of her in mid-fall. She wasn’t hurt. It was hilarious.”

Sharp’s area is actually outside the haunt’s entrance. In a relatively well-lit station, Sharp shows off the high-quality costumes and performances patrons can expect throughout the haunt.

“We have phenomenal silicone masks that you can’t get,” co-owner Dan Baker said. “You can Google search and you’ll never find these places. We have costumes that are built by people who actually create these things for movies.”

Baker met co-owner Steve Hancock two years ago. While driving his oldest daughter to high school volleyball practice at 6 a.m., Baker saw a massive spider web covering a two-story house. He slammed the brakes, but his daughter told him to keep going or else she’d be late. One day, he took her early and stopped by to say hello to the house’s owners. Hancock’s wife, Melanie, answered the door.

“I’m sorry, look, I know this is going to sound really weird,” Baker said. “But I saw your spider web, and I am a haunted house Halloween freak!”

Almost immediately after they met, Hancock and Baker started planning a haunted attraction. Despite being the genesis of their relationship, the spider web isn’t used for the Dark Path Haunt because their decorations have become much more complex since then.

Past Sharp’s station, ushers stand by giving a flashlight to each group. Groups are held one minute apart and then sent off. A few yards away, another costumed actor stands by a billowing fog machine to make sure patrons don’t go the wrong direction. He points them through a pair of large, candle-lit pillars into the woods and the haunt begins in earnest.

The fog is a major part of the haunt’s backstory. Ostensibly built on an abandoned chemical storage facility, Hancock and Baker said the fog is supposed to be a hallucinogenic gas. As the patrons go through the haunt, actors represent their hallucinations.

“So basically, what you see is part of our dream and our hallucination that we’re presenting to you,” Hancock said.

Hancock said the haunt’s major theme was choice-patrons have to choose to continue down the path.

“The slogan for the entire haunt is ‘choose your path,’ and we do that because it’s on a crescendo,” he said. “We have exit points, so if it gets to be too much they can exit any time they want. But we want you to choose your path. And we want you to choose the dark path. The dark path is going to take you on a trip, on a journey of fear and self-exploration that not many people have ever experienced.”

Farther down, after the haunt really gets underway, Moira Dobbs lies in wait. When patrons come into her station, she leaps out in a fantastic witch guise, banging her broom against wooden maze walls and asking them for their eyes or teeth.

“I frightened a teenager so bad he fell over backwards and began to crab-walk backwards away from me, and his friends just abandoned him!” she said about her favorite scare. “Watching how people react in fear is very enjoyable to me.”

Dobbs said she sat down with Baker and Hancock at the beginning of the season and discussed what witch archetypes people really fear. Her current character is based on the 1980s cult film “Pumpkinhead,” which Dobbs said kept her up at night as a child, with elements of “Hocus Pocus” and the villain from “Snow White.”

Baker and Hancock both pointed to 1980s movies that introduced them to horror. For Baker, it was the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and Hancock cited Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

“That’s what did it for me, that’s what hooked me,” he said. “When the kid [in the Shining] outsmarted his dad running through the [maze], I was about the same age when I saw it. I really identified with him at that point.”

Now, 30 years later, Hancock said he has created something more rewarding in the Dark Path Haunt.

“A lot of people, when Halloween rolls around, go with their friends to a horror movie, maybe to a Halloween party,” he said. “We wanted to have something fun that people could experience. Not just sitting in the movie, [to] actually be in the movie.”

As courageous patrons move farther, past Baker’s Pentecostal preacher character and past the butcher, they meet the Dark Path Haunt’s real, live werewolf, Bryant Watley.

Watley said he is a practicing shaman and channels animal spirits.

“The wolf’s one of the easiest ones,” he said. “It’s kind of like a primal aspect.”

Watley epitomizes the perfect casting that makes the Dark Path Haunt so great. In costume, Watley taps into the wolf’s predatory instinct to evoke terror. A martial arts trainer, he also brings plenty of agility to the role.

“When they first walk into my area, I let them see me, and then I walk out of frame,” he said. “Some people, they handle it really well. Some people, they scream and they fall down on the ground and run into trees.”

Baker and Hancock have gone to great lengths to give their performers free license. Performers design their own areas and costumes, and have a dramatic influence over the show.

In Hancock’s eyes, they make the show.

“We’re an actor-based haunt, let’s face it,” he said. “Our actors are top-notch, second to none. I would take the Pepsi challenge against any other actors in the DFW community, and proudly put my actors up against them.”

Baker also praised the actors effusively, but he echoed the actors themselves when he said that the haunt itself is a character.

“People spend millions of dollars trying to create that creepy, outdoor woodsy-vibe indoors,” he said. “God basically gave me a place to scare the s— out of people.”

The Dark Path Haunt will be open at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through the end of October as well as Halloween night.

Hancock said they are working on getting permits to open Valentine’s Day, Krampus Night on Dec. 5, and on the Fridays the 13th throughout the year. They are located at 501 Swisher Road in Lake Dallas, and the price of admission is $15.

“Doom” stands at the entrance of The Dark Path Haunt, allowing  visitors to pose with him for photos. Feature photo by Aidan Barrett / Senior Staff Photographer

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