A passion to scare: Darkside ready for another haunted season

10/06/2013 10:00 AM |

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | A prop in the haunted village portion of Darkside Productions’ haunted house in Wading River.

Walking through a simulated haunted house, Mike Meola says, should trigger the same conflicting emotions one feels when riding a roller coaster.

“Your body is telling you, ‘Oh my god, I shouldn’t be upside down,’ but your brain is like, ‘Yeah, this is awesome!’ ” he says.

It’s with these feelings in mind that Mr. Meola, who has operated the Darkside Productions Haunted House in Wading River for the past 16 years, continuously looks for ways to scare and excite people when he transforms an old potato barn and surrounding field on Route 25A into a haven of horrors each fall.

“You’re going to see some really cool stuff,” he says. “You’re going to get that startle and you’re going to have that adrenaline rush.”

Making all that happen, however, is no easy task.

Northforker.com: Haunted houses and trails on the North Fork

Preparations for the Halloween season at Darkside Productions, Mr. Meola says, typically begin at the end of July and include building sets and creating props, like the menacing scarecrows hanging around in a field at the site’s haunted village. Ninety percent of the props are homemade, he says. The remaining 10 percent are purchased from Halloween specialty stores.

In addition, Mr. Meola hires about 50 actors each year to terrify visitors at Darkside Productions’ 30 “scare spots.” He works closely with each actor on improvisation and timing, he says. For safety reasons, the actors are prohibited from touching visitors.

Then there are the sets. Mr. Meola, a carpenter by trade, builds new wooden structures each year for his 3,000-square-foot haunted house and 10,000-square-foot haunted village — only to have to tear them down at the end of each Halloween season, which runs from Oct. 4 to Nov. 3. Most props are bundled into a storage unit during the off-season.

“Basically we tear down 90 percent of [the sets] each season because you can’t really store them out here,” Mr. Meola says. “Then we have to put everything back, change it, tweak it. It’s a tremendous amount of work and a lot of people don’t realize it. For 16 years, this has been my life.”

But it’s one he wouldn’t change. Mr. Meola has always had a love of the macabre, beginning when he was just 6 years old and saw “The Exorcist” for the first time.

“That movie scared the crap out of me, but I liked the feeling,” he says. “It was the first movie to actually make you feel like there was something under your bed, something in your closet, things that go bump in the night.”

Oscar Gonzalez, owner of the new Voodoo Field of Horrors haunted house in Mattituck, understands that feeling well, having first seen “The Exorcist” at age 10 in his native Costa Rica. Mr. Gonazalez’ love for horror quickly grew from there, later compounded by the existence of a year-round haunted house operated in Costa Rica by his former boss.

“That’s where my passion came from,” he says.

Mr. Gonzalez, a personal trainer who lives in Hampton Bays, got his start creating his own haunted houses two years ago when he and his partner, John Sieni, a co-owner of La Maison Blanche hotel on Shelter Island, transformed the inn and restaurant into the “Haunted Mansion” for an event that raised money for breast cancer research.

This year, Mr. Gonzalez said, he opted to move the event to the mainland so more people can attend. He has created a 1,500-square-foot wooden structure on the site of Patty’s Berries and Bunches on Sound Avenue that he says cost $6,000 in materials alone. The haunted house sits on the property across the street from Harbes Family Farm. Voodoo Field of Horrors opens Oct. 11 and runs through Oct. 27.

On a sunny afternoon last week, a sense of darkness loomed over Voodoo Field of Horrors. During a walk-through of the haunted house, Mr. Gonzalez pointed out the rooms’ various props, most of which he created, including a seven-foot-tall evil clown and a man being transformed into a frightening insect.

“I try to look for ideas on the Internet,” Mr. Gonzalez says of the inspiration behind his props. “As soon as I build a prop, I can design a scene.”

In a section of the haunted house Mr. Gonzalez refers to as “the baby’s room,” a demonic doll equipped with two bloody knives for hands waits in a shadowy corner to scare visitors. The rest of the room contains props like an old wooden rocking horse and a dilapidated antique carriage Mr. Gonzalez picked up at a thrift store. Not surprisingly, the effect is thoroughly unsettling.

“We try to target the fears of people,” Mr. Gonzalez says. “When I designed this haunted house, I designed it to target those fears — claustrophobia, darkness. I want to make you feel like you want to get out of here.”

In Wading River, Mr. Meola shares a similar vision.

“We try to put something for everybody in here because there are things that really terrify certain people,” he says. “Fear of bugs, fear of being alone, fear of dolls, fear of clowns.”

Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Meola agree that their ultimate task is to create a spooky but completely safe experience.

“As much as we want to be scary, we’re here to entertain you,” Mr. Meola says.

ryoung@timesreview.com