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Busch Gardens brings the dead to life

Haunted houses used to be the stuff of legend: Victorian mansions falling into decay, where unhappy spirits lie in wait for unsuspecting victims to wander inside. 

For 15 years, those legends have been toppling out of superstition and into Tampa at Busch Gardens’ annual nightmarish event, Howl-O-Scream. 

Ben DeWitt is the entertainment project manager for Howl-O-Scream and has been helping bring the terror of the haunted house to life since 2008. 

“We work very, very hard on the detail,” DeWitt said. “When people go through these houses — we obviously have guests that return over and over again — and as they go through, we would love it if they could find something a little newer and little cooler every time. We try and add those layers of detail. It’s very similar to one of your favorite movies … the first time you watch it again and you’ll say, ‘Oh I didn’t notice that the first time.’” 

“Dead Fall” is a term used to describe fallen trees and branches, but it is also the name of Howl-O-Scream’s new ghost-filled house. 

The house’s exterior is that of a moldy and decrepit Victorian greenhouse. Howl- O-Scream fans were given the chance to vote on some of the elements that will appear inside. DeWitt said the house itself is divided into scenes, which include a dusty tool shed, a macabre tea party, and a dark and winding hedge maze, among several others. 

“We loved the idea of a greenhouse; that’s just inherently creepy,” DeWitt said. “We grabbed a hold of the greenhouse idea and then we went, ‘How do we turn that into a story?’ We decided that a greenhouse haunted by the inhabitants of years past that are constantly trying to add more to their group is a great idea for a story to tell in a house like this.” 

DeWitt said they’re constantly working on new houses and ideas for Howl-O-Scream and already have plans for 2015 in the works. The idea for Dead Fall was one he said they had been “workshopping” for a while, and installation and construction for the houses started back in April. 

“It’s built like you’re building a regular house: there’s a lot of phases we have to go through; there’s a lot of safety checks we have to go through; there’s different layers of construction, from building the walls to running the electricity and doing all that,” he said. “So it’s not as simple as painting some plywood. It’s an intricate process we have to get started with pretty early.” 

Before even entering Dead Fall, guests are treated to terrors that have spilled out of the house. 

“We do our best to keep the creepiness going,” DeWitt said. “We very intentionally lighted a pathway through here because, obviously we want everybody to be safe, but we also want them to get the chance to get a good look at all the elements we worked hard on putting out here.” 

DeWitt said the average walkthrough time for each house really depends on how scared you are. Terror enthusiasts will linger for four to five minutes while others are only interested in getting out alive. 

Dead Fall is home to about 30 ghastly figures. There are an additional 150-200 ghouls roaming the park to frighten guests. The audition process began back in July and lasted through September. 

“We have a full month of rehearsals. All through September, we’re getting ready,” DeWitt said. “We actually go through. Our creative director and our executive producer will walk through the house and talk through each scare position with each actor — every single one of them — throughout the event.” 

Dead Fall is just one of eight houses. Zombie Containment Unit 15 is another new addition to Howl-O-Scream. 

“We’re always looking to bring the next level of interactivity and uniqueness to our guests and we thought: what better way to do that then actually putting them to work,” DeWitt said. “We’re using laser tag technology, we’re actually arming all of our guests with what we call a ‘Z.E.D.’” 

DeWitt said, of this year’s returning houses, The Experiment is his favorite. Those willing to brave The Curse, this year’s theme, can find a full list of houses and more information on their website. 

“Once you’re cursed, you have to come and survive a night at Busch Gardens,” DeWitt said. “The idea with that is we wanted to let our guests curse their friends (on social media) and make it a little bit easier for them to get their friends to come out and visit as well. It’s a level of interactivity we’re constantly striving for.”