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Sept. 19, 2022

Day 19: The Vault of Souls in Tampa Florida

Day 19: The Vault of Souls in Tampa Florida

The Vault of Souls is BACK and this year – not all the spirits are cooperating. The Vault of Souls is an experience we’ve covered since Year 1. Written and developed by Scott Swenson, it’s an elegant evening of fear in the Historic bank vault in...

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The Vault of Souls is BACK and this year – not all the spirits are cooperating. The Vault of Souls is an experience we’ve covered since Year 1. Written and developed by Scott Swenson, it’s an elegant evening of fear in the Historic bank vault in downtown Tampa. We’ll discuss how the event has evolved and what's planned for this year. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Scott Swenson: Hi, I'm Scott Swenson, and I'm the creative director for The Vault of Souls. The Vault of Souls is 5 select nights in October, and our goal is to make it an evening of elegant fear. So, guests will arrive for elegant cocktails, hand passed hors d'oeuvres, we'll have a moment of paranormal fear, and we'll return back to the world of the living.

Scott Swenson: The Vault of Souls has been around since 2015, and has come and gone, obviously with so many things with COVID, but it is back this year, and it is the ideal elegant evening of fear. The idea behind the wall of souls is that it's not a haunted house, it's not a cocktail party, it's not immersive theater, it's all of those things.

Scott Swenson: The goal is to get guests adult guests, who want to come and experience Halloween in a way that is unique to the adult audience. It starts with a high-end cocktail party in one of the, in my opinion, coolest locations in Tampa, it's The Vault. It is a 1920s bank building and it's been restored, it's got a beautiful white marble lobby, and it's all about the spirits of the 20s. Then your name is called you descend into the area that we're in now, which we call the ritual. You meet the spirits that have been trapped here since the mid to late 20s, and if you're lucky, you'll find enough things to answer the right questions so that you can return to the world of the living.

Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about what you have planned for this year, as you mentioned, The Vault has been ever evolving and it has gone through many different iterations.

Scott Swenson: So, what we're trying to do this year is, we are really trying to, what I would like to say is, polished the diamond. We had our most successful year last year and we felt that we really hit stride with the level of fear, with the level of performance, and with the level of elegance. What we want to do is to continue to build on the performance aspect and continue to build on the creepy aspect, while creating a whole new sense of immersion and interaction.

Scott Swenson: So, this year, guests will still be on a quest, and each guest will have a unique quest to them. But instead of trying to figure out a simple limerick or a simple poem or phrase, it's going to be a bit more in depth, and it's going to require a bit more active participation from the guests. We found that last year we were a little easy, so we wanted to make it a little bit more difficult, we have to dig a little deeper. 

Scott Swenson: We are also adding a brand-new character this year called Darkness. Darkness is the evil entity that lives in this realm who tries to get in your way. So, not all of the spirits now are willing to help. In fact, the Darkness is going to try to mess you up. The Darkness is going to try to make it more difficult so that he can keep your soul trapped beneath the ground for a longer period of time.

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me about that a bit more. Why did you decide to bring in a character like the Darkness?

Scott Swenson: What I've always wanted to do is to continue to introduce more depth, and more layers to our core story. The core story of The Vault of Souls, of course, is that this is, in essence, purgatory. This is where souls are held in advance until such time as they can move on, and it is something that's purchased, or was purchased in the 20s, and these folks are in their safe space, even though it is dark and sinister. 

Scott Swenson: We wanted to add a character to add a little bit more conflict. We wanted to add a character that not only adds conflict with the characters that are down here, but also with the guests who come and visit. They've learned to expect a certain level of cooperation from the characters that are down here, and by adding a negative character, or a trickster character, it makes their job a little bit more difficult without putting them in peril, so to speak. We wanted to ramp up the challenge. We wanted to add another level of conflict, and we wanted to add a new face, so that there's a little bit of freshness.

Philip Hernandez: Can you give us an example of, maybe a moment of conflict, a challenge, or something that I guess we'll have to do this year that's a little bit different than last year?

Scott Swenson: In years past the answers that the guests were seeking we're blatant if they knew where look, this year they won't be. Perfect example is in this hallway. We're looking at, probably, hundreds of death certificates. The solution to someone's quest, or one of the solutions to someone's quest may be in the fine details, maybe in the fine print on one of these death certificates. So, it may require them to ask and dig a little bit deeper in order to find the one that they need to find.

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me about easter eggs, especially for those guests who have been visiting The Vault since its inception.

Scott Swenson: I think the most important easter egg, again, in this hallway, is all of the names on these death certificates were guests from the 1st and 2nd year. So, there are people who have come to The Vault of Souls every single year we've done it, and their names are represented on these very death certificates. There's another easter egg that's in pretty much all of my haunted attractions, there's always a rabbit somewhere. So, if you do come to The Vault of Souls, I challenge you to find the rabbit, because there's only one.

Philip Hernandez: We talk a lot about how haunts, every year, should look at what they have done and figure out what to stop doing and what to keep doing. You talked about, already, adding any characters, so that would be that. What have you stopped? What did you decide to not keep doing?

Scott Swenson: What we're trying to reduce is the time where guests are confused. We're trying to reduce confusion. In the early years, there were people who loved the fact that it was completely free flowing, there were no challenges, and it was explore on your own, but that doesn't work for all of our guests. So, what we want to do is to make certain that every guest has a beginning, a middle, and an end to their experience. It's not going to be the same, but we want to make sure that every guest has that structure. So, we're trying to eliminate confusion without the blatantly obvious.

Philip Hernandez: Can you give me an example of one scene that was a little bit confusing where you've tweaked it to make it less so?

Scott Swenson: In the original we had a forest that was just a swamp-like forest. Last year we tweaked it so that it was where the evil spirit, who has now manifested itself as Darkness this year, has started to seep into the plot and appeared only as a projection, only as a faint image on the wall. So, it wasn't just a forest, it was now, where evil is seeping into the realm of the world.

Philip Hernandez: The Vault of Souls relies, maybe not as much on fabrication as others, but relies quite heavily on a cast of incredible actors to be able to bring theatrical moments to life. How has staffing impacted you, if it has?

Scott Swenson: So, The Vault of Souls is unique in the fact that it does use a high level of performers, or very specific types of performers. We have a variety of artists, we have fire artists, we have still walkers, and we have a bunch of different performance styles that are part of all of The Vault events. The nice thing is, because we've been doing this for so long, we've been able to build a strong family of performers. Some of them are even willing to come back out of, in essence, retirement to perform for this event. I have some performers who only perform as part of The Vault of Souls. 

 Scott Swenson: So, even though I am involved with a bunch of other haunted attractions this year, The Vault of Souls has been, by far, the easiest to staff because it has been a phone call and people are like, "yes, I'm in." In fact, this year, we have one performer who hasn't been involved for several years and is all of a sudden back. So, I'm really excited that it is a sense of family, it's a sense of homecoming. I know that's true in haunted attractions around the country, and perhaps around the world. 

Scott Swenson: Here because it's a smaller, more tight-knit cast, and it's a cast that is so reliant upon each other to tell the full story that it's a tight-knit group. I've got have a ballerina, I have a waltz couple, I have variety artists, I have fire artists, I have actors, there are all of these unique skill sets coming together to create this wonderful entity. So, everybody, I think, who does the show feels that way. So, therefore, they're very willing to come back and participate again and again.

Scott Swenson: As far as fabrication goes, we're already living in either a very creepy environment, like the basement or the ritual, and an already very elegant. So, when it comes to, especially scenic fabrication, for example, that's almost non-existent at this point. We did do some scenic fabrication early on, but now we just keep polishing, tweaking, and adding little bits and pieces. One year we did a whole almost escape room approach, and we have found new and different ways to repurpose a lot of that technology so that there are video elements, there are maglock elements that all of a suddenly makes doors magically open on their own. 

Scott Swenson: That kind of thing has been very helpful because we didn't have to worry about supply chain. We didn't have to worry about, "what new gimmick trick are we going to buy this year?" Because we want to rely on the essence and the entity that is this building. I said from the very beginning, the true star of this experience is this building, and we want to honor it as opposed to cover it up.

Philip Hernandez: We talked a lot on the show with you, actually, you talked a lot about how you should hire actors for multiple time periods because, of course, it makes your contracts longer and extends that relationship, but this runs only five nights, so that makes it difficult.

Scott Swenson: Some, I'll be honest, the reason we're so successful with our family feel and the reason we're able to pull people; our ballerina, for example, works for SpaceX. She's not even in Tampa, she's not even local, and she comes back to Tampa to Tampa to do this because it gives her the opportunity to be part of this very special event, again. I will also be honest and say we pay better. This is paid more like a theater experience, and a high-end theater experience, rather than a haunt experience, so pay is part of it. But I promise you, if I were to say, "we can't pay anybody," we'd still get the same staff back. I can almost guarantee that.

Scott Swenson: The reason I can guarantee that is because, again, it is so unique, there are no other opportunities like this really anywhere that I'm aware of, I know there are other atmospheric haunts, I know there are other haunts that are breaking the mold, so to speak. But the fact that we are not only creating something very unique, but the Wilson Company, which is the company that actually produces this event, treats everybody who works for them like gold, and they make certain that they feel valued. They make certain that at the end of the night the entire cast ends up back upstairs in The Vault itself, having cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, all without charge. It's all part of the night there, it's part of the party. So, not only are they working, and they work very, very hard, because they're treated very, very well.

Philip Hernandez: Let's finish up here with talking about the future of The Vault. We talked a lot about how it's changed over the years, what you stopped and what you're doing. Where do you see The Vault as going forward from here? 

Scott Swenson: So, every year when we finish The Vault we ask ourselves the same question, and that is, "wow, where do we go from here?" I will be completely honest, I have no idea, because The Vault has always been such an organic project that it has grown out of the building. It continues to grow based on the building, based on what we've seen work with audiences, and what we've seen guests ask for. I don't know what guests are going to want, I can speculate, I can guess, but why? I might as well just keep going with this organic process.

Scott Swenson: I think the thing that is most important, that makes The Vault of Souls unique is, it's a little bit sexy, it's a little bit weird, and it's always very elegant. So, those things will continue to be polished and reinforced. But where the story goes, where the artistry goes, where variety artists go, I can't tell you right now, and it's not because I'm being cagey and sneaky, but it's because I honestly don't know what the next organic step is going to be.

Philip Hernandez: Is there anything I didn't ask you that you think we need for The Vault?

Scott Swenson: One of the things that's unique about working in an actual space is there is documented paranormal activity that happens down here. In fact, it is very, very common that certain technical elements will just randomly go out for no apparent reason. The performers who work down here, some of them are very, very sensitive and are very strong believers in the paranormal. So, they will actually come down as part of the rehearsal process and ask permission to be down here.  I did the same thing when I first started working down here, and to be completely honest, it's been about a year since I've been in this basement, I did the same thing before we started this interview.

Scott SwensonProfile Photo

Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.