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Oct. 28, 2022

Day 58: Grey House Haunts in Holdrege, NE

Day 58: Grey House Haunts in Holdrege, NE

Nestled in rural Nebraska, Grey House Haunts is a 7,000 Square Foot linear haunt celebrating its 9th year. Today, we’ll speak with owner Jan Knuth about the season and what it’s like haunting in an isolated area. Follow along to our Hauntathon:...

Nestled in rural Nebraska, Grey House Haunts is a 7,000 Square Foot linear haunt celebrating its 9th year. Today, we’ll speak with owner Jan Knuth about the season and what it’s like haunting in an isolated area. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Jan Knuth: My name is Jan Knuth, I live in Cholderton, Nebraska, and I own and operate Grey House Haunts, a Halloween haunted attraction in October. It is a traditional, I guess if you want to call it a traditional, Halloween haunted house, it's actually in a house, 3 total stories. It's about 7,000 square feet. Including a very large backyard. I can go the traditional route, it's the Victorian Haunted Mansion kind of thing. I rely almost entirely on actors, we don't use much for animatronics whatsoever, I find people much scarier than animatronics. Props are great, but people are better. We've been around, let's see, this year is our 9th year, and I did home haunting for seven years before that, so I've been around for a minute. But yeah, I love it. I love the creativity of it and, obviously, scaring people. 

Philip Hernandez: Walk me through the guest experience or the storyline. Tell us a little bit about what it's like when somebody arrives. 

Jan Knuth: I have 3 entrances, exterior doors, so I can change the direction anytime I want to with just turning the lights a little, or instead of the prop facing this doorway, it faces this doorway. So, that gives me a lot of flexibility. I can make the haunt look really different just by taking them in a different doorway. This year they're going through the front door, but this is literally only the third time in nine years they've ever gone through the front door.

Jan Knuth: I'm going with the house theme because it is a house. I can't make it look like an alien ship, well I could, but I'm not going to. Yeah, it's a classic house. I wanted to go back in time, partly because this is supposed to be escapism, it's not supposed to be 2020 over and over like Groundhog Day or something. So, I wanted it to be escapism. I used Grey House because the home haunt that I started at my home is at my house, which is grey, so that's where the name came from. It's not Grey's Anatomy, it's none of those things. It's Doctor Grey though, and he was a doctor in the Civil War for the Confederacy. So, when he went away to war his diabolical work was continued by Isabel the Witch, and when he returns, this is what he's found. Of course, by this point, he is completely mad, and so it's various members of his family and his creations and mutations.

Jan Knuth: I found that for most of our customers, and maybe not everyone finds this, but I definitely have, while I love a good werewolf, it's really hard to make them realistic enough to be truly scary. I don't have those types of skills that some of these fabricators do, but I can make people scary, and people are scary, even in escapism they are scary, making them warped and mutated, and those types of things, I can achieve that. That's also part of what I love about what I do, is I get to also teach that to my actors, how do you become scary? 

Philip Hernandez: Do you have an example of someone that you have worked with where they had a huge transformation? You cast them, but then you taught them how to be scary?

Jan Knuth: I had a gal, and it was several years ago, and she was only able to do it one year, but when she first came she wouldn't speak to anyone. I finally said, "I'm just going to put you on this table," it's the only time I've ever used a true stereotypical victim role because I want all aggressors, I want them all to be aggressive and I want them all to be attacking. So, I often don't use victims unless the victim is leading them somewhere. But I put her in the true victim role, she's on the table and she's being fileted and all this nasty gory stuff, and what I discovered was about halfway through the night she started screaming. What it was, she had to have permission to come out of herself enough to make a noise. So, that's what she did the whole season. I taught her how to scream in different volumes, and those types of things to save her throat. But by the end of the season, she was speaking to the other actors, and I think she had just literally never had permission to be noisy and get a little crazy. I wish she'd been able to stay with us a few seasons, because I think she could have just done amazing things, not just haunt-wise, but for her own self-confidence. 

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me a little bit about why you don't like having any victim roles in the haunt. 

Jan Knuth: Largely victims are women. I happen to be a woman, and so I like my female characters be very powerful. I made the comment that a couple of times I've used your stereotypical female victim, but in a way that she's leading you somewhere. I literally had a victim leading people through the basement one year frantically trying to get the keys so she could let them all out, because the serial killer was after them. What it really was, she was taking them to the killer. So, she was a victim, but she was actually an accomplice. I know that showing a victim, whether it's male or female, expresses a vulnerability to the customer. But I also think that if you use the ebb and flow properly in your show, constant attack, constant mentality of wolfpack, which is what I want from my actors, is every bit as effective as the screaming woman on a table. 

Philip Hernandez: Why do you think escapism is important and how do you view it as escapism? 

Jan Knuth: I think it's very much like going to a horror movie. It is escapism, but it's a different type of escapism. Some people love to be scared, and that's their form of escapism, and that's how they get to win. So, they survived the horror movie and so that's their win, and they get a rush from that, they get adrenaline from that. So, a haunted house, ideally, is that scary, but it's actually a step above because you're in the horror movie.

Jan Knuth: You're not just watching it, you're in it, and so when they come out, they hit that exit, they've gone through the photo op, and hopefully they've bought some of my merchandise, they all celebrate. They get in a little group and they're just off to the side in the dark somewhere and they celebrate, they laugh, and they relive it. What it is, they survived, it becomes very primal. They didn't actually fight a demon, they didn't actually get past Doctor Grey and his machete, but primordially they survived, and so they get to celebrate. That's how it's escapism. Also, we don't have to go out and fight a sabretooth tiger anymore, and so this is a way of us getting to fight the monster without truly being in danger, and then we get the win. 

Philip Hernandez: Talk to me a little bit about being in a rural area. 

Jan Knuth: This year, I think, in total, I have a staff of 35, and I think about six of them live in the town I'm in. Which is not common in rural areas. There are lots of villages, and they drive to you. But that also means my customers have to drive to me. So, yeah, being sold outlier I have to pull them in, every year I pull them in, and each year we've grown. Some of it is too that I've just learned some of the things to do and not to do, and where not to waste my money, that kind of stuff. But it is a little bit difficult being out here because there's an area very close to me called the Tri-City area. It's not cities, it's large towns, but they have the population for this part state. So, anybody that is not within that triangle, it's like pulling teeth to get them to come here. The amount of people that have told me they will pray for me.

Philip Hernandez: Oh god.

Jan Knuth: It's astonishing at times. I think there's just another stereotype that someone that does something like this must have something wrong with them. In a way, yeah we do a little, we just enjoy maybe darker things, we have interesting props in our offices, but it doesn't make us any different. If you watch me walk into a store, you just think there's soccer mom/grandma. I might have a couple more tattoos, or I might have a couple more earrings, but I'm not really that much different than anybody else. Most people don't even believe I run a Halloween haunted house. 

Philip Hernandez: What do you think sets you apart from, I'm not sure if there is anybody around the area, but is there any other? 

Jan Knuth: There is a haunt an hour South of me, a little over an hour, and then there's a corn maze animatronic-based event about an hour Northeast of me. That event and my event opened the exact same night, the exact same year, and we didn't know we were opening. They are very much animatronic based, so it's a very different experience, and they're outdoors. So, they're in a corn maze with animatronics, and I do think they've peppered in some actors.

Jan Knuth: I think the actors still set us apart. Because of the way we're structured, literally structured, I pretty much have to have an actor in every single space because I can't have eyes on the customers if I don't. In the larger events, they could have one person on a catwalk that can see for 50 yards, I don't have that. My rooms are 8 by 10 and 10 by 12, so once they pass that doorway, no one's eyes are on them. Wasting one room, and one in the house, is a huge, huge waste. So yeah, it's pretty well actor saturated. But we do have 4 stairwells, and so their breathing space is the stairwell. Don't scare on the stairs. 

Philip Hernandez: Yeah, walk us through your dates and times and all that. 

Jan Knuth: Yeah, we're open October 14th, 15th, 21st, 22nd, the 28th, 29th, and then, of course, Halloween night. That's lights out night. So, other than stairwells and exit signs, which are required by law, the lights are off. That's always a good night because Halloween night out here in the sticks, people don't leave town, you stay where you are. So, it gives the people in our community of Holdrege the opportunity to come back and yet see it very differently. So, they get glow sticks, and that's it. The actors love it, they just love it. They can hide in plain sight, they don't have to sit in a closet all night, because no one can see them until the glow stick is on them. So, that's always a good time. 

Jan Knuth

Owner and Operator of Grey House Haunts