Frightworks is a 13,000 sq ft indoor haunted house in Powell, Tennessee; they celebrated Haunted Christmas on December 9th and 10th and had a record-breaking 2022 season. We went on-location to see the Christmas show and speak with owner Rob Knolton....
Frightworks is a 13,000 sq ft indoor haunted house in Powell, Tennessee; they celebrated Haunted Christmas on December 9th and 10th and had a record-breaking 2022 season. We went on-location to see the Christmas show and speak with owner Rob Knolton. Today, we’ll learn about their Haunted Christmas event, 2022 season, and FREE season pass deal. Support for this episode comes from Gantom Lighting and Controls. See what you’re missing with a free demo. Subscribe to everything on the Haunted Attraction Network here.
Rob Knolton: My name is Rob Knolton. I am the owner of FrightWorks Haunted House here in Knoxville, TN. FrightWorks started in 1999, so we've been doing this for a while, although it started a much smaller scale, a little charity haunt, and it's grown quite steadily over the years. We are in our fourth location now. We have about 13,000 square feet, and our attendance has grown steady. Being in Knoxville, there are so many activities, especially in October, you got Boo at the Zoo, you've got Dollywood LumiNights, you just got the mountains, the fall, the leaves everything. You're not really competing against other haunted houses as much as you're competing with everything that there is to do in the area.
Philip Hernandez: What is the thing that makes you unique when you look at all the entertainment offerings in the area?
Rob Knolton: First of all, like I said, what I love about this area is that all the attractions have their own style, their own theme. We really have a great relationship with other haunted houses, we promote each other, we cooperate, we meet together, and then share ideas and stuff, because we really do see ourselves as complementary more than competitive. What I think makes us stand out is just having that passion for this. We really want to express ourselves creatively. We didn't start this to make money, but then we figured out we had to make money if we want to keep doing it. So, we still have at our heart though, that passion and vision that creativity.
Rob Knolton: I think back to when I was a kid and my dad took me to Disney World and went to the Haunted Mansion, and I buried my head in his shoulder. As soon as we're done, I was like, "let's do it again!" And I was 6 years old. What I loved about that wasn't so much the scariness as just the mystery and the suspense and anticipation, and it was such a thrill ride. I wanted that to be able to give that to other people, just to be able to share that, and be able to be someone to provide that.
Rob Knolton: I do have an appreciation for the whimsy. I have nothing against blood and gore, but we use it carefully. I also like a little bit of nostalgia and we'll put some little Easter eggs in referring to different inspirations, whether it's movies, stories, or whatever. I like that part of a hunt that it just feels, in some ways, it can be thrilling and exciting and scary, but it also feels somewhat comforting and familiar in a way.
Philip Hernandez: And there isn't a single narrative?
Rob Knolton: Basically, what we're doing right now is Vault 67 Containment System. We go out and we find all the terrible entities and monsters and creatures, bring them back here, lock them up, and they're in this containment center. These different environments are created to keep them placated, to keep them from being too restless, and of course, we allow people to come in and tour that, and nothing could possibly go wrong.
Philip Hernandez: Of course, nothing can possibly go wrong. We're here recording this in December because you are opening for Christmas. So, tell me a little bit about the Christmas event overall, and then we'll get into the details.
Rob Knolton: The Christmas event we started several years ago, it was mainly just our excuse to get together with the crew, and have some fun, and we're trying to grow that. One thing that we try to do, because our attendance is obviously much lower for the Christmas event than Halloween, is we have a little more flexibility to explore other things, try different ways to get the crowd through, and interact with them.
Rob Knolton: What we're doing right now, we have done for the last couple of years, is called Scary Stories for the Season, and we have storytellers. So, for example, the group will come in, they'll have a storyteller welcome them, they'll tell them a little story, and then they'll release them. Then they go through that zone and experience the elements from that story. We get lots of comments on how they like that they get to spend more time in the scene and appreciate the detail. Of course, the interactivity with the storyteller is a whole different thing. They don't feel rushed like they can, sometimes, in the heat of October. So, I'm hoping we can keep doing that, but it is getting more popular, and it's getting harder and harder because it does go at a slower pace than the normal queue would.
Philip Hernandez: When the storytellers are talking to people, what are the moments that they're taking them through?
Rob Knolton: The first story is, actually we tied it into our Vault 67. There's a reason why we have Scary Stories in the depths of winter. Telling the scary stories and making people afraid and producing that fear keeps the bad things away, it keeps them satisfied, so to speak. So, since we are a containment facility full of bad things, what better way to keep them contained than to have people come in and experience scary stories and to keep them happy? Let them feed off that fear.
Rob Knolton: Then we send them in and they come to their first area where they get their first store, which is actually this room. This, we call it our Spirit Parlor, and here they'll meet an elderly gentleman who is going to tell the story. He's old and wise, and knows many things about Christmas and the holidays, and he's going to tell you the rules of Christmas. So, apparently, some of the things we do that seem nice and innocent actually have a much darker origin and reason why they're done. Let's just say you better not forget to put out milk and cookies for Santa. Of course, if they were to happen to break one of those rules while they're in here, who knows what could happen to them in the additional rooms?
Rob Knolton: We also have a story about a witch whose family was burned at the stake when she was very young, and she's now seeking her revenge. She's been gathering the spirits of souls who wandered into her realm and placing them inside the little Christmas ornaments. Once she has enough power, her plan is to summon forth a beast from Hell to wreak her vengeance upon the village.
Rob Knolton: Then the last one is a little over-the-top fun, it's a little bit "Nightmare Before Christmas". It's basically Santa versus the Pumpkin King, they're battling over control of Christmas, and we got the elves fighting the pumpkin heads and the scarecrows. It's a little lighthearted and fun, and hopefully, people will enjoy that.
Philip Hernandez: Tell me about why you're continuing to do the Christmas event, and how it works.
Rob Knolton: So, like I said, it started out as really just an opportunity to just get back together. We've never really had problems staffing it because everyone still riding that energy from October. But we are trying to make it more of a financial success. We seem to be moving in that direction, we're getting more and more people.
Philip Hernandez: But do you find that it interferes at all with your setup?
Rob Knolton: Somewhat. I'm sure any haunt person knows, you come off October and you're exhausted, but you also have all these ideas for next year.
Philip Hernandez: And you want to get started right away, yeah.
Rob Knolton: Then there's, no wait, we got to do the Christmas show first. We can't mess anything up, we can't start tearing things down. So, it does cause a delay, but I think it's a good thing. I'm glad that we can have fun with this, enjoy the holidays. We also have a Valentine's Day haunt, and I've drawn the line there. People say, "why don't we do this in for later, or we just have in the summer?" I got to draw that line somewhere. We get done with February, we have a few weeks to really brainstorm and think, and then it starts warming up in the spring and we can jump into it.
Rob Knolton: So, I really like the whole storyteller idea, because it actually is a tradition of Christmas. It's not, maybe, as exercised as it used to be. Even the song says, "scary ghost stories..." we're just trying to remind people this is a traditional way to spend the holidays. Like I said, we do try to infuse more humor and stuff. Yeah, I think people are reacting well to it.
Philip Hernandez: These past several years have been very challenging. What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for you in 2023?
Rob Knolton: I actually feel really good about 2023 We have worked really hard the last three years putting money and time into the haunt trying to get it to the next level, and I really feel like we're there. We're at a point now where we're ready to now launch off of that new platform that we built. We rent our space, and I would much rather put that money toward a mortgage. So, we're trying to save up a decent down payment so that we could buy or build our own building and have that control over that element too.
Philip Hernandez: Are you looking at the model of increasing your throughput, or are you thinking of adding in more auxiliary revenue?
Rob Knolton: Anything you try to take on, you have to compare it back to the main event, and nothing compares to the main event as far as income. I know sometimes some of the crew will get frustrated, "Hey, we really need to work on this. Let's put in a mini escape room." I'll be like, "that's great, if we have time." Because your priority has to be the main money maker, so sometimes it's hard to get attention to those extra things.
Philip Hernandez: If you were going to design the space from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do?
Rob Knolton: That's a frustration, I know, for a lot of haunt owners. You have this amazing space, how can you make money in the offseason? We turned our asylum into an escape room, and it was awesome because we did the whole asylum. It wasn't like one or two rooms, they had 7 rooms they went into.
Philip Hernandez: Yeah, we saw it. I was surprised at how large it was.
Rob Knolton: We had actors that engaged with them. People absolutely loved it, we had wonderful reviews, and we were highest rated in all of Tennessee. But in being in Powell, in Knoxville, and not being like in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, we just didn't have that tourist walk by, or drive by, and we were doing good just to break even.
Philip Hernandez: Location didn't work then.
Rob Knolton: It was really a location issue. I was very proud of the escape rooms we did. I just think if we ever did it again, we would have to have a location with much more public visibility, to be seen by a lot more people. The haunted house, that's not an issue because the haunted house is a destination. I think it really needs to be in a different location for the escape room.
Philip Hernandez: How did you do this last season?
Rob Knolton: Last year was our biggest year ever. 2021 was our biggest year ever, and 2022 came and we're like, "we're not going to beat it." People were getting the pandemic. Everybody wanted to get out. We're not going to match that again. The very last night we were like, "oh man, we might actually..." We beat the year before number by 22 people.
Philip Hernandez: Oh really, wow.
Rob Knolton: So, we did slightly more than we did the year before, and we did have a price increase, so that made it financially even better, which I was really nervous about. I didn't want to be complaining about inflation prices, going up, I didn't want to be part of that. But then it's like, "man, but everything is going up, and all of our costs are going up." So, we finally said, "OK, We're going to raise prices a little bit."
Philip Hernandez: You do Season Passes? Is that a thing?
Rob Knolton: Yes, this was something we tried, we started about three or four years ago, and it's actually worked out really well. I've not heard of anyone else doing this, so this might be something the industry might be interested in. About four years ago, 3-4 years ago, we decided that on opening night, we opened the last Saturday of September, anyone that came and bought a ticket, we would automatically upgrade them to a Season Pass. It was one of those secret menu things, we didn't advertise it, you just say, "hey, guess what? We're giving away these Season Passes tonight." They're like, "wow, that's awesome." So, we started giving them Season Passes. What happened is, they loved it, and they would come back every weekend and they'd bring a new group of people.
Philip Hernandez: Their friends.
Rob Knolton: Every weekend, because they wanted to show off, because this is their haunt now. "I can go wherever I want," and they wanted to show that off, so they brought people down. People are starting to spread word of mouth now, so our opening night is actually one of our biggest nights now. Usually, it used to be very small, but it's becoming the biggest night because people are hearing that. We're going to have to cut it off at a number, we can only give away so many Season Passes. But people use them, they love them, and we still sell some too during the season, but giving those ones away actually surprised us with how many people utilized those, and how many people they bring with them.
Rob Knolton: One thing I just thought of I could share that we're doing, I know that it's a really big topic right now about ticket sales, online ticket sales, and how the ticket companies charge so many service fees. They're such large fees, even the ones that are dedicated to the haunt industry have service fees. We basically do our ticket sales online through WooCommerce and a plugin called FooEvents. It lets us sell tickets. They come in, you can scan them, and basically all the functionality you'd want. But instead of paying a service fee for every ticket, you pay just a yearly fee for the plug-in, which I think is like $50-$60 bucks, something like that. So, we use those plugins, WooCommerce, and we sell them, and it works fine for us. If anyone's out there trying to find a way around those, it is possible.
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