Consistently ranked one of the top haunted houses in the world, Netherworld in Stone Mountain, Georgia, is a pillar of the haunted house industry. The theme evolves yearly, with each season seeing massive renovations. Today, we’ll speak with co-owner...
Consistently ranked one of the top haunted houses in the world, Netherworld in Stone Mountain, Georgia, is a pillar of the haunted house industry. The theme evolves yearly, with each season seeing massive renovations. Today, we’ll speak with co-owner Ben Armstrong about his season, the future, and navigating the upcoming Transworld’s Halloween and Attractions show. This interview was recorded on-location during Netherworld’s Lights On Tour on December 10th. Subscribe: https://linktr.ee/hauntedattractionnetwork
Ben Armstrong: My name is Ben Armstrong. I'm the co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House here in Atlanta, GA.
Philip Hernandez: Give us the top line of Netherworld.
Ben Armstrong: Netherworld Haunted House is about monsters, it's about crazy things. We don't tend to follow trends of things like movies, we're more based on literary sources, we're based on mythology, and we just like to do things that other people don't do. So, I wouldn't say we go against trends, we just kind of cut our own paths, so to speak. One of our big influences for theming is HP Lovecraft and all that kind of stuff. We like slimy monsters and giant tentacles and all this kind of stuff.
Ben Armstrong: So, this year we decided to really go all in, and the theme for the main show was The Undying Horror. In that, there's a hideous creature in this buried city, Carcosa, deep within the Earth, and it's launching its tentacles up into the sky, and these tentacles are descending throughout the attraction, causing corruption, and they're birthing monsters. A lot of the creatures there are called Sathlings, they're these half-formed human creatures, but they also create gateways where other creatures can come forth. Netherworld is also the land of the dead, so we had a lot of wraiths and ancient dead roaming the corridors, coming after people, so it had a lot going on. You come in and you see the giant tentacles, as you can see several of them around you here, descending and creating these webs, and then later on at the very end you encounter the creature.
Ben Armstrong: So, this year we're doing a lights-on tour at Netherworld. We usually do it every year, sometimes we do them during the season, and a lot of people come through here. Netherworld is kind of an all-out assault on your senses; there's a there's so many animatronics, so many special effects, so many actors, and stuff is coming at you from every direction. There's tons of detail here too, and people are often like, "gosh, I wish I could see the detail. You know, I could go through this haunt 100 times and not see everything, even when it's turned on." So, we're like, "well, let's do it behind the scenes tour." We started them at our old location, we were about to leave that place and we're like, "you know, we're going to tear all this down, why not show it off?" Traditionally we don't like to show off a lot of our behind-the-scenes, because we feel it creates a sense of mystery. I know a lot of attractions will show you literally everything in the haunted house. I don't mind showing a few little tasty bits, but it's like a trailer to a movie. A good trailer gives you an idea of what the story is about but doesn't reveal the key beats, and that's kind of what we like to do.
Philip Hernandez: Tell me how you arrived at The Undying Horror for this year's theme.
Ben Armstrong: We arrived at the theme about The Undying Horror by sort of... It's a long story that's been building since we came to this location, and it's a battle between the Netherworld and the forces that oppose it. The previous year was called Rise of the Netherspawn, and that was a massive storm that rolled out of this ancient burial ground and started encumbering the whole earth, and monsters came out of that. This was a setup so that they could basically take over the world. So, what's happening here is with The Undying Horror is the next phase in that assault; they're terraforming the earth to turn it into the Netherworld. There's a ragtag force of folks that are opposing it, these armored kind of wasteland warriors, called the Brotherhood of Rhomb, and they're going down into this place to try to defeat this monster.
Ben Armstrong: So, in the town here of Weisburg you encounter a lot of them, you encounter them along the way, and that's one of them standing up on one of these walls here. It's sort of, they're trying to battle this creature, but there's such deep theming, and a lot of that is for the production, like what are we doing? So, we understand. I mean, many patrons are just going into a haunted house to have things scare them. Some patrons get into the lore, and some get really into it.
Ben Armstrong: We like to have a storyline and a premise that continues. It may actually be, kind of, my background. There's this thing people heard about called Dungeons and Dragons, you guys heard about that? So, like 45 years ago, I was playing that game when it first came out. So, you could call this, you know, one of the biggest D&D campaigns ever. But I also was into all that kind of gaming. I haven't been doing it much, honestly, since I began in the haunt industry close to 30 years ago, because this is the all-consuming hobby/job that gets you. You don't really have time for a lot of other stuff.
Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about how your show went this year.
Ben Armstrong: This year was, frankly, it was a great year for Netherworld. Our build was challenging, we were right up to the wire getting it done, as everyone is. Some years it feels a little tougher, but the minute we opened it was great. The shows ended up really doing well. The customer response was amazing. I mean it's always generally good, but you know when you really got a show that's kind of stepped up. The previous year Rise of the Nether Spawn also felt that way, so it felt like we were building on it.
Ben Armstrong: People often ask, you know, what affects attendance? To me, I think the number one thing that affects attendance is the performance of this year's show and the performance of the previous year's show. If you do a good show in the previous year, you're building what you have, OK? So, this year our attendance was up. I've talked to a lot of people that kind of had that where they went were up and they went down. Of course, COVID was tough. During COVID we opened at, essentially, half capacity. But the ironic thing there, I think the people that did come really got a great show because it wasn't as crowded, and then they came back, and more people came back.
Ben Armstrong: We've worked really hard to process people through the attraction. One of the biggest things, I think, for guest satisfaction, in addition to what you're presenting to them, I think, is the wait. We've gone to 100% timed ticketing. Gone are the three-hour waits, they don't exist anymore. One hour wait is probably the most you'll get here, because we've really learned how to get people through the attraction, and we really learned how to stagger it. Not having to wait that long, I think, really improves the guest experience.
Philip Hernandez: What would you say to an attraction that is seeing that little post-pandemic bump a little bit?
Ben Armstrong: So, a lot of things affect attendance, and honestly the best way to know why you're not growing, or why you're slipping, you have to analyze the entire production. It's really what is the bottleneck? In anything you do, any business, what is the bottleneck? Is it my location? Is it the performance? Is it my throughput? Is it my marketing? I mean, any one of these things could be a problem. I think one of the biggest challenges that people have is they struggle with throughput. They have a show that cannot support a high-level throughput, and not enough people come on the slow times, and on the busiest of nights when you have, I wouldn't say unlimited, but a huge amount of possible customers, they cannot put them through with a good show. So, I think a lot of people are kind of built-in to have that problem.
Ben Armstrong: Of course, there's other things, there's sports, there's weather. The last two years for us have been remarkable for weather. We had a big threat, of course, a couple of hurricanes. They missed us, unfortunately not so good for the folks in Florida, but that's what it is. So, it's really hard to put a finger on what could be a problem there, but it really like I said, ultimately comes down to that guest experience. If the guests are having a great time, you're going to continuously grow if you are creating space for your guests.
Ben Armstrong: In addition to the attractions here, we have a large Midway, very Halloween themed, there's food, there's fun, and there are monsters. People come out of the first show and they're like, "what is this?" It's not at the front, you don't see it, you just get your queue lines, then you come out and you're in a whole new area. People really seem to enjoy that, and it just adds to the total experience. So, I would say, if you are struggling with your attendance, you really need to deeply look at everything that could be a possible problem. Believe me, we do this every year, we reexamine almost every part of the business to create efficiencies to improve what we're doing.
Philip Hernandez: What do you think is a good throughput someone should target?
Ben Armstrong: It's really hard to say what a good throughput is for an attraction because it's really based on how the attraction is built.
Philip Hernandez: And their individual market too.
Ben Armstrong: Also, it's sort of like, when you start an attraction, you have to go slower because you don't have as much stuff. So, when you don't have effects, tons and tons of actors, and tons of all these sets. Every moment has to... I mean you could put people into a room and entertain them for 30 minutes, and they could come out and be happy if you did it right. So, a new starting attraction has to rely on actors performing, holding people, and getting them deeply into a story. The bigger you get, like the biggest you would look at would be the theme parks, and when you look at the theme parks, people are just flowing through in a constant rate and they're being bombarded.
Ben Armstrong: That's sort of where we are at this stage in our evolution. We're now entering our 27th year. When we began, we kind of had that thought in mind, that was how we were going to go. So, for example, let's say you have an actor, he's your front room guy, he always does a one-minute speech, and you cannot ever change that. That might be your problem, you know what I mean? But that may be, also, a big part of what's good about your attraction. So, you kind of got to weigh it. I think in growth you just kind of look at all that stuff. Some people, maybe, will never grow massively, but maybe they shouldn't because what they want to perform is a more intimate experience.
Philip Hernandez: Focusing back on you and Netherworld here, what do you think your biggest challenge is going to be for 2023?
Ben Armstrong: Our biggest challenge for 2023? You know, the biggest challenge really is just to continue to refine the machine. We moved, I think this will be our sixth season that will be in this building, and it's been almost, not a struggle, but it's been an evolution as we continue to get it better. We keep looking at new components to the puzzle as to how we're going to improve, so we keep looking at that. Another thing that's always on people's minds is personnel, you know, staffing.
Philip Hernandez: That's been one of the big hot-button topics, right?
Ben Armstrong: Yes, and it's huge for us, but we've heavily, heavily focused on it. We've always kind of, I mean, most people do, most people care deeply about their actors and their staff. I mean, the first step for any haunt owner, you got to walk out the door every day saying, "I love my actors." If you develop a negative feeling about your actors, you know, you're setting your mind up for failure. So, you should always kind of embrace your staff and everyone, and kind of listen to them and work with them. Particularly during the pandemic, we knew we had to focus on it. We were worried about people; there was a lot of political strife at that time, people have different views of the world. So, from day one we were really taking an approach to kind of be very inclusive, to have people leave their problems at the door. We're all here together to enjoy Halloween, and we just focused on really making our staff as comfortable and as happy to be here. They were so happy to be here during the pandemic, they were so happy to see other people, and we were very careful, we did everything; distancing, masks, and all this, but that continues to flow on. We're continuing to work diligently to do everything we can to support our staff, to show our appreciation, to work with them, and I think it's paid off.
Ben Armstrong: The way we handle staffing might be different from a lot of attractions. For example, we move people around a lot. So, we really try to find what they're best at. A lot of times the way theater and attraction work you say, "OK, this is your spot. This is what you're supposed to do," and often the operator is frustrated by the inability of that person to perform in that manner. We are more kind of back-ended, and it was sort of like we try to find what this person is capable of. We do this by positioning them in a lot of different things and finding what they're best at. Are they really good at shock scares? Are they really good at being atmospheric? What is their skill set? Are they athletic? Do they want to be in stunts like flying on a zip line? You want to find what they're best at and then you want to bring that out of them, and that makes them happier.
Ben Armstrong: We have an entire mask department. So, when you're going to get your mask, they will fit that mask. If it's not like, "this is the mask for the scene, put it on." "Well, I can't see how the eye holes. It's rubbing my ear." This person is going to fail, but we'll go through multiples, we'll get them fitted to where they're like, "this is great. I can see, I like it, I can perform my scare." So, when you give them the right tools, you really learn who they are, and you put them in a situation where they're going to succeed, they're more likely to succeed.
Philip Hernandez: Yeah, it's like traditional casting would dictate you are cast in this role, but you all are flipping it on its head and saying, "what are the tools you need to be successful at the attraction?"
Ben Armstrong: That's right. And then who are you? We think we know because literally, we do not do an audition, we do an interview. We talk to the person, figure out who they are, and what their background is, and really learn about the person. I personally, along with my casting director Jessica, will interview every single person that's going to work here, and I want to know who they are. That way as we talked about it, "maybe they'll be good at this," and then we try it. "You know it didn't really work," and we just keep moving them around. We're fortunate because we have, I would say we hire new about 1/3 every year and we retain about 2/3.
Philip Hernandez: That's a very high retention rate.
Ben Armstrong: We're generally able, in most cases, to open within a completely old staff, and the new people get cycled in. So, they're just brought into the stuff and we kind of get a chance to see how they're doing without, really affecting the show too much.
Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about the technology that you're using in the show.
Ben Armstrong: Netherworld is a very highly technology-based show. Now, one thing we don't do, we don't do a lot of central control. We found that, for us, since everything is kind of separated, it kind of makes sense. I guess we're worried about a mass failure if that makes any sense. So, most of the animatronics are your standard controllers, triggered by switch mats or by beam breaks or whatever, and they're independent of other things. Lighting wise we kind of light from all directions. We use theatrical lighting, we use Source Four Lekos all on the ceiling, largely to do pattern breakups. Gosh, one of the things I loved from Gantom was when they came out with a small Gobo Source I bought so many of them. I think I was the only person buying those, because to me breakups, I love breakups everywhere. So, I'm always doing that or shooting through patterns to create it, because of the challenge with lighting... I would say we light in a surreal manner. People who light realistically, the problem there is, it could be sometimes too dark or too bright. but if you light in a surreal lighting, it can be generally dark or you can light the primary elements, and I prefer to do that a lot, like I said, with breakups.
Ben Armstrong: So, lighting is a big thing. Audio is a big thing. We do a lot of DMX control. We do sort of a storm thing, so we have a lot of strobes and DMX lights that flash color. When we did our storm two years ago we sprayed mist everywhere, and we had lightning. This last year with the Undying Horror we changed the color so these. So, sort of the sounds of just cyclopean monsters and then green flashes of lightning that were playing off. So, you have dark areas and then the lights will flash, and you'll see like a green strobe. But then there's other lighting happening, of course, there's chaos lighting a lot, strobes, beacons, things of that nature, individually flickering. But yeah, we don't really do a unified control system. It's all kind of separated.
Philip Hernandez: But you're using the DMX though?
Ben Armstrong: That section is all masked and tied to a soundtrack.
Philip Hernandez: So, whenever you're trying to essentially maintain a show that's part of the story, you need that DMX to tell that.
Ben Armstrong: Right, and we are also thinking, we also tied in all of our Lekos to it as well. That was a big thing when we first came in here, that was just a shortcut, because I totally lit the entire haunted house with LED lights and it's very meticulous, it takes forever, and when you're building an attraction lighting is often the last thing you get to because you're out of time. So, I cheated, and I just put Lekos everywhere, and to me it was still a little too bright, but now we've tied all those in the DMX so we can pulse them. So, they're also pulsing and changing along with the flashes of light from the strobes. So, that part is all tied to one system.
Philip Hernandez: Transworld is coming up, tell me a little bit about that.
Ben Armstrong: Transworld is coming! That's right, and it's coming soon.
Philip Hernandez: It's early.
Ben Armstrong: You know mixed feelings about that. Of course, they have to do it. They had to because of the renovations and the Convention Center in Saint Louis. I'm thinking about it like, "man, there's not much time to prepare." But also like, it's kind of cool. When Transworld is over there's so much time for a product to be delivered. So, we'll see. We'll see how it all feels, but yeah, it's been a very quick lead-up. I work with Jen on a lot of the seminars, So we closed the middle of November, and the day after we closed she was calling me. Yeah, so we started working on it.
Ben Armstrong: I think the seminars are strong. There's a lot of good stuff there, a lot of meat and potatoes, and a lot of new things, a lot of new zest. There are some new speakers in there, new topics, which is kind of what you always want. You got to have the stuff that people need, the baseline stuff, and there's certain people they want to see speak, you know, they're very popular. So, we want those people to be back and presenting things that they present, but also like I said, you want to get those new speakers that new energy pulled in, just like you know a haunted house. You want your trained and experienced actors, but I love it when the new people come in and they have that extra excitement. So, we're looking forward to it.
Ben Armstrong: I've talked to people, some people did have a little bit of a slump, and there's people I've talked to that had a slump in attendance, but that they maybe made the same or more money because, you know, they're finding different ways to make money.
Philip Hernandez: Velvet robes basically and add-ons.
Ben Armstrong: Yeah, that's right. That was something that we did a lot this year. We just continued to work it in those areas and do the add-ons. You know, in the old days we had the gift shop, maybe sold some popcorn, but now that those add-ons are becoming a significant percentage of what we do.
Philip Hernandez: Are there any specific topics or seminars that you think would like to highlight?
Ben Armstrong: The challenge with topics at Transworld is that, often the ones that you need the most, the meatier business ones or the ones dealing with challenges...
Philip Hernandez: They don't look sexy, so people don't want to take them.
Ben Armstrong: They don't generally have the attendance. Generally, people want to go to the scare seminars and the things like that.
Philip Hernandez: They want to go to animatronics, prop building, and makeup. But you should be going to the ones about safety, about throughput, and marketing so you can analyze your marketing spend.
Ben Armstrong: That's right. That's kind of what the tradition has been, you know, just on attendance levels. So, we always try to get those business seminars in, and the safety seminars in, but you want to give people what they want. So, there's going to be a lot, of course, of the scare stuff. In many ways, I mean we know this, this is a passion-driven business. Many of the most famous haunted houses are haunted houses that aren't people aren't necessarily making a living on. It's their side thing, and maybe it's supporting itself. So, of course they want to go and do the scares and the scenic, because that's the fun part. This time of year to me, it's funny, it's like I often feel like this part of the year is almost busier than the season because there's so much wrap-up, there's so much paperwork. Trying to get the new stuff designed so the crew can begin building, simultaneously, what happened last year? So yeah, business is always super important and you should attend those classes.
Philip Hernandez: Thinking back, with what you know now, if someone were attending Transworld for the first time, how would you recommend they approach the show? Say it's an owner, somebody who is in charge of a team, and it's the first time they're bringing them to Transworld, what would you recommend?
Ben Armstrong: My recommendations for Transworld really relate to my recommendations for anyone getting into the industry. It's a tough industry, and it has a high failure rate, to be honest with you, and I always think you should critically question if you should even enter the industry. Really, we have this drive, we want to build, we want to create, we want to follow our dream, and it's great to have that pumped up, but there's a realism to it. I think what really matters is, if you're in a market of haunted houses, what unique thing do you have to bring, do you and your team to bring? If you're not amazingly unique in some way, you are another haunted house. Just because you want to do it I would question whether you do it. Now, if you're going into an underserved area, it's like a restaurant. Well, there are not a lot of restaurants here, so you may have a higher probability of success as long as there are the people there to do it.
Ben Armstrong: So, First off, what are? What are you doing? I wouldn't up-end what you're doing based on what other people are doing, because you have to make it financially viable. Unless you're heavily supported by big money you really need to go in with ideas, you need to do everything efficiently and make sure that you've got a successful... It's a business, you can't just over-buy because, "oh, they've got all this stuff." You can't do it that way. So, really analyze what your needs are going in, what you're up against, why you're doing it. It may make more sense, if you just love haunted houses, it may makes more sense to work for one and work there. But if you've got a team, you got a spark, you got money, it will take all your time, all your talent, all your money, there's no question. So, really think about it.
Ben Armstrong: So, analyzing Transworld, the biggest thing is the network and you want to meet people that you that seem to be successful, certainly, but you really want to network with people, kind of in your shoes, and like a couple of years past you, because their experiences are immediately are more like what you're going to be facing. I can remember all those early years, and it was a long, long time to grow this attraction. This attraction was not based on having a lot of money, it was like gathering up bits and pieces and starting very small. What you see today has all been earned money over 26 years. So, it's a long way to go.