Vancouver Sun, October 15, 2011
Will success spoil the Dunbar Haunted House?
When Brad Leith, Gideon Flitt and their families and friends first set out to scare their neighbours at 50th and Dunbar on Halloween in 2004, it was because the previous year had seen fewer kids than you can count on 10 fingers show up to claim candy in the trick-or-treat tradition that the grown-ups so loved from their own childhoods.
It was time to scare up some more visitors. An easy afternoon’s worth of preparation in ’04 led to Flitt standing in a driveway “graveyard” built from scrap lumber, portraying the only spook in sight and scaring about a hundred kids who showed up for the fun.
In 2005, Leith and Flitt led a growing team of family, friends and neighbours in building setpieces and props, stitching costumes and playing various creepy characters. The effect was electric. Over the course of a couple of weeks preceding Halloween, hundreds of people showed up nightly and, on Spook Night itself, 500 folks lined up to file through a maze of monstrous effects.
About $5,000 was raised for the B.C. Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund.
Then all hell broke loose. From 2006, the Dunbar Haunted House started to take weeks to set up and hundreds of zombie-hours of labour for what was truly a tour to the dark side. People were now lining up around the block for hours to get in, and donations to good causes began growing to the point that, in 2010, $67,000 went to the Burn Fund, the Vancouver Police Union Charity Foundation and the Lower Mainland Christmas Bureau.
“Now it’s basically a yearround, all-consuming hobby,” Leith says. “I’ve been working 12-to 16-hour days since June 1 and, I mean, I have a day job teaching at Vancouver Film School.”
Success is a slippery slope, and the Dunbar Haunted House has simply become too big to remain on its original site.
Leith learned that the hard way last year when the city of Vancouver’s special-events office reared its bureaucratic head.
“At least a quarter of all the people who volunteer have come from the neighbourhood,” says Leith, “but a couple of neighbours didn’t like it, and they pushed the buttons at city hall.”
Leith and his team were ordered to attend a meeting with building inspectors, fire and police representatives and special-event officials.
“It felt strange,” Leith recalls. “They started out by kind of reading us the riot act, and after about five minutes of it I said, ‘You make us feel like we’re a grow-op or sex-trade smugglers; we’re just trying to do a community event and raise money for local charities.'”
Leith and his team scour the city for free materials, call on their friends to donate expertise in building sets or engineering the animatronics, and even come up with the coin needed to attend hauntedhouse trade shows in the U.S. in search of spooky masks and special props. They decided to be proactive about their problem and Leith set out to find a warehouse where neighbours wouldn’t be a worry.
The special-events office now lent a helping hand, but Leith’s only option proved to be a long-term lease on the Shaughnessy Street building. For the first time the Dunbar Haunted House will charge admission instead of simply collecting funds for charity, and so this year’s donations will be diminished by the amount needed to pay rent.
Sitting in an industrial district beneath the Oak Street Bridge, the warehouse can only be accessed by walking down a narrow alley between buildings. Flitt assures visitors that a couple of dozen of the 120 volunteers will devote their time to helping people park south of Marine Drive, from Shaughnessy along Kent Avenue to the short spur of Oak Street below the bridge, and showing them the way to “Barbaric British Columbia.”
“I can’t reveal too much,” says Flitt of this year’s theme, “or else you’ll kill the surprise, but I can definitely say that you will be very amused and spooked at the same time.”
Dunbar Haunted House goes out of its way to be kid-friendly. On weekends, families can visit during the day and for a $5 fee, the wee ones can go through as many times as they like.
The volunteer spooks start their shift at 7 p.m., but even then the emphasis is on a good laugh.
“What we do is called lowimpact spooking,” Flitt says, “so we don’t terrorize people. It’s more fun than it is scary.”
Flitt warns that the coming week is the best time to visit if you don’t like crowds, because the week leading up to Halloween can see waiting times of up to an hour to get in.
For more information, go to dunbarhauntedhouse.com.
AT A GLANCE
DUNBAR HAUNTED HOUSE
When: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday evenings; 7 p.m. to midnight, Fridays and
Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, to Oct. 31
Where: 8934 Shaughnessy St., south of Marine Drive next to the Oak Street Bridge
Tickets: $5 unlimited access during the day; $10 ($5 for children 11-and-under) after 7 p.m.