Joel Watson, haunted house producer
Watson is the theater nerd behind Heartstoppers Haunted House, housed in the eerie Mine Shaft building.
Along an eerie stretch of Folsom Boulevard, somewhere between Buffalo Creek and Beck’s Furniture (infamously haunted with recliners and sofas), there lies a former amusement park known as the Mine Shaft.
Years ago, it was filled with the shrieks of children playing arcade games and mini golf outside. Now, it’s still filled with the shrieks of people, echoing through two underground concrete tunnels that connect the facility to the former golf course—but those screams have almost nothing to do with miniature golfing.
Come Halloween season, the Heartstoppers Haunted House takes over the entire building and its grounds, making it the home of four unique but interwoven haunts. Joel Watson is the producer of Heartstoppers, and this marks his 11th year professionally scaring folks. Three months ago, Watson and his team began work on the haunted house, often after working their nine-to-fives, and it’s now open for business. SN&R chatted with Watson, one of the minds behind the haunted house that makes about 40 people urinate each year—yes, they keep track.
What’s your relationship with fear?
It’s a type of excitement. Y’know, it’s like riding a rollercoaster or watching a scary movie, you get to have the fear but know it’s in a safe environment, sort of. That’s kind of where combining these things come together. It’s a fun emotion, if it’s done safely.
Do you scare easily?
No, not anymore. I can go through some of the biggest haunted houses in the country, and I’m just more looking at all the detail and stuff. Yeah, it’s been a while since I was scared in a haunted house or a movie or anything.
How’d you get into this?
I got the bug going to Knott’s Scary Farm every year and wanted to do something like that for the trick-or-treaters. I started decorating in high school, decorating my parents’ frontyard for the trick-or-treaters, and then eventually got my own place up here and started doing the same thing … it got to the point where it sort of took over the neighborhood. Or at least the street we were on. … We just kinda came to a point where we had to stop or do something different with it.
What kind of things do scare you?
Well, there’s a few things … I guess there’s a lot of things that scare me, in real life. I really despise those what I call “hobo clowns.” You know, those clowns that kind of ride box cars back in the Depression era with the stubble and the little, nasty cigarette. Those things creep me out. Those guys, they do bad things in box cars that I don’t want to know about. … We do some stuff here that I just kind of avoid.
Do you notice shifts in what scares people?
Yeah. Crowds are pretty sophisticated, honestly. They see some pretty amazing stuff at theme parks, Disney and movies—it’s harder to scare them than it was 10 years ago. … Now we have to keep up with all those multimillion dollar corporations with our own kind of homebrew version.
What are some of your scare influences?
Everything. I grab from all sorts of things, from movies, to real life, to comic books. … I try to use a lot of suspense. Hitchcock is a big fan of mine, so suspense is kinda fun. As you’re walking through, there might be sections where not a lot is happening, but it builds suspense, and then something kinda fun happens.
Do you notice patterns of what kind of people run haunted houses?
It tends to be overweight white dudes. When you go to the conventions, that’s what it is, man … There’s not a lot of women in the industry. There’s a few, and they’re kind of famous just because they’re kind of in it. And generally, haunted houses are much more popular in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Is there a kind of power thing involved when you’re scaring people?
A little bit, yeah. We have a lot of female actresses, and a couple of them have told me over the years they’ve really enjoyed that feeling of power over some big, grown men that come through. For that split second, they get to make people fall and crawl away. Definitely, it’s addictive to scare people, once you get into it and get good at it, you don’t want to stop, it’s fun.
How much thought goes into these haunts?
A lot, honestly. Probably most of our customers don’t really realize it. Which is fine, but maybe 15 percent of them get the storylines we’re doing. Everything is set in a particular time period, and all four attractions are attached to each other, storyline wise. Haunted houses always bug me where there’s zero theming.
You’ll go from one room, a clown room to an alien room to a pharaoh room to a dinosaur room. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Have you had a more interesting job than this one?
No. Regular jobs are boring, they just keep me entertained until I get to come play out here.