By Judith Rubin
Onionhead’s Revenge is a brand-new, immersive and interactive haunted attraction running for six weeks (Sept 15-Oct 31) at Mall of America (Bloomington, MN) for the 2023 scare season.
American Monsters LLC, the parent company and IP rights holder of Onionhead’s Revenge, was jointly formed by Miziker Entertainment and Haunted Hotel, both based in Southern California. Miziker Entertainment is a world leader in themed attraction design and production, with a global clientele and 40 years in business. Haunted Hotel has reigned in the haunted attractions business since 1992 with haunts that include The Haunted Trail in San Diego’s Balboa Park, and has been featured in the New York Times as one of the top haunted attractions in the US.
This endeavor will be something to watch – not just for attractions professionals, but for those with an interest in haunts, immersive experiences, seasonal projects and the shopping center space. With this splashy new venture, the team is pushing boundaries on all fronts.
With 5.6 million square-feet and over 40 million annual visitors, Mall of America® (MOA) is the largest shopping and entertainment complex in North America and an ideal location for this new immersive attraction. It offers prominent visibility, a good demographic fit, and the opportunity to deliver a major haunt experience to a region that is considered under-haunted.
From Miziker to Monsters
If Onionhead’s Revenge fulfills its promise, American Monsters could well rank with the likes of Meow Wolf and Illuminarium as a producer of fresh, bold, highly creative collaborations from artists helping redefine the LBE terrain.
“We’re really excited to tell this story,” says Charlotte Huggins, CEO/Executive Producer for both Miziker and American Monsters. A well-known firebrand in attraction and specialty cinema production, Huggins came to Miziker 10 years ago. Owning and operating their own attractions was part of a five-point plan she instigated shortly after joining the company to work alongside Ryan Miziker (Chief Creative Officer) and create “Miziker 2.0” as founder Ron Miziker, Ryan’s father, dialed back his role.
With extensive involvement and direction from Sean Chung (Miziker President/Senior Project Director), they developed a body of unique IP inspired by monster folklore in the US that would form the backbone of American Monsters and the basis of its new attraction concepts. They spent two years fleshing out the concepts including original art, music and character development. Searching for a location to put a first attraction into play, “We found the right venue when we chatted with Chris Grap and his boss, Jill Renslow, from Mall of America at IAAPA Expo in November 2022,” says Huggins. (Grap serves as Lead Storyteller and Experience Designer at MOA, and Renslow is Chief Business Development/Marketing Officer). “They said, ‘Would you be interested in doing a haunted experience at MOA?,’” Huggins recounts. “We happily replied ‘Why, yes… by the way, we have a concept brewing!’” After several conversations, the green light came in late March.
Scouting the mall, the team identified a 45,000 square-foot space that satisfied their wish list. It was the second floor of a former, three-story Bloomingdale’s, with good ventilation, high ceilings, parking, mall and direct garage access. “It was and is incredible,” says Huggins. “We are ‘Hauntrepreneurs!’ We are a new anchor at Mall of America!”
The Monster Pass
Onionhead’s Revenge draws upon an American ghost legend that grew out of a real-life story in Southern Louisiana involving the persecution of a boy who was brutally killed by a vigilante mob after being wrongly accused of the murder of a young woman. (Following this incident, the boy’s attackers also came to bad ends.)
The experience is rich in AV media, original music and radio plays, scare-actors and animatronics, as well as food, libations and merchandise all themed to the Onionhead story and designed for everyone over the age of 10. Per Huggins, the attraction covers 28,000 square feet, including an extensive graveyard setting, church and an enormous lobby with a Slidell-themed bayou, storefronts and Vern’s Moonshine Bar, all of which all visitors can enjoy with no entry fee. Ample space remained for back-of-house amenities – and future expansion such as a custom music venue.
Inside the mall, costumed characters lead guests to the entrance marked by huge, wrought-iron gates. There are multiple levels of engagement – free (the substantial lobby experience) and paid (general admission, fast pass and the expansive Monster Pass). Ticketing is online or in-person. The average expected dwell time is around 30 minutes.
As the driving creative force in this project, Sean Chung says, “We came at this from our experience in themed entertainment and storytelling with an exploratory element. I felt something could be achieved elegantly by walking into an interconnected world of reality and horror, and that there could be a significant emotional payoff. When you are standing in the middle of the expansive cemetery – the main set – you will be able to look across the haunt and see into the bayou set and the church. You’ll be thinking about which path to take. Because it’s not predictably linear, it accesses the guest’s imagination and elevates their experience and enhances the scares.”
At the heart of the attendance model is the Monster Pass, providing access to secret rooms and additional layers of story. “The Monster Pass makes our haunt really special, wrapped in a package of exploratory aspects and character interactions, giving additional breadth and depth,” says Chung. “We sought to combine the lower throughput of an intimate immersive experience with the larger throughput of a haunt.”
Motivated general admission holders will discover that they can also find their way into some of those deeper levels of experience, but the Monster Pass confers a level of status and control. “Rather than an elite path, there are two paths that complement one another,” says Chung.
Onionhead was designed to deliver on all levels. As Chung says, “With or without a Monster Pass, you will still get scared out of your mind.”
Ahead of the trend
With 33 years of scaring people, Greg Defatta and his team at Haunted Hotel bring owner/operator savvy to American Monsters and Onionhead’s Revenge. Currently, Haunted Hotel operates two popular and successful haunted attractions in San Diego: the Scream Zone and the Haunted Trail. Like Miziker Entertainment, Haunted Hotel is a family business, with a father-son dynamic. Defatta’s son, Dylan, has taken a leading role in running the company. But the connections go even further in the case of American Monsters. Friendship between Defatta’s family and Huggins’s goes back for many decades – coincidentally to Louisiana. “I’m in business with a person I trust like my own brother, and another I trust like my own son,” Huggins says. “We can get things done quickly and smoothly because of this life-long foundation.”
When it comes to haunts, “We have always tried to stay ahead of whatever the trend is,” says Defatta. “I’m really liking this new version of haunted houses and the new concepts it contains. I take my hat off to Miziker and their team of incredible professionals.”
Some of the LA crew that Miziker brought in to join the Onionhead team are Production Designer Dan Rucinski, VP Marketing Marti Boone, Stage Manager Lashette Showers and artists like Christopher Ulrich and James Brown. “What we’ve created with them is not like a traditional linear haunt. It has a lot of unique, interesting surprises,” Defatta adds. “The use of lasers in appropriate areas is something of a game-changer, allowing us to quickly shift the mood of a room. Likewise, the use of projection can transform the whole environment. We create whatever we want people to see, and feel. There are rooms guests may not find on the first visit, so it inspires return visits. Everything is fully thought out, including every character, down to their background, habits and look.”
Haunted Hotel’s considerable expertise was essential. “We flexed our muscle in every aspect of the venture, from hiring to training,” says Defatta. “Our builders helped train other builders in aspects such as how to mount and integrate equipment out of reach of the public, and what materials to use. Haunted houses take a beating like nothing else. You need to build it right the first time.”
Chris Grap talks more like a themed entertainment pro than a shopping mall executive, and his background is also nontraditional. But then, Mall of America isn’t your ordinary mall, billing itself as a global tourist destination. While Onionhead’s Revenge may be MOA’s first haunt, the facility already has a significant number of attractions, including Crayola Experience, FlyOver America, Nickelodeon Universe, SEAlife Aquarium and Museum of Illusions. The mall is handily situated near MSP airport.
Grap, who has been with MOA for 11 years, has close connections to the stuff haunts are made on. His previous experience is in film production, with a specialization in special effects makeup – as he describes it, “blood, guts, and gore for bunch of horror movies with Roman numerals in the titles.” MOA had been on the lookout for a haunted experience that was up to their standards when American Monsters came their way.
“I’m happy to share the opportunities I’m aware of in this market, being very tied into the horror community and other communities that love these types of attractions,” he says. “If Onionhead delivers on even 50% of its promise it’s going to be 200% better than anything else of its kind in the market. I truly believe this approach is unique. I think the best types of experiences lend themselves to three levels – casual observers, curious explorers, and super sleuths – and Onionhead’s Revenge has all that.”
As malls over the years continue to adjust the mix and the model for today’s consumer markets, MOA has been a trend-setter – a living example not just for malls, but for regional attraction development. “The way I see it, MOA has a 30-year jump on everybody,” says Grap. “We are THE mall. Malls that want to survive and thrive need to do what we’re doing. Trends come and go, but the things we do exceptionally well are things that don’t go out of style. MOA is a recognizable brand, akin to that of a theme park, and that implies a promise to live up to, in terms of guest experience.”
Grap explained that people plan multi-day visits to MOA just as they would to a theme park, and that experiences function as anchors and destination drivers just as do major retailers. “We don’t try to hit a specific ratio of entertainment to retail – just to be the best we can be. Try things. Let things grow organically. Know your audience. With Onionhead’s Revenge, we hope to deliver something that is a destination driver for years to come.”
Opportunity and trust
Ultimately, says Chung, “Our passion and focus on story and creativity are what is truly going to make this special. For me, it’s about creative freedom; not just the decisions, but the process in general. It’s very interesting and rewarding to be able to start from scratch and have the story evolve as the project evolves.”
“Our industry has to keep evolving, and I think this is a leap forward,” says Defatta. “There is so much competition – but the cool thing about our haunts is that our competitors have nothing on us!”
“Onionhead’s Revenge will be the premier haunted attraction between here and Orlando or Anaheim as far as I’m concerned,” says Grap. “This is a partnership characterized by opportunity and trust. Miziker and Haunted Hotel, both wildly and widely respected experts in their fields, have come together like a haunted house supergroup.”
Huggins says, “Our company is growing and changing; we’re going out into the immersive attraction space in a very big way. We have great plans for the future of American Monsters.”