Helena Magazine

Just a bunch of hocus pocus

Published 7:22 am Thursday, October 13, 2022

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By Michelle Love

Photos by Jeremy Raines and Contributed by Austin Hood

Austin Hood and Vincent Ciccazzo sit on Hood’s back porch overlooking the two neighbors’ shared backyard. At the time of this interview, it’s a very muggy Tuesday on Aug. 2, and Hood and Ciccazzo are discussing when they’ll be able to start construction on a very important project.

“We have to start in late August or early September with the buildout,” Hood said. “We can’t do this upcoming weekend, so realistically we’ll probably end up getting started near the very end of August.”

The project under discussion is the return of Hood’s and Ciccazzo’s annual haunted house, known as Sunbury Cemetery House of Horrors, which they’ve put on for the past eight years in the shared backyard of their Hillsboro Subdivision homes.

The story began when Ciccazzo and his family moved next door to Hood in 2013. The two men became friends, and in 2014, Hood approached Ciccazzo with the idea to turn their joint backyard area into something fun for Halloween. What began as three 10×10 tents that created a walkthrough has morphed over the years to one of the most successful haunted houses in Shelby County.

“We’ve only missed two years in the whole time we’ve done this,” Hood said. “One year was because we tried to do something different and then ultimately we realized too late that it wasn’t possible, and the other year was the hurricane about two years ago that literally the night before destroyed everything. But both of those times, we saw how much people love the house because they were so disappointed that we couldn’t do it.”

The house has continuously evolved over the years through trial and error processes and new ideas. Originally, Hood and Ciccazzo constructed the house out of scrap wood and pallets they collected from the newbuild sites of the subdivision. Now, the structure is more of a greenhouse outline with tubing and piping where the layout of the house wraps from the front porch of Ciccazzo’s house and then wraps around in a walk-through around the property.

Since both men have to balance work and family life during the day, construction on the house takes place on weekends when they are both available and at night.

“We can typically get the build done between the course of two weekends,” Hood said. “We’ll get together on a Saturday morning with two or three other people and usually get the framework done in like two weekends. We also have to watch the weather and make sure it’s not going to storm, and we also have to wait until nighttime to set up the lights because we want to be able to see it how other people would see it.”

The haunted house is an immersive experience with special lighting and other visual and sound effects. There are animatronics, decorations and live actors, which Hood and Ciccazzo credit for the validity of the experience. Some are paid actors, some are friends who just want to be part of the experience. Even Hood’s and Ciccazzo’s daughters have dressed up for the occasion.

Their audience has grown every year to the point that in 2021, the line of people wrapped down the neighborhood, and people were waiting for an hour to get inside. The support from the community has been tremendous, according to Ciccazzo.

“A lot of people know about us, but there are still some people who are learning about us,” Ciccazzo said. “They’re always so supportive and so excited. We have people that come from outside Helena, too. People from like Alabaster and Pelham.”

Hood said every year they ask for donations on the Sunbury Cemetery Facebook page, and people are always happy to help.

“We don’t make money from it,” Hood said. “All of the donations, we reinvest back into buying new decorations or PVC pipe, because you can imagine every year things wear down or something breaks or we get a new idea about something to try, so all of the donations go towards making sure we can create something worthy of everyone coming out.”

The haunted aspects of the house change every year, as Ciccazzo and Hood said they want to make sure people can’t pinpoint where exactly they’ll be scared.

“We have people who come every year, so we always want to add things that they aren’t expecting,” Hood said. “There’s no fun to a haunted house if you know what’s happening every year.”

Ciccazzo said roughly 10 percent of items in the haunted house are hand built, but the majority are animatronics and store-bought decorations.

“I’ve got motion sensors in here that trigger stuff, there’s stuff in there for the kids to see,” he said. “On my front yard every year, I have talking pumpkins that I can project stuff on them, and the kids love that. People will come up and listen to the pumpkins for five or 10 minutes. We used to do more videos inside but we don’t want to slow down the experience.“

The house takes roughly seven or eight minutes to go through in its entirety, according to Ciccazzo. Group numbers cap out at six people to make sure the flow of the house stays consistent. Smaller children are encouraged to have a parent go through with them to ensure the kids are acting appropriately.

“We’ve had kids go through kicking and screaming, and then 10 minutes later they’re coming back through without their parents,” Hood said laughing.

A lot goes into monitoring the haunted house: making sure everything is working properly, nobody is messing with anything inside the house, making sure the groups are going through at a timely pace, all of these things play a role in making sure the house goes off without a hitch. Ciccazzo said he is usually in the front managing the line of people, and he likes knowing that their team is all on the same page.

“When we get busy, it gets crazy, and the actors play a huge role in that, too,” Ciccazzo said. “Like, if one group is going too fast and catching up to the group before them, the actors can do something to hold them up for a minute so the groups just aren’t on top of each other. If you get big clusters of people, the scares can only scare one or two of them because the others have seen it, and then the actors have to get back in place before the next crew comes in.”

The house usually runs for a few days depending on what night Halloween falls. This year, the house runs on Friday, Oct. 28, Saturday, Oct. 29, skip Sunday, then have the last night be Monday on Halloween night.

They encourage people outside of the neighborhood to come on Fridays and Saturdays because the lines are shorter than on Halloween night. They also allow members of the City Council to do a preview tour before it opens to the public.

“We enjoy it, and we like seeing other people enjoy it,” Ciccazzo said. “We’re always happy to hear people ask about it and say how much they like it. We put a lot of work into it.”

“This has been eight years of our life,” Hood said. “You know, you’d think eight years of something we might get tired of it, but no, we’re still having fun with it.”

Sunbury Cemetery House of Horror is located at 105/109 Sunbury Terrace in Hillsboro Subdivision. For nightly run times, visit their Facebook page.