No cheap tricks in diabolical couple’s Blind Scream haunted houses

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There is nothing that gives Drew Dominguez more pleasure than to make people scream.

He and his partner, Judy Groverman Walker, spend the better part of a year dreaming up new ways to bring nightmares to life, whether it’s a zombie, a mad doctor with a scalpel and an appetite for entrails, or a diabolical clown.

They are the showmen behind The Blind Scream, one of the North Bay’s most elaborate haunted houses. No cold-spaghetti-in-a-bowl tricks in this haunt. It’s equipped with special effects from thunder and lightning and 3-D effects to theatrical lighting and a brick wall that appears to be falling down on you.

For this diabolical couple, Halloween doesn’t end on Nov. 1. They have spent the better part of every year since 2008 combing the country, visiting other haunted houses, dreaming up new scare tactics and attending massive haunted-house trade shows and conventions, looking for props and terrifying attractions to ratchet up the fear factor for their own show. Their prize attraction? The “Last Ride,” a $5,700 coffin simulator that takes you on a wild ride to your final resting place, complete with the smell of exhaust from the hearse, the sound of chattering grave diggers, the sensation of being jostled and the smell of earth, flowers and rotting flesh.

It is, quite literally, a smoke-and-mirrors production with a huge cast of some 130 volunteer ghouls, who perform for no pay, only the thrill and delight of making people screech for 17 nights every October.

“I have a full-time job I love to pieces. I do massage on the side, which I love to pieces. And then I get to scare people here, which I love. The screams for us are like cheers for an actress on stage,” said Angela Marie Horner of Sebastopol, as she applied makeup to transform herself into Mama Sante, a voodoo witch with a petrifying cackle who is one of the top show-stealers at The Blind Scream.

Josette Lushenko, who plays Mama Sante’s deranged daughter who cooks potions and body parts in the kitchen, confessed, “Their screams feed us. It gives us more incentive to be scarier and creepier.”

For Dominguez and Walker, it’s all in good fun.

Dominguez, who works half the year helping build sets for the Sonoma County Fair’s Hall of Flowers, is the director, designer and builder. Each year, with the help of several buddies, he gleefully constructs brand-new labyrinths of dark hallways that lead to chambers of horror, all with professional-quality props and special effects that keep haunt-goers on the run. Construction began in August.

Walker is a professional event organizer who manages, among other things, the Rose Parade and the Artisan Cheese Festival. She handles marketing and other essential management behind-the-scenes.

In his blood

You might say of Dominguez that scaring the bejesus out of people is in his blood. He’s been doing it ever since he was a kid growing up in Southern California. Back in the days when decorating for Halloween meant a few pumpkins and maybe some cardboard cutouts of black cats and witches taped to the front door, a 9-year-old Dominguez set to work rigging up a realistic guillotine in his front yard, complete with dropping head and pump to squirt blood.

For the past 43 years, he’s continued to set the stakes higher and higher at a series of haunted houses, most recently in Fresno.

It was Walker who started the first Blind Scream in 2008 with then-partner Corey Oakley, a former manager of the Sonoma County Fair.

At the time it was perfectly situated in the empty Hunter Steak House, a neo-Victorian mansion visible from the freeway. They dubbed it The Hopper House of Horror. The haunt took over space at a dealership at the Corby Auto Mall for a few years before land at its current locale.

This year The Blind Scream has grown from two to three themed “haunts,” spread out over 20,000 square feet of a 90,000-square-foot office space beneath the AT&T offices at Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park.

It’s an unlikely spot for a haunted house. But Dominguez, who met Walker at a haunt convention where both bought their own “Last Rides,” knows how to create illusions.

As a former prop manager and park decorator for Knott’s Berry Farm, he was in charge of creating more than a dozen haunts for Halloween as well as decorations for other holidays and events at the Southern California theme park.

“The Halloween thing has always been this weird passion for me,” he said with a chuckle. “Whoever gave me this disease should be shot because it’s all encompassing.”

This year there is Carnicus, a twisted circus of caged side-show freaks, a hall of mirrors, a chamber of black-light effects that pop out with 3-D glasses and a giant jack-in-the-box out of which pops a malevolent clown. It’s all set to the music from a sinister calliope.

There is also Blackout, a pitch-black maze filled with ghouls, and The Swamp Shack inhabited by a family of back-bayou sociopaths.

Dominguez said haunted houses are one piece of a $3 billion Halloween industry. To do it properly is a major investment of time, money and ingenuity. Rent alone is $5,000 a month. They carry a $3 million insurance policy, and there are numerous safety regulations to meet to get permits.

“Just the fire safety alone for this is about $5,000,” said Dominguez, noting that in addition to smoke detectors, they need to install shunts to turn off all the lights and sound effects in the event of a fire.

In the Horrortorium

He and Walker are taking a break while seated in the Horrortorium, a museum of believe-it-or-not oddities that boasts everything from a jar of “eyeballs” to a rotting mermaid carcass.

“Every sheet of plywood has a frame behind it and is hand-painted. Every section costs at least $30 and there are over 800 in here,” he said. After everything has been packed into two big trailers at the end of the run, he figures he will maybe clear 20 cents an hour.

As he mellows with age, the 52-year-old showman finds he cares less about creating the scariest haunted house and more about entertaining people with an Indiana Jones-style adventure.

“A lot of haunted houses are all scare-driven. Their goal is to be the scariest haunted house in the valley. We’re not that. Ours is really actor-driven,” Dominguez said. “It has a lot of drama in it. It has a lot of creepy creeps, and those are what I want to go home with you. I want you to remember Mama Sante and her cackle.”

“We don’t have people with chainsaws,” Walker said. “We have a giant scarecrow on stilts. We’ve got zombies that may follow you down the hall.”

Orchestrated surprises

A lot of the fear is based on set-up and delivery, and orchestrated surprise. Actors, who range from children to teenagers from Rancho Cotate High School to senior citizens, are carefully coached to stay in character, improvise and wait until the last person in a group comes through to stage a scare.

That keeps people scurrying forward through the dark warren where creatures pop out when you least expect them.

Among the leads in the cast is Lakeport defense attorney Doug Rhoades. He plays P.T. Hunter, one of a recurring cast of fictional Hunter family members who show up in different storylines year after year.

Dressed like a ringmaster, he greets visitors to the demented circus and sends them on their un-merry way.

“We’re going to fluff those things in you that really scare you,” he explained from “backstage,” where cast members are busily suiting up in costumes put together from thrift-shop finds and smearing themselves with fake blood.

“Some people say they’re petrified of spiders. Over in Carnicus, we have one of the quintessential fears — fear of clowns. And we’ve got a man in a gorilla suit. We’re going to play off those fears and if we see that weakness, we’re going to go for it.

“But nobody is going to get touched. It’s all in your head.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

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