The year was 1996. It was October in Davie, Florida, the town where I attended college. Talk was brewing around campus about a nearby haunted attraction that had just opened. Word had begun to spread, and Davie’s newest spook house had earned itself a large two-page spread in the local newspaper. The Fear Factory was guaranteed to scare, and its creator, Shawn Troxel, was not going to break that promise. With $80,000 invested, Troxel’s highly creative and expertly detailed haunt had South Floridians lining up for what seemed like miles. The Fear Factory, housed in a vacant section of a strip mall, had its patrons screaming. To Troxel, this was melodious music. Halloween came and went, and so did The Fear Factory. Sadly, Troxel disappeared as well, into the shadows of the haunted mazes, latex props and tangled cobwebs.
Fourteen years later, it is October of 2010, and once again, my favorite time of year. It is the season for bewitching, when the air is changing, pumpkins are beginning to appear on front porches, and the days are growing shorter. Halloween is nigh, and that can only mean one thing- it is time to get scared. Haunted attractions are a must-do during the month of October, and I am always on the lookout for the very best of the bunch.
There’s just something about a good haunt. The smells, the sounds, the goosebumps. After all, it’s not Halloween without the blood-curdling screams.
My journey to find a frightfully fun attraction has led me to the Bradenton Haunted Trail. Only 30 minutes from Pinellas County, this Halloween haunt is set to scare. And why wouldn’t it? Its creator is none other than Shawn Troxel. Troxel has resurfaced just a few hours north of his last major haunt, The Fear Factory. He is back and ready to regain his glory.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Florida, Troxel got his start in the spooking business doing special effects and make-up. Without any mentors or formalized training, Troxel acquired his skills just by being hands-on and simply learning as he went. When Troxel turned fifteen, he went to New Jersey for the summer and while there, discovered his first haunted attraction, a castle on the boardwalk. Troxel recalls going inside and being able to predict all the scares, knowing when and how each one would happen. Hardly scared, Troxel was later asked by the haunt’s owner if he wanted a summer job. Troxel accepted.
That fall when back in South Florida, Troxel began sneaking into Ft. Lauderdale Beach nightclubs with his friends. Despite being greatly underage, the boys not only got into the clubs, but also won all their costume contests. Troxel and his buddies beat out club and bar patrons twice their age with their highly creative costumes and specialized make-up. “We won hundreds and hundreds of dollars in contests alone at these nightclubs. No one knew how young we were either because we had so much paint and prosthetics on our faces. We never had to take off our masks, so it was easy to fool the bouncers,” Troxel laughed.
Years later, when Troxel “officially” turned 21, he went to work for a popular haunted attraction in Dania, Florida called Silo X. The haunt was set next to a small amusement park and with its close proximity, it was guaranteed to generate big crowds each night. And that it did. Silo X was the place to be that October, back in the early ’90s. The haunt’s layout was a series of long and winding mazes set to a “military base gone bad” theme. Troxel helped construct and set up the attraction. He also designed rooms and masks, and helped with other special effects. During his time at Silo X, Troxel did more than just behind the scenes work, he also spent time scaring. Troxel wore an Alien costume, very similar to the one used in the Sigourney Weaver classic. The costume was ornate, yet quite heavy, hot and awkward. No one at the haunt could handle wearing the costume, except Troxel.
After years of working in haunts, Troxel takes with him many special memories. He has learned what makes an attraction a success, and what makes it a failure. He knows every kind of effect, from lighting to audio. He’s an expert in construction and handywork, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s a contractor by day. Troxel is also a pro with costume design, prosthetics and other hard to achieve make-up effects. He has a large shed stacked from floor to ceiling with props, and Haunt World Magazine is Troxel’s Bible. There is no doubt this native Floridian is a master of horror, and in its fifth year, the Bradenton Haunted Trail promises to be a crowd pleaser yet again.
The trail is an old-fashioned yard haunt, but with a very dark and twisted side. The first year after Troxel moved into the historic Bradenton, Florida neighborhood, he found himself sitting on the front porch of his 1920 bungalow. It was that Halloween evening in which Troxel enclosed his porch in black. A couple of strobe lights flashed in the background. Troxel and his wife handed out candy to 54 trick-or-treaters.
During Troxel’s second year at his new home, neighbors Tony and Candice Cordero joined in and the ideas began to blossom. The Troxels and Corderos decided to broaden their haunted horizons. So, they created a small trail which basically ran just the length of Troxel’s driveway. That Halloween, 250 people turned out. However, no one expected to see a trick-or-treating police officer. This was hardly someone in a cop costume. The Bradenton officer exited his squad car and approached Troxel, who was expecting the worst. Yet, instead of being shut down, the impressed officer called his lieutenant, urging her to come right over to check out the haunt. The following year, the Bradenton Police Department became an official sponsor of the trail, offering financial support, security and providing neighborhood street closures. Once the police became actively involved, the trail had begun to grow even more. Around 700 trick-or-treaters found their way to Troxel’s spooktacular attraction. Word around town had spread, and without any formal advertising or promotions, 1,280 costumed guests screamed their way through the trail last year.
This Halloween, Troxel has invested more money (he has spent thousands) and has put in months of effort and hard work on the trail. The castle entrance to the attraction, Troxel started back in July. The construction and painting process hasn’t been easy, especially on Florida’s hottest days. Troxel spends hours each day hammering, sawing, drilling, and designing his haunt. Being a contractor, Troxel is highly skilled in carpentry and construction. The maze has been expertly put together, and almost every one of Troxel’s props is handmade. The Bradenton Haunted Trail creator explains that the process of making everything himself is much more cost efficient and he can ensure the quality, as opposed to something store bought and pre-made. To Troxel, building his haunt is the best part of it all. “The construction, the creativity… putting the attraction together lets me do what I want to do. The satisfaction of everyone loving it and enjoying it; that’s what it’s all about,” smiles Troxel. The worst part of having a haunt? “Tearing it down!” laughs the creator.
And where does this creative artist get all his creepy ideas and chilling inspiration from? “From everything,” states Troxel. “From watching movies to listening to people’s fears and phobias. If someone tells me they are scared of something, I think of how I can incorporate that idea into my haunt. And sometimes, ideas just simply come into my head.” Troxel further explains that a good haunt shouldn’t just be about the gore; instead, there is so much more fear in the unseen. “It’s all about what your imagination conveys,” Troxel says. For this haunted attraction designer, the best kind of fear is psychological. Troxel uses the following scenario. “Think about a room, perhaps a kitchen. You see blood everywhere. There is a bloodied kitchen knife and a dead body, gruesome and cut open. Now, think of the same kitchen, but in a different way. This time you see a turned over bowl of cereal laying on the floor, milk puddling out around its edges. There is a flipped chair to further show signs of a struggle, and there is a trail of blood droplets leading out the screen door. Which evokes more fear?”
Troxel prides his haunt on the emotion invested and the great detail put into every inch of the structure. While he gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the trail, I was incredibly impressed not just with Troxel’s creativity, but with his passion. Every bit of Troxel’s heart and soul is immersed into his haunt. When you visit this Halloween season, you will certainly be able to see what I mean.
And without giving too much away, I will say some of society’s most common phobias are exposed within the trail. Need I say… clowns? Yep, the red nosed, big shoed forms of pure evil will most definitely be there. And for those with arachnophobia, there will also be plenty of eight-legged creepy crawlers. But there is so much more, including the unexpected. One of Troxel’s best scares is his inground plexiglass coffin, which in years past, has included a live actor who had his oxygen delivered to him through a tube. This is typically where Troxel gets his loudest screams. The haunter also brought with him his days of Silo X, and has incorporated a deranged military theme into the trail. Troxel makes great use of distractors throughout the haunt; you just never know when someone is going to jump out. There are plenty of strobe lights, foggers, and loud noises; poppers and air cannons are enough to startle even the steadiest of folks. The long and winding maze orignates near the front of Troxel’s home and trails through his yard and into his neighbors’ yard, The Corderos. Troxel says he likes to change the haunt from year to year, even if the changes are subtle. He likes to keep things fresh and interesting. This year he has added a new section to the attraction. Troxel hopes to create a little insanity with his mental asylum, complete with a shrinking hallway, doorways with bars and strange lighting that is enough to make you go, well, mad. The scare tactics Troxel uses are top notch and masterfully created. “I’ve had my patrons tell me they enjoyed my trail much more than Tampa’s Howl-O-Scream. And they paid way less money at the trail,” grinned a proud Troxel.
With everything that goes into the attraction, I couldn’t help but wonder how Troxel’s wife felt about it all. “Ironically, she doesn’t like it, not at all. In fact, she goes out of town when I host the haunt,” laughs Troxel. And though that may be a bit surprising, Troxel’s four-year-old son loves it. Perhaps Troxel’s little boy will follow in his father’s footsteps one day.
Troxel is a man with many faces, or masks, since we are talking about the haunting business here. He is a father, a husband, a contractor, an artist of many mediums, and yes, the founder of one of the most popular haunted attractions in the Tampa Bay area. He has goals, dreams, and visions for so much more. Troxel is currently trying to turn his dreams into reality. While conducting our interview, Troxel showed me his plans for a massive, warehouse-sized haunted attraction he has created. Impressive and well thought out, the design is sure to hook an investor in the near future. Hearing about this haunt is definitely exciting. I know I will be the first in line on its opening day!
And if you want to get a taste now of what Troxel has to offer, be sure to visit the Bradenton Haunted Trail this season. This is a haunt you cannot afford to miss. Once you look into Troxel’s strange and bizarre world, you will never want to experience Halloween any other way. “Scaring people is fun,” states Troxel with a smirk. “This is what I’m meant to do.”
*Shawn Troxel would like to thank the Bradenton Police Department for all of their support in helping make his haunted attraction a huge success.
Bradenton Haunted Trail
Location: the 1200 block of 18th Street West, Bradenton, FL 34205
Open from: dusk to 11 pm on Oct. 30 and 31st (young children can visit the trail prior to the “official” opening each day when there will be no scare actors working)
Admission Cost: $5.00 suggested donation
For more information, please visit www.bradentonhauntedtrail.com