By Arielle Dollinger
In the daylight, Melville’s Schmitt’s Family Farm sees sweater-wearing children and adults picking pumpkins, wrestling with sticky jelly apples and meandering through the corn maze.
At night, the lightning illuminates a white house front marked by a broken white picket fence and a red-eyed gargoyle. As visitors pay the $19 admission fee throughout the Halloween season, they are contributing to what Bill Schmitt said is about two-thirds of the farm’s yearly income – a direct result of the Halloween season.
The Haunted Mansion of Melville is in its 20th year. Feet away is the entrance to “The Experiment” – a two-year-old addition to the farm’s Halloween attractions that takes visitors through an experiment with a crazy doctor – and then there is the Nighttime Corn Maze.
“Halloween is probably 60 to 70 percent of our income for the year,” said Bill Schmitt.
There is no set budget for the Halloween season, Schmitt said. In March, he and his cohorts attend a showcase to find new additions to the house: animatronics of elaborate and simple design and function, scents to spray to aid in the transformation from black-walled room to hospital scene.
“If we really want to buy something to improve the house, and we feel it’s an asset, we’ll do it,” he said. “Even if at the end of the day we make less money, at the end of the year, you always want to have a good house.”
Preparations begin in July, Schmitt said.
As far as planning goes, Phil Mazel and Tony Arone meet at a 7-Eleven and start doodling on napkins – “And from doodles, BOO!” Mazel says. Mazel started working in the house as an actor 20 years ago, and today runs it; Arone started a couple of years after Mazel.
Mazel is just “a Halloween guy,” Schmitt said.
“Some people like Halloween, and he likes it,” he said.
Anyone working in the haunted house must like Halloween, Mazel noted; when interviewing prospective actors, he asks them if they like Halloween and then he asks them to say “Boo!”
But separate from the haunting and howling is the struggle to keep visitors coming, Schmitt said.
“It was actually easier 20 years ago, to advertise and get customers,” he said. “But the age bracket that we need to hit, a lot of them you don’t know what radio station they listen to; they don’t watch TV anymore… social media is the way to try to reach them… and when you have a venue that’s only open for one month, that’s difficult to do.”
The farm has been advertising on social media and also advertised with Z100 for the first time this year, he said. It is unclear at this point whether or not it’s working – the “heart” of the season is not yet here.
“The haunted house season is busier on the end, from the back end, than it is in the beginning,” Schmitt said.
Columbus Day weekend is a sort of kickoff, he said, but this weekend and the one following it will be the biggest weekends for haunted houses.
Pricing changes yearly, depending on the state of the economy and on the pricing of competition, as do the house’s features.
“You’re always racking your brain out to try to maybe outdo the competition or just make people satisfied that go through the house,” Schmitt said. “It’s hard! Entertainment’s really hard… You can’t do the same thing over and over again; you will not be successful.”
Those walking through the haunted house notice changes, he said.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, they changed this,’ ‘Oh, they did this,’ ‘Oh, we didn’t see this last year,’” he said. “They remember.”
At 6 p.m., pumpkin-picking time is over. By 7p.m., the haunted house must be open. In a room whose walls wear wooden panels, the actors who haunt the house cover each other in fake blood and stare into abundant mirrors through colored contacts.
At the end of the season, their jobs here are done; Mazel and Arone will go back to working their year-round jobs working with mechanical things and the farm will be devoid of pumpkins and the wafting scent of cider.