With about 30 minutes remaining before doors open, John Rusnak acts as a guide during a last-minute walk-through of his new, double-feature haunted house, “Frightmares.”
Actors dressed as evil clowns, bloody doctors and undead children scramble to apply the finishing touches to their makeup and costumes before taking their respective posts throughout the house of horrors, which looks odd in the light of day.
Rusnak’s pace is brisk as he rattles off bits of direction as he walks by, double-checking various special effects, which he’s designed to shock his unsuspecting guests.
A loud pop from a pressurized air cannon pierces the silence, and an unfazed Rusnak laughs at the startled reaction it draws.
“I had to!” he apologizes between satisfied chuckles. “That gets them every time. You can have a $1 million effect, and just that little puff of air on your leg —people are more scared of the air cannon.”
Rusnak holds up a finger to signal that he needs to delay the tour for a moment, and then he crawls into a hidden corridor with a drill to secure a trap door for one of the actors.
This maze of mayhem, located on Tamiami Trail, just south of Gulf Gate Drive, is his latest creation. Rusnak has been building haunted houses for 19 years. Most recently he ran the popular “House of Terror,” which benefitted Sailor Circus, until it was discontinued last year.
Now, in his first year of operation at his new location, Rusnak has a fresh canvas with “Frightmares,” which features two houses: Tomb of Terrors, a melting pot of old-school horror-movie props, and Psycho Asylum, an industrial-themed mental hospital gone rampant with patients — and evil clowns.
Rusnak got his start in the business at a young age, when he volunteered at a haunted house in the Gulf Gate area. His talent for terror was apparent, and, soon after, he built his own haunted house at the Sarasota Fairgrounds, which he says was a big success. He’s been hooked ever since.
“I love horror films,” says Rusnak. “What this haunted house does is allow me to entertain people and entertain myself at the same time. I get to build sets and props that I like, and then I get to set them up for other people to like.”
Rusnak says the seasonal business takes months of planning and preparation, but that serving up scares for his favorite holiday is worth the hard work.
“Some nights, you feel like it’s not a labor of love, and you want to give it up,” he says. “It’s worth it when you see people smiling and having fun. When they come out excited, it’s worth it.”
After Halloween night, when the season ends, Rusnak will break down the elaborate setup and return to his day job, but he won’t be too far from his passion. When he isn’t building haunted houses, Rusnak works on feature films as a prop master and set designer, where he’ll collect another season’s worth of frightful ideas to bring to life next Halloween.
Video by Eddie Kirsch
IF YOU GO
Frightmares Haunted House
When: Open 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Oct. 26 and Oct. 27; 7 to 10 p.m. Oct. 28 to Oct. 30; 7 p.m. to midnight Oct. 31
Where: 7111 S Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Info: Visit Frightmareshauntedhouse.com
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