The Baxter Avenue Morgue is one of the most unique and frightening haunts in the nation. Its cult following has grown leaps and bounds over the years and has earned a reputation as one of the most realistically scary haunts around. Today we speak with Jamie Stephenson, the creative director of Baxter Avenue Morgue.
Give us a little history of Baxter Avenue Morgue and how you first got involved in this classic haunt?
[Jamie Stephenson] Like most haunters, I have been doing haunted houses since I was 16. That’s 27 Halloweens in a row! 9 years ago the company I work for, Miller Print Group (I’m the Art Director there) purchased and moved into an old building in Downtown Louisville. They rented the first floor commercially, and we moved into the second floor. The basement was left alone. The Ceilings where too low, the pipes, the rooms that were dark andsome floors were dirt!
My boss knew about my Haunted House history and came to me with this “dream come true” idea, turn the old morgue into a Haunted Tour. I would have full creative control in design and operation. This was in Spring of 2001. 6 months later The Baxter Avenue Morgue opened it’s door after 100 years of silence… to record crowds! I kept the “Old School” haunt structure of live characters (and a lot of them) and less automation and it was a success. We are now in our 8th season.
Many of the actors at Baxter Avenue Morgue are very convincing in the rules they play. Where do you find the majority of your actors?
[Jamie Stephenson] Every year we hold a cast call 4 weeks prior to open. We do a personal interview with each applicant. One year we had 275 people try out for 10 positions. We have a cast of 45 characters and 14 staff members. Through the years we keep most of the cast from the prior year. About half have been here every year since open.
What is the most popular scene at Baxter Avenue Morgue and why?
[Jamie Stephenson] That would be our first room, the Yellow Waiting Room. A lot of historical documents and portraits are there. And the Pallbearers line up, it’s nerve racking to the visitors. Then they meet Mr. Vanderdark (our main character). If they can’t make it through, this is where they leave. Every year we have about 125 people drop out and half of these are from this very first room.
What is your annual attendance and have you seen a big increase over the years?
[Jamie Stephenson] There is no telling what we could potentially hit. Our maximum per night is 1,500. We were hitting this number in our 3rd year. We now have to turn people away after 1 am. Our biggest crowd for a year was 17,000. We have no room to expand, and to keep the same excellent show we have to limit our numbers. We can’t stay open till 5am; I would not do that to our cast.
How would you compare yourself to other haunts such as The Haunted Hotel and Industrial Nightmare?
[Jamie Stephenson] Really, I can’t compare. I rarely visit other haunts. All I can go on is what our customers say in our line, and it’s all good. Everyone truly has a good time here in Louisville at all the haunts. What you see at the morgue is original sets and characters. Where The Baxter Avenue Morgue stands out is our History and reputation. About 25% of our customer base is from out of State. We have calls early in the season from people planning vacations and overnight stays during October to see our show. We are currently working on a “Package Deal” with local restaurants and a Hotel, for out-of-towners.
What is the number one thing you attribute to the success of Baxter Avenue Morgue?
[Jamie Stephenson] The “uniqueness” of our story line and characters. Dedicated Directors, cast members, and staff willing to pull these characters off as they were written. They all have the same desire as I do. This is the foundation of our success. It’s what the customers remember and why they return.
What changes have been made since Joey Arena and Verity Jones left Baxter Avenue Morgue?
[Jamie Stephenson] The biggest change was dropping the standard practice of the industry which is “you can not touch the characters”. We began grabbing, poking, holding hands and interacting with our customers. We lost a few customer in line when they read the sign because of this change, but the outcome was spectacular and very memorable. As for the inside rooms, last year 3 rooms, and this year 6 rooms were completely redesigned. That’s about 30% over all.
What is involved in organizing and constructing Baxter Avenue Morgue every year?
[Jamie Stephenson] It’s an ongoing process that lasts all year long. We normally have about 4 that work all year long on the rebuilds. This year we started a Morgue of Directors board, a group of 10 of our leading characters. All year long they have a say in what happens at the morgue. How things are run, characters, makeup, and they even do some of the set designing. We even open the show in our off season for private parties and gatherings. We call them Morgue Reunions.
Tell us a little about the other people who are instrumental in the success of Baxter Avenue Morgue?
[Jamie Stephenson] Charlie McCawley is my right hand and left foot. He and I think alike in every aspect. We have been working together for 13 years, since the old Industrial Nightmare days. Lucian Tomes who plays our “Warren Vanderdark” Character is a true star. All year long he gets noticed around town and he’s never at a loss for words. Sometimes I think he believes he is Warren Vanderdark. Jeff and Laura Bryant are the new Directors and have a rich history of haunt directing. They spear headed the new “touching” policy; something they brought with them from their previous haunted house. Aiden Williams was key this year in the Morgue Of Directors team and off season special events. Most of all, though, I would have to say David Miller, the owner. Without him there would be no morgue. David is a wiz with public relations and advertising. For a haunt like us, our advertising is outrageous and includes billboards, city busses and shelters, TV and radio, and not to mention the Caufield’s Halloween parade. He spearheaded that.
How much does business increase during the Caufield's Halloween Parade and is it your busiest night of the season?
[Jamie Stephenson] We have about a 40% increase in our first hour during the Caufield’s Halloween Parade, but it slows down later in the night. It’s a tough night to open because our cast is out in the streets and we have 20 minutes to get the show going. But it’s not our busiest. Our busiest night has always been the 3rd Saturday in October… who knows why?
Where do you see Baxter Avenue Morgue 5 years from now?
[Jamie Stephenson] All of us still doing the same damn thing! But it’s the right thing! And that’s listening to customers and letting characters have a say in what they think scares. Over the last 8 years I have seen us climb in popularity. I can only predict that the demand will continue to rise. We will never cut back on a quality show and we can’t expand to put more numbers through so I see us following a more theatrical approach (with overhead to match) and a ticket price of around $25 and a Speedpass line ticket of $40. We may open more nights. Currently we are working on projects with one local and one national non-profit group that will require us to open 26 nights instead of 19, starting the 2nd weekend of September.
There’s even a little talk of a new event on the outskirts of town, we have 60 acres…. But that’s all I will say for now!