John Denley’s first mask was a vintage Ben Cooper Frankenstein — cheap, plastic, held together by staples and an elastic band around his head. The four-year-old thought he had the scariest costume that Halloween.
“Here I am, I walk up to the front door ready to terrorize people, and they’re all like, well aren’t you so cute?’’
He was crushed.
Then came the decorations, every October that rolled around. It went from refrigerator boxes designed as coffins to more elaborate creations — bodies flying down on cables, floating ghosts, mannequins on the roof, speakers, smoke. Kids on the block came to look, and when word spread, people from across the state came to marvel.
“And my poor mother goes, I’m sorry, hun, I love you, but you gotta do this somewhere else,’’ the Massachusetts native said.
Eventually he did. Denley, now 50, started a tech career working on defense contracts, and in the early 90s finally made the switch.
The first person he really scared was an old girlfriend. “Alright, this is going to make me sound like a really terrible person,’’ he said. He marked the shape of a body with tape on the floor — like police do at a crime scene — then hid under the bed. She came in, didn’t make much of the tape, and ended up talking on the phone for a bit. At just the right moment, Denley grabbed her ankle and she let out a blood-curling scream.
“That was a really lousy thing to do, but it was great,’’ he says with a sly smile. “I started thinking how fun it would be to scare people for a living.’’
Denley crouches low and brings his voice to a snarl. Enunciating every syllable, little spit droplets project outward.
“Welcome, you’ve awakened the Master. The rules here are simple: touch nothing and no thing will touch you. And of course, good luck, you’ll need it. This way, if you want to live…’’
He’s the owner and creator of the Witch Mansion in Salem, Mass. and the opening scene of the haunted house. The attraction is a ten-minute long winding walk through dim lit mummies, spiders, and corpses. Actors jump out at visitors, who jump and scream in response, to Denley’s delight.
Witch Mansion is one of his first creations and he likes to show it to potential clients.
After attending a Halloween trade show in St. Louis in 1992, he got more serious about the now $300 million haunted house industry he helped grow.
In 1994, Denley began Boneyard Productions, which takes on eight to ten clients a year, building custom haunted attractions for half of them.
He’s haunted the Nashoba Valley ski area, Canobie Lake Park, Foxwoods Casino and Resorts, Madison Square Garden, car washes, zoos, churches, and wax museums. He was recently in Hong Kong to create the region’s first haunted theme park.
He still goes by “Professor Nightmare,’’ the result of an early and eager press agent. He has his own DVD series offering tutorials like “How to Scare People Frightfully Easily.’’
Part architect, mad scientist, psychologist, and set director, Denley builds and envisions every haunt from scratch. He’s pure type A perfectionist. He can tell if one of his carpenters bent a nail somewhere, and he’ll take it out and re-do it.
“I might be the only person who cares about that. But I truly believe that people — they might not notice all the little details — but in combination, they feel it,’’ he said.
So what scares you?
Rain on Halloween. Creepy crawlers and snakes. Being helpless. “I want to be in charge. I create my own world and have complete control over it.’’
So what’s next?
Ireland, Russia, China, the United Kingdom. He wants to introduce the world to his favorite holiday.
“It’s the one time a year when the not-so-pretty girl gets to be the princess, and the nerdy guy gets to be Tom Cruise. Everyone gets to loosen up a bit, cause we’re all too tense,’’ Denley muses. “On Halloween night in Salem, you’ll see a husband dressed up as a beer can, and the wife as a toothbrush.
“And you just go, this is fun.’’
This is the first installation of a multi-part series profiling unique occupations in the area. If you know of someone, let us know.
Video by: Andy Robinson Music Credit: “Airship Fury’’ by Jahzzar