Across the street from the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, the Blumhouse of Horrors, a 1920s-era Los Angeles-theater turned haunted house, is welcoming guests looking for a screaming good time.
Behind the terror is Ethereal FX, a San Luis Obispo-based company that teamed up a few weeks ago with Jason Blum, producer of the “Paranormal Activity” movie franchise.
Their goal: to frighten haunted house enthusiasts, including some notable celebrities – Martha Plimpton, George Takei, Neil Patrick Harris and director J.J. Abrams, who didn’t make it through with his son, according to co-founder Robyn Burns.
“I love the challenge of scaring people,” said Burns, who runs the company offering design service and equipment to the themed-attraction industry. “People are continually becoming more and more jaded, and we have to keep increasing the bar.”
To raise the fear factor, Ethereal FX touches on a broad range of phobias, whether it’s creepy crawlers, total darkness or stage fright, as well as the obvious gore and threats of bodily harm.
“We try to build up the suspense, and then use it sparingly and appropriately to really get people going,” Burns said of the live show.
With a background in design, direction and production, computer networking and business, Burns, 29, first started working in haunted houses at age 10, when he joined “Children of the Night” theatrical group in Grover Beach.
Greg Lewis, Ethereal co-founder, met Burns at Cuesta College, where he had been Burns’ math instructor. Lewis, who continues to teach math, has three decades of experience in electronic, pneumatic and mechanical design for animatronics and show control.
Together, they launched Ethereal FX after learning they shared a passion for special effects.
They began designing and building them for hobby haunted houses and stage shows, and in 2009 produced Mid-State Scare in Arroyo Grande, where they tested designs for automation systems. The following year, they founded Ethereal FX.
Now, the company specializes in custom design work and produces a line of automation equipment used by attractions in North America, Europe and soon India, Burns said. In addition to Blumhouse Productions, clients include Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums, Elitch Gardens and King’s Island.
Although the self-funded company has yet to be profitable – any funds not used to pay overhead or Burns’ salary goes back into the company – Burns said interest in their services is growing. Ethereal continues to receive requests to do larger, more elaborate shows. “Things are starting to take off,” he said. “We’re starting to see year-round business and bring on additional help.”
The company has five employees and an increasing list of what Burns calls ‘Mercs,’ or mercenaries, an on-demand pool of talent with a variety of skills ranging from metal fabrication to audio engineering.
“Our Merc Program allows us to keep a database of everyone’s skills and levels ranging from interns who help out now and again to Emmy award-winning composers who can handle our sound effects needs,” he said. “This team is actually pretty vast and key to the growth of our creative power house.”
Ethereal FX stands apart from its competitors because it designs easy-to-use attractions, Burns believes. The company also provides employee training and long-term support for venues.
But Burns acknowledged the challenges that come with operating a special effects business.
One concern is that the industry is not concentrated in one region, Burns said. “We have to chase business all over the globe. This has pushed us to utilize technology to shrink the gaps wherever we can.”
In addition, Burns said, “We train operators for theme parks, teach makeup techniques and handle tech support remotely utilizing the latest technology the Internet will support.”
But the biggest challenge, he said, is that “we are not a “cookie-cutter business model.”
“There never seems to be a checkbox for themed attraction designer on insurance forms,” Burns noted. “That just means we have to work a little harder to explain ourselves to people outside the industry.”
In the next decade, Burns and Lewis would like to see their company become a full-service creative design shop, and they anticipate expanding to markets such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Portland and Orlando. Burns is convinced that there is an increasing appetite for live, interactive entertainment, particularly among the 20- to-30-something crowd.
“They want to experience something in person now,” he said.
In the special effects realm, it’s about tapping into the public’s deepest, darkest fears, searching for “the most effective ways science has to scare people and attempt to put those studies into practice in the real world,” he added.