After doing over 20 interviews for Theme Park University’s inaugural Halloween season, I asked all the haunt owners who they thought was the “best of the best” in the industry. One name came up over and over: 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While it is intense and there are some great scares along the way, it’s the quality of the sets and costumes that makes this attraction stand out from all the rest in the country.
For Dwayne Sanburn, the owner and original creator of 13th Gate, it was a long journey in creating a haunted house that almost everyone in the industry envies. Dwayne’s life was actually going in a completely different direction, as he was studying to be a registered nurse. However, his love for Halloween was his true passion. He worked two nursing jobs just to be able to open and run the first haunted house and with that first taste, he was hooked.
He got the chance to expand and put an 18,000-square foot haunted house on the campus of LSU. While it has a successful run from 1998 to 2001, it wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted it to be more of a quality haunted house and since he had to tear it down after each season and then rebuild it again the next year, the time to focus on the quality of the house just wasn’t there.
Sanburn decided to go shopping and found a 150-year-old building smack dab in downtown Baton Rouge. His new digs had 40,000 square feet, which was more than double the size of the haunt he was building at LSU. He opened the 13th Gate in 2002 and it was fairly successful considering he was in a brand new location.
While he was happy with the fact that whatever he built for 13th Gate would stay there permanently and he didn’t have to take it down at the end of every season, the quality of the sets and environments just wasn’t where he wanted it to be. During this time, Louisiana was seeing a boom in film production, thanks to tax incentives the state was offering to movie studios in exchange for shooting in Louisiana.
In 2006, Sanburn was invited by a friend of his to visit the set of “The Reaping”, starring Hilary Swank, that was shooting down the road from him. He was in awe of catacombs and underground sewer systems and all these realistically creepy sets. This is what 13th Gate needed to look like. So he pulled the Art Director aside and asked if after the film wrapped production, if he could spend some time in Baton Rouge teaching Sanburn’s team how to create movie style sets.
The rest, as they say, is history. Audiences flocked to the 13th Gate once he started using these new techniques to create movie quality atmospheres. So much so that Dwayne quit his full time job as a nurse to focus on the haunt year-round and hired a crew of 10 people to work with him. During the Halloween season, he hires 225 people just to operate it.
The pictures definitely speak for themselves. 13th Gate’s level of detail seen in the sets surpasses anything I have seen in haunted houses anywhere in the country. For those of you who are Disney fans, you will notice he has several Disney “tributes” in the house, including a replica of the Nautilus and the “Hellavator”, an elevator experience that simulates dropping 13 stories… which sounds and looks awfully similar to a very popular Disney attraction.
After the “Hellavator” drops guests off, they are unleashed into the 13 themed areas of the haunt. It’s not as much about the scares as it is putting guests in an extremely realistic environment. 13th Gate doesn’t use a lot of black lights and animatronics. They use more theatrical, natural lights and live actors to make the sets come alive and seem more real.
With 13th Gate being such a huge success, Dwayne purchased a plot of land across the street and made a sister attraction a few years ago called Necropolis 13. This haunt pays tribute to Louisiana’s creepy history. Sets are designed to look like cemeteries set in New Orleans and feature scenes with voodoo and zombies.
If you are looking for the best of the best this Halloween season, look no further than 13th Gate in Baton Rouge. For more information visit www.MidnightProduction.com. And if you get so scared that you need medical attention? I happen to know nurse who can help you out.