I recently had a chance to sit down with the director & founder of Zombie Army Productions and co-owner of HellsGate Haunted House, John LaFlamboy. Zombie Army Productions is the creative and operational force between a variety of films, music videos, zombie proms, parties, an epic roaming party army bus, tradeshow events, educational sessions, and a plethora of haunted attractions including: Statesville Haunted Prison, Haunted Spaceship at World Golf Dome, City of the Dead, Fear Haunted House at Navy Pier, Dragons Dome Haunted House, Zombie Containment, and of course HellsGate Haunted House located in Lockport, IL. Chatting in John’s office on the grounds of HellsGate, we were surrounded by images of inspiration including artwork from the Tales from the Crypt series, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Sam Rami’s Evil Dead, and John’s all-time favorite movie The Goonies. Before we dive into HellsGate, we spent a little time talking about his inspirations and the path that led here.
As a youth growing up in the south side of Chicago, John became a storyteller to entertain his 6 brothers & sisters. In high school, his bedtime stories evolved to ghost stories as local kids liked to meet up at a seemingly haunted mansion in the woods with a terrifying urban legend. At age 15, John was running his own ghost tour with up to 60 people each tour! It grew so large he needed additional people to help make sure everyone could hear the stories.
Outside of childhood, John’s first significant haunted opportunity was in 1996 at Southern Illinois University with the suggestion of a haunted house as a fundraiser for the student theatre guild. Because there was no budget for this, the dean of the theater dept, Dr. Sarah Blackstone, wrote a personal check for $900. With that, they built a 4-room interactive attraction in an abandoned shoe store at a nearby mall…John’s first haunted house! Included was the original rendition of the red-and-white checkered clown room that eventually evolved to the famous closing feature at Statesville Haunted Prison.
Two years later. John’s first venture into the haunted attraction industry was in 1998 at Statesville Haunted Prison located in Crest Hill, Illinois. Owner Paul Siegel hired John to create a new style of haunted experience, a theatrical interactive experience leaving no safe spaces for patrons. With a $7100 budget and a deluge of Mountain Dew, John and company had to get creative with their resources to create creepy places, inspired by MC Escher, out of whatever supplies they could scrounge from the farm’s junk heap. Most importantly, he focused on creating an actor based haunted house that would be rooted in storytelling & character creation. Together with several members of his college theatre guild, a dozen Lockport High School theatre interns, and as many family & friends he could round up, Statesville would entertain over 10,000 people in the first year at Statesville.
Over the years, John and the Zombie Army found much success in haunted house productions. John’s unique interactive theatrical style, mixed with an incredibly strong acting department proved to be a giant success as a Chicagoland fan favorite with tens of thousands of loyal fans. They continually won “Best Haunted House in Chicagoland” “Scariest Haunted House in Illinois,” and even featured on Travel Channel’s “Craziest Haunted Houses”. After years of producing multiple haunted houses, making films and throwing large themed events, it was time to put all Zombie Army had learned and all dreams and desires into one project…a haunted house built by haunters for haunters, a home for the misfit crew that had grown over the years, and a haunted house that was designed for the audience. It was time for HellsGate Haunted House. HellsGate would not just be any haunted attraction; this would be the culmination of all his life’s work and the urban legends John grew up knowing. A place in the middle of the woods at the end of a dark endless drive, filled with secret passages, slides, demonic possession and even a way to get your money back if you make it out alive. More than a haunted house, it would be an adventure. John recalls, “I wanted to give the entire family [Zombie Army] a place to go and something to be proud of, not just a haunted house, but a place to create, collaborate, and call your clubhouse.”
After securing the approval from the City of Lockport, the Parks District, and the mayor, Steve Streit, John & his partner, Rick Rudie, turned that spark into a fire. They found their future home & broke ground in April 2015. They cleared forest, dug trenches, erected a 21,000 sq ft. building & poured concrete. By July 2015 with the expert help of his father, John LaFlamboy Sr., they completed all the work needed for an amazing foundation including running the power, installation of a septic system, building a road, a parking lot, and the brand-new main facility with temperature controlled indoor flushing bathrooms. As the roof was finishing, his brother, Kyle LaFlamboy, had the build crew working tirelessly building all interior walls.
With 30 artists & crew members working 7-days a week, nothing was going to stop the Zombie Army from their dream. While fortune seemed to be on their side, all work came to a grinding halt in Sept 2015. While digging, the crew found something they wish they hadn’t. The Army was now not allowed to return to the property until the situation could be rectified by the authorities, and all hopes of opening for the 2015 season were crushed. Determined, Zombie Army members invested more and pushed forward. They enabled new marketing efforts which circled back to John’s core talent of being a storyteller. With no money for special effects, the Zombie Army created a simple video that showed John doing what he does best: telling a story about what HellsGate had in-store. Rewarding them for their efforts, the video received over 1 million views in the first month and set the table for their October 2016 premiere.
With the physical elements in place and marketing primed, it was time to develop the story. John asserts, “I can’t tell you how important our storytelling is to our show. We are servants to story. Our show has history with detailed character biographies. We continue to add depth and richness to that story. Each year, we discuss new characters and how to add to the story. Sometimes, I create the new characters, sometimes we workshop them in meetings, and sometimes a 15-year-old intern creates a whole new side storyline. This is the big difference between us and most other attractions, and our audience loves learning those little details. They feel more involved and emotionally connected. It’s essential our audience feels like they’ve left their lives behind for a short time while they visit our world and share in a life experience.”
After years of planning and an unfathomable amount of labor hours, opening day had come. The Zombie Army was excited to showcase the product of a lifetime of work & conceptualization. The first year proved to be an adventure in learning. Zombie Army’s brand had taken root in Chicagoland and an unprecedented amount of people arrived in the first season, over 27,000 people in 20 days, three times the expected audience! With late October nights & long lines, they learned more in a season about their show & themselves than ever expected.
A hugely successful opening season wasn’t enough. Ever improving, John reached out to his audience. He read reviews, listened to what they loved and paid detailed attention to any complaints. From that feedback, John decided to increase the size of the forest & graveyard and add a whole bag of hell in the basement of HellsGate. Most of John’s design work was inspired by following the audience through the show on a nightly basis. He studied their reactions, their pace, their screams and their laughs. Wholeheartedly, John believes in giving back to his audience who gave them their time & hard-earned money. The least he can do is return that respect by continually working towards an even better audience experience. “We must do better today than yesterday,” John explains, and repeatedly his audience rewards him with ticket sales & fan reviews!
In only their 3rd season with their identity solidified and word spreading rapidly, HellsGate Haunted House entertained over 31,000 patrons in a 17-day season with 130 actors in 2018, and critics took notice. They received top attraction honors by both local & national reviewers. “#1 Haunted House in Chicagoland”, Haunted House Chicago. “Best Haunted House in Illinois”, Halloween Blast. “Scariest Haunted House in Illinois and #11 in the Nation” HauntWorld. “#1 Haunted House in Illinois and #8 in the Nation” ScareFactor. I had a chance to review HellsGate in 2018; here is part of that review: This is not your typical haunted house, but a haunted adventure! Steeped in a history of unfortunate circumstances, HellsGate is one of those rare legendary haunted attractions. For those who have yet to experience, you are in for a treat. Embarking on a journey to HellsGate is much different than other attractions. Buses shuttle you to and from the grounds, as if something out of Disney. It keeps you off your guard, submerses you in the unknown, and sets the tone for your experience. Once arrived, you’re greeted by creatures taken over by the darkness lurking about. The creatures cleverly attack from all angles, even before entering. Throughout the trail, the monsters of the forest takeover. Using the moon’s lighting to their advantage, they strike with perfect timing and attack at multiple points until you enter Lost Souls Cemetery. Even more relentless are these attacks. Crawling through the dirt and trail, you’re never left alone. An eerie sense of evil descends as you near the mysterious mansion until you find yourself face-to-face with the gates of Hells Gate themselves. Wrapped in layers of fog & flickering torches, the mansion rises out of nowhere. A plethora of actors run amuck out front, toying with patrons but also wrapped in their own self-contained routines. Standing at front of the house, you first enter the breathtaking great room, detailed from floor to ceiling. The sound of a thunderstorm booms & lightning strikes just outside the stained-glass windows. Immersed in evil, you’re forced to escape through a secret passage within the walls. This trek leads to the study whereby you’re given additional information before continuing through a secret bookshelf. The kitchen, library, hallways and trophy room, all continue to illustrate the unearthed chaos with plenty of eye candy throughout. The woods, the detailed mansion, 17 secret passages, down slides, 100 live animals (snakes, spiders, eels, rats, cockroaches, scorpions), and dealing with dragons, this is one of the most detailed, fully-immersive haunted attractions anywhere. However, the true heart of the haunt lies in each cast member. Throwing caution to the wind, actors push their voices & bodies to extremes to produce the show of a lifetime every night, offering a unique and interactive exchange with each passing patron. Not the usual grunts or shouts, these actors engage in creepy conversations, planting seeds of nightmares that’ll make your skin crawl. Many believe the greatest fears are the ones that reside within your mind, and the crew here is certainly to blame! What’s next for HellsGate? The Zombie Army is already hard at work on their annual build in preparation to be Featured Attraction during the 2019 Midwest Haunters Convention in Chicago in June. “The house is tightening up and more aggressive than ever. Characters are changing & evolving. The house has been exposed to this darkness for 3 years now. What’s the effect of that? The story is always advancing, and our guests are an important part of the ever-changing story,” says John. “The only limit we have is the length of our imaginations. We plan to expand, expand, expand, and eventually have a full night Halloween festival!”
Everything the Zombie Army does is a sum of their parts, and John recognizes all who have been instrumental. “Tresa Walker has been with me since our fundraiser in college. While she claims she did it for the peanut butter sandwiches, she’s the first to make sure our crew is fed and taken care of.” Tresa is head of stage management for HellsGate and a Zombie Army producer. John praises Kyle LaFlamboy, his brother and assistant designer and a Zombie Army producer, and Bobby Schmitt, his brother who’s head of the build department. And John always says building this dream would’ve been impossible without the support of business partner Rick Rudie who looked John in the eyes after his HellsGate pitch and said, “That sounds crazy; I’m in.” Above all, John gives credit for HellsGate’s meteoric success to those behind the walls. “To the kids who bring their energy & love to the show, to the adults that put their lives on hold while they dedicate their minds & bodies to the machine, and every actor & technician whose ever worked a Zombie Army show, for it was their efforts, blood, sweat, tears and dreams that fueled us to get this far. Without them, I’m just a weirdo talking crazy in the dark.” At the end of the day, John is simply an amazing storyteller, leading the Zombie Army while impacting & changing the lives of kids of all ages, all while continuing to innovate & create an incredible audience experience. In John’s words, “You cannot scare everybody, but you can entertain everyone!”
HellsGate Fun Facts: *The gates are real wrought-iron graveyard gates from the entrance of Burr Oak Cemetery, a location at the center of a major controversy in Chicago.
*The mansion floors are real hardwood for a true authentic feel & the antique furniture is real from estate sales collected 10+ years.
*All rooms are decorated 360-degrees of coverage.
*John purchased the domain HellsGate.com 10+ years ago.
*Like Disneys Haunted Mansion, the attic has special pieces from throughout the timeline of the company.
*Nickelback and Breaking Benjamin shot music videos there.
*An Addams Family-style wedding was held there.
*There are documented murders and paranormal experiences on the property.
*A documentary on the history of haunted houses was partially shot there.
*Upcoming Haunted House the Movie featuring Robert Englund will be shot there.
*Find the key & your ticket is free!