Always Look for a Better Way

Leonard Pickel was my college roommate a long time ago, and a childhood friend before that. I'm pretty sure he would win a contest for the person I know with the most interesting job.

There are two morals to this story--a small one and a large one. The small one is: When you go off to college, live in the oldest and shabbiest dorm available. Leonard and I did this, unwillingly to begin with but by choice in successive years. The oldest dorms had the largest rooms (with wonderful high ceilings). Sure, we had to go down the hall to use the shower, but that also meant others were paid to clean it. And since the dorm we lived in was always on the verge of being condemned, we had a lot of license to paint our rooms any color we wanted and generally abuse the premises. (That's a photo of our dorm below.)

At Halloween, we made use of this freedom to put on a little haunted house. At 50 cents a head, we made enough to have a nice little pizza party. This being the late seventies, we furnished our haunted house with items such as a Star Wars cantina. The creep down the hall who was into martial arts put on his leather suit and a gorilla mask. While he stood perfectly still everyone was sure he was a mannequin, until--Hah! Got you! And one of Leonard's inspirations was a corridor with multiple doors that characters could run in and out of (ideal for a dormitory setting, and in retrospect probably inspired by Yellow Submarine).

After graduation, Leonard and I went our separate ways. Leonard, with an architecture degree, went to work for an architectural firm doing, you know, architecture stuff. But he still put on a haunted house now and again on Halloween. And then, after some years, he decided to chuck it all and do haunted houses full-time. As his dad said, his working capital was a trailer full of 2x4's.

Now here comes the second large moral. Leonard didn't just put on haunted houses; he thought about what he was doing. He kept looking for a better way. How do you keep people from bunching up so you can maximize the number of customers you can put through in an hour? How do you protect your actors from the obnoxious lout looking for an excuse to punch someone in the nose?

Now Leonard is not just a haunted-house guy--he's a leading authority in the independent haunted-attraction business. People in the field talk about the "Pickel theory" of haunted-house design, which encompasses both practical considerations and an aesthetic philosophy: Leonard cares little for blood and guts, preferring instead to rely on good old-fashioned startles.

Thanks to Leonard I have a window onto a fascinating little industry I would otherwise know nothing about. Some years ago my family and I visited the attraction Leonard was operating in Myrtle Beach and got a behind-the-scenes tour. We were also Leonard's guests at a haunted-attraction convention where I was fascinated by the seminar he gave.

Leonard's website: Here's one of his designs:

P.S. Leonard, I always thought "Pepper's Ghost" would make a good title for a short story with some kind of ironic twist at the end.


Jannie Funster said...

I've headed up the Haunted House committee for the past two years at my daughter's school. I could almost take on the task again, and not pass the torch as I plan to do this year, if Leonard could come over and help me out with it.

Serge Gorodish said...

Regrettably, I think Leonard's services these days come at a price that only major productions can afford to pay. I do have a couple of interesting idea books written by him. These were priced at a level that might make an individual hesitate but would be within a groups budget. I don't know whether they are still available.