To visit the Asylum Haunted House in Denver, "you'd have to be crazy." Enter the reception area you'll be greeted not by the ambient waiting-room music but by the screams of the asylum's many tortured souls.
Visitors to Asylum can wander through the 14,000-square-foot building where they'll run into loopy lunatics, menacing murderers and patients whose surgeries have gone horribly wrong.
The business is owned by Warren Conard and Chris Stafford, who has been in the business for much of his life.
"I've been scaring people for about 24 years," Stafford said.
In high school, a friend asked him if he wanted to "go out and scare some people." The rest is history.
Eventually, his fascination with the spooky prompted him to open Asylum along with three other attractions in Denver: Zombieland, 13th Floor and Bloodshed. A ticket to any of these parks is semi-inclusive; Asylum and Zombieland are ticketed together, as are 13th Floor and Bloodshed. He also has haunted houses in Phoenix and San Antonio, Texas.
He does his job well. Amber Jensen of Middleton, Colo., says she has gone every year since the park opened. She has never made it through the entire building without help.
"My husband has to carry me through," Jensen said. "They're extremely terrifying."
The horror is astonishingly reflective of a dark time in U.S. history when asylums were remedies to mental illness.
"These were real places at one point," Stafford said. "Not happy places, not fun places. … That's why we don't have them nowadays."
But it seems that, at least for Asylum, they're plenty of fun now. The attraction can draw anywhere from a couple of hundred of people a night to 5,000. Encumbered by the dank smells of an asylum that has fallen prey to its patients, guests are in for a crazy ride. Haggard men and women, foaming at the mouths, pop up from around the corner, a lank-haired woman claws at visitors from behind steel bars, and Jessie, whose face appears to have undergone the dainty work of a pitchfork, staggers toward you.
The season began the last two weeks of September and will continue until Halloween. Die-hard fans can still visit the haunted house into November. There, they'll get to have the "lights out" experience, where they wander the building in total darkness.
Stafford believes he has perfected the art of scaring.
"You have to mess with one of their senses, get them off kilter, mess with their comfort zone to get a good scare," he said.
The Asylum takes a three-pronged attack on its visitors, pummeling their sense of sight, sound and touch.
"For me, it's all about the startling feeling," regular visitor Jensen said. "It plays on all your senses. If you can't see, then your sense of smell is heightened and your hearing so you're thinking about that, then somebody jumps out and scares the crap out if you."
In a word, it's insane.