Frightmares Haunted House offers horror movie-quality scares in Sarasota

srocco@bradenton.comOctober 19, 2013 

SARASOTA -- On a blazing Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, John Rusnak and his eight-man crew worked tirelessly to perfect each twist and turn of his 12,000-square-foot masterpiece, this year's Frightmares Haunted House.

"If you looked at it from above the walls, it's such a massive maze," Rusnak said.

They barely slept the night before and they wouldn't sleep that day.

In Rusnak's creative process, the building comes fast. And after three weeks of labor, the haunt is now ready for its victims, who will be expecting quite a bang for their buck.

Rusnak, a Sarasota native, is known for his resumé in film. Just look him up on IMDb. He was a prop master for the 2012 flick Spring Breakers, a boozey extravaganza mostly shot in the Tampa Bay area that starred Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and James Franco. Most recently, he directed and wrote House of Blood, which is currently entered in the Orlando Film Festival.

Movies aside, Rusnak, 41, has been creating haunted houses for 15 years.

Developing the second annual Frightmares, which drew thousands of visitors to the Sarasota Fairgrounds last year, is a year-round venture.

Rusnak spends his spare time hunting for potential props. He picks things up at auctions, in dumpsters, around buildings that are being torn down, on the side of the road on garbage day. His most noteworthy prizes: a real autopsy table, an antique dentist chair and stainless steel toilets that came from a jail. Most impressive this year is an ambulance.

To create a house this big, to make it as detailed as it is all from scratch would cost about $150,000, Rusnak says. He won't divulge how much he spent this year, but since Rusnak recycles his props and buys new ones at low prices, the haunt cost him significantly less.

"Last year we saved every nut, screw and washer. Every one of them in a big pot," Rusnak said. "So the spirit of last year is in every screw."

The theme this year is a haunted town. There's a mental hospital, a local prison, a traveling carnival, a graveyard, a Main Street and a church that was brilliantly built in one afternoon.

"I do this because I like entertaining people," Rusnak says. "On a big Hollywood movie, you do one thing and you have no creative control. You're just doing that job. Everyone has a little piece, and you have no control of the outcome of that project. You're just a piece of the puzzle, and it can't be your own little creation."

But Frightmares, which is open select nights through Nov. 1 at 3000 Ringling Blvd., is entirely Rusnak's.

"He has a vision for everything he sees," said friend and volunteer coordinator Nate Cooley. "And he wants to try to stay local, to keep this stuff in the community because not everybody can afford $100 to go to Universal (Studios) or Halloween Horror Nights."

On opening night Thursday, a hulking man about 6 feet tall dressed in a camouflage body suit, combat boots and a Michael Myers-esque mask chased a shrieking woman with a screaming chain saw -- with immovable blades, of course -- out of the house and beyond.

Frightmares is full of clever scares, like that one. (Since when has a scareactor chased a guest all the way to the parking lot?)

In one chilling scene, Rusnak uses a wide space to put guests in a room with a murderous clown. An equally awful clown rides on a unicycle nearby. "Enjoy the show, enjoy the show..." she chants.

"This one's great and it's not real short," said Krysta Lim, 28, who had just been through. "I've been to some good haunted houses, too."

An hour before opening night came to an end, Rusnak's biggest fan finally showed up.

"She doesn't like the loud noise, but she lets the characters hold her," Rusnak said, cradling his 1-year-old little girl.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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