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One Big Bloody Family
October 29th, 2008

A look into the Castle of Chaos and how they are providing a surrogate family for kids who need guidance.

story from the other side by Jason Miller  Edited by Richard Markosian



'big John' at the Castle of Chaos
'Big John' at the Castle of Chaos

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The Castle of Chaos is promoted as being the scariest haunted house in Utah: blood and gore are supplied in ample quantity satisfying the demand for what Utah residents wish to see.

"Big John" is the genius behind the production. Working as a Hollywood set designer for the past twenty years, John has provided much of the gore found in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie starring Johnny Depp.

One might assume working for a man who is 6'7 and 300 pounds and the go-to-guy when it comes to realistic gore and horror, Big John might be scary. But this castle is not what it seems. John wears a t-shirt with the words "SECURITY" across the front. Certainly John provides security for folks who enter his haunt as customers, but John also is providing a secure family-type environment for the actors who work for him. When John talks about the young adults that volunteer at his haunted house his demeanor is like a proud parent. John says, "I don't use the word 'love' very often but some of the kids who work here have hearts of gold, and I love 'em to death."

Terror might be the profit-making mission of COC (Castle of Chaos), but thanks to the man behind the terror, the COC is also providing mentors and roll models for young adults whose parents either don't care or are too busy. "If I don't care about them nobody else will," Says John.

The actors involved at COC are not your typical young adults, many come from broken or abusive families. Volunteering under John offers a drug-free, safe place to go at night under a mentor who teaches the kids, "how to be decent human beings." John says he isn't very religious but he does believe in traditional values such as treating people with respect.

It's quite an ironic twist on a place with claustrophobic-inducing spaces and blood splattered walls (its actually Caro syrup with red coloring), but its clear that the young volunteers working at COC have strong affection for the man with whom they work. Tim Sabuco says, "This place is my social life...Playing the part of an alter boy is a massive stress reliever. Alter boy's job is to lock participants into coffins, often inducing panic attacks.

Chris Hanson working on a vampire
Chris Hanson working on a vampire

John tells me about a boy who volunteered at the COC, who was regularly showing up bruised and battered. John says he won't tolerate abuse and calls the police when necessary. But his focus ist to provide a safe place for kids who have reason to be scared. John says at COC there is no worry of fistfights or abusive behavior.

Creating a terror show with blood, ghouls and demons is cathartic for the kids involved. They take their work very seriously: some look like living dead, others appear like manacle deranged lunatics. The end result is one of the most popular and highest rated haunted houses in the country.

Attractions include: X-Scream: a blood and gory maze where actors throw blood on participants; 3-D Terror: an interactive portion of the maze where 3-D glasses cause images on the walls to float in mid air. COC also offers a year-round Murder Mystery and other interactive attractions where patrons roam through a Clue-like environment to solve the mystery of how to kill the vampire. With the new family friendly additions to COC, one wonders if perhaps the castle is going soft and straying a bit away from their original mission.

In regards to the other family friendly shows, financier James Bernard said, "I realized it was going to take a long time to raise money going against the grain. I tried to do a haunted house that I thought would fit the culture of Utah, and discovered I was wrong. Utah is not afraid of blood, guts or gore - not at all. People want to be scared during Halloween, and that's why we did it. It is a business and I have to give the customers what they want. I am happy to do so."

the completed vampire
Completed vampire by Chris Hansen

But it's not all about money. COC is a huge success and brings in a lot of money every night, with lines that stretch all the way to the corner of West Temple and 3300 South. But COC is actually a non-profit organization that gives to charities all over Utah such as The Boys and Girls Club of the Great Salt Lake, and many others. James, John and the rest of COC want to give back to the community. Besides being a community man John is also a family man.

John says a few years ago he thought he had enough of haunted houses and decided to retire. "I thought I would hunt and try doing what normal people do." But he couldn't do it. He says his wife basically told him to go back to work, because he was driving her crazy. "[haunted houses] are too much a part of who I am now." John says since having a child of his own, traveling around the country producing special effects for movies is no longer so much fun "I want to be able to go home and night and see my kid." So he has come up with a new idea: have the movies come to him.

As a world-class set builder John says he is in talks with directors and producers over building sets for upcoming movies in Utah. Asking John about retirement now he says, "I probably have at least 20-25 years left in me. I'll retire from haunted houses when I can't walk anymore."
story from the other side

story from the other side

The actors and kids that John's haunted house has provided safety for will without a doubt remain for a long time to come.

About Making the Short Documentary

The short film that accompanies this article was made with the help of many people: My niece Aijla, Jonny Glines, Jason Miller, Maria Navas, Jose and all the great folks at the Castle of Chaos. The short will be airing on KJZZ (channel 14) October 31st, between 7:30-8:00 A.M. It will also air as a podcast short on Utah Free Media begining the week of November 3rd.

Its probably not hard to tell from watching the film that this was one of the funnest shorts I've ever done. It was a real pleasure to spend time with John and the actors and get to know them. It was such a motley crew of people but they all obviously have great passion for the rolls they play.

Story Comments

From Jen

This article is very well written but some of the things i have read here, I dont think I can say I really like. If you really look at it, Big John is the Special effects manager and security for COC. He is a really great man and has done alot of castle but from what I didnt see in this story are the inputs from the guys who really put this Haunt together. One of which being a great guy named, Max Burton (Co-Owner) and there are some things about James Bernard (owner) but not alot. COC is a great place to work and we put together a really great family there. Another thing that kinda bothered me is that quote "If I don't care about them nobody else will," Why would you put that into a story making families think, "HEY! my kid works there, and I still care for him/her"

We love being role models for these young adult and will always be there to help them with anything, its just not a good thing to put out there saying "I will care for you, just cuz no one else will" to anyone. I started working there because I started hanging out with a bad crowd and got into some bad things and almost got my 2 boys taken away, so i got out of it and went to Castle, made good friends there and now im a very happy person. This place really helped me with alot of things in my life.. Most of the kids here at COC DO NOT come from horrible homes, there are ALOT of good kids down here.
"John offers a drug-free, safe place to go at night under a mentor who teaches the kids" I think I would have that statemet is somewhat wrong, I think in that sentance you should have really put "Max Burton (co owner) and James Bernard (owner) create a safe enviroment and are the true mentors of the Place. Don't get me wrong, Big John does help with teaching the young adults and helping them with whatever they need but I personally think, it is the owners that keep the kids in line.

There are alot of wrong statements in this article, but i am not one to say that the job was done wrong. its a good article, just a bunch of statements wrong. sorry to keep this comment going so long, I just read over it and said to myself " wow! when did that happend?" and " why would someone say that?" Thank you for letting me leave this comment!


Thanks for the comments and additional insight. But I don't think that the article is indicating that everyone who works at the castle has family problems. Where we indicate John's quote we make it clear that he provides caring for the kids who have parents who either don't care or are too busy. The video also demonstrated that there are plenty of actors who don't have troubled families. The refuge that John and the other owners and leaders are providing for the actors is the angle of our story because that was the most ironic, fascinating part of the Castle; still your comments are appreciated.

From Jeff C

Thanks for taking an unusual look at a caring man and halloween house.

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