Buda puts the screws to haunted house

Stephen Laurent, owner/operator of the Nightmare Factory
Stephen Laurent, owner/operator of the Nightmare Factory (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For 19 Halloweens, the Nightmare Factory was one of the leading haunted-house attractions in Central Texas. But this year, owner Stephen Laurent will leave his trademark giant jack-o'-lantern deflated, as the attraction's doors remain padlocked after an argument about safety codes, fire department jurisdictions, and water systems.

Originally located in Austin, including several years on Ben White, Laurent moved the house down I-35 to Buda in 2003. Initially they operated under the jurisdiction of the Hays County fire marshal. But in November 2006, the Nightmare Factory was transferred from the county to the newly formed Hays County Emergency Services District No. 8 under Buda Fire Depart­ment and Fire Marshal Mike Duffey.

In February 2007, Laurent's wife, Sharon, contacted the Buda Fire Department to find out how the change affected them. On May 21, Duffey told the Laurents they had to apply for a new permit under a new set of regulations. Buda had adopted International Fire Code 2003, a set of fire-prevention standards developed by the Interna­tion­al Code Council. Duffey classified the haunt as a special amusement, requiring them to install a sprinkler system, but since they were not on the public water system, this meant building a 210,000-gallon water tank, costing $100,000. "I can't even begin to describe the preposterousness of that," said Laurent. "It would be bigger than the tank that provides water for Buda."

Duffey said the issue was simple: Because the Nightmare Factory did not have sprinklers, it never reached IFC 2003. In previous years, the county fire marshal had decided to allow the attraction to operate without a sprinkler system because of other precautions in place. And Laurent says that when any changes were requested by the county marshal, he simply implemented them. But that lack of a paper trail was an issue for Duffey. "If the county fire marshal had put a prior plan into effect, I would have taken that into account," Duffey said. "But the county didn't have any records of anything, nor did the state, so when we took over, it was like starting from scratch."

That new evaluation took time the Nightmare Factory didn't have. Haunted houses are a seasonal industry, open for a few weeks every fall, but design and construction start in early summer. An operator is investing all year in expectation of a few profitable weeks. Duffey finally informed the Laurents by mail that their application had been rejected on June 19 – three months before the start of the season and too late to retrofit or relocate the house. "I hate the fact that he closed down, but that place gets 10,000 people going through," Duffey said. "That's 10,000 lives that I have to make the right call for."

But Laurent said Duffey never understood how the business operated and noted that last year the haunt attracted 20,000 visitors over five weeks, not 10,000 at one time. Due to strict control of customers through the rooms, plus external cueing, there were around 100 customers and staff inside at any time. "Duffey came out," said Laurent, "but never came into the building, never saw us in operation, never stepped away from his truck, and said, 'If you don't have sprinklers, you won't open this year.'"

On July 30, attempting to salvage the season, Laurent offered an alternate plan to the ESD appeals board that would exceed code in many areas, including having their own fire truck and firefighters on duty. The appeals board rejected these proposals. "On my side, it's either we're going to follow the fire code or not," Duffey said. "There's nothing in the written code that says, 'If there's no sprinkler system, you can have 200 fire extinguishers.'"

According to ICC Senior Regional Manager Kevin Scott, Duffey could classify the haunt as a special amusement and demand sprinklers. However, the language of the code allows fire districts latitude based on the complete safety package, not just one criterion. "It's up to the business owner to come up with some plan, but it would be up to the fire jurisdiction to permit that," said Scott. "While the marshal has it within his jurisdiction to enforce the strictest interpretation of the code, he also has it within his jurisdiction to look at the overall safety picture and balance it."

Laurent said this season was unsalvageable, and the wasted investment in preparing for this year made it unlikely he could open next year. Instead, he was considering selling the props and Nightmare Factory brand as a going concern. However, he remained frustrated with the process and added, "I begged them, 'If you're going to shut me down, just shut me down; don't tell me we're going to sort something out.' But they stringed us along all summer long. It's just politics and bullshit that forced us out."

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haunted house, Nightmare Factory, Stephen Laurent, Hays County Emergency Services District No. 8, Mike Duffey

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