Billy Groeneveld still remembers his first haunted house. It was 1972, and he was dressed like a pirate. When he stepped into a neighbor’s garage, he was directed to shove his 7-year-old hands into a bowl of cold spaghetti and feel the “brains.” Then he groped around a bowl of peeled grapes labeled “eyeballs.” Just when he thought it couldn’t get any better, he stepped out of the garage and his neighbor handed him a hot dog.
Billy remembers thinking, “This is the best holiday ever!”
Now age 51, Groeneveld and his wife Karen operate Enigma Haunt, a 20,000-square-foot haunted house in Boca Raton. This year, the Scare Factor named it the best haunted house in Florida and the second best in the country. This was based on a poll of 80,000 haunt fans across the U.S.
Groeneveld and Karen weren't always haunted house operators. Billy has been a stock trader for 25 years and is now the president of vFinance Investments, a Boca trading firm. Karen is a yoga instructor and personal trainer. But 17 Halloweens ago, on their front porch, they started setting up scenes to spook trick-or-treaters. Just as in Billy’s childhood memory, after they were done scaring people, they handed out hot dogs.
Over the years, the porch setup grew and spilled over into a maze that ran through the house and into the backyard. Eventually, the Groenevelds were handing out close to 1,000 hot dogs each Halloween.
“We really couldn’t go any bigger in the house,” Karen explained. Turning to Billy, she added, “As soon as you started drilling holes into the bannister to put stuff up, it was time to get out of there.”
So in 2012, they rented out space in a Boca strip mall, formerly home to a Bally’s gym, and started converting the aerobics studios and racket ball courts into insane asylums and postapocalyptic wastelands.
Billy says he and Karen try to make the scenes in Enigma Haunt as close to tasteful as you can get in the haunted house business. After all, he’s always liked the creepiness and suspense of movies like The Grudge and The Ring more than the blood and guts of classic slasher films. The Groenevelds pride themselves most on the details they put into their scenes.
You might not notice, for example, the full stack of National Geographic magazines on the end table next to the faceless corpse reclining in the armchair. You’ll likely walk right by the bottles of Jim Beam on the hillbilly cannibal’s shelf and never pick up on the tombstones in the mausoleum marked for Billy, Karen, and each of their four children. But the Groenevelds figure that on some level, the intricate work they put into each room will resonate with visitors.
“Half the detail, people won’t see,” Karen said. “It kind of makes you want to puke in your mouth.”
“But it all filters into your brain subliminally,” Billy added. “On the night you go through, you may not say, ‘Oh did you see the puke that was sort of coming out over there?’ But if we add in the smell by the puke, maybe somebody is going to recognize it.”
This year, Enigma Haunt will be divided into three zones: Pandemic, a world in which maneating hillbillies have enslaved zombies to do their bidding; Into Oblivion, a neon postapocalyptic maze which aims to distort visitors’ perception; and Realms of Terror, which takes guests through an entire floor of themed scares.
More than 80 actors work Enigma Haunt, and all who do belong to an informal fraternity Billy and Karen have named Enigma Sigma Die. Initiation involves spending long hours building the sets starting in March. There's an added benefit too: All members are invited to group bowling and movie nights. Every time the actors, makeup artists, costume designers, salespeople, and security staff get together, the Groenevelds say, it’s like an extended family reunion.
But most of all, the Groenevelds and their team are looking forward to giving their visitors a scare they'll never forget.
“There’s a whole lot of people around South Florida that can say, ‘I remember my first haunted house. It was Enigma Haunt,’” Billy said. “We get to create those memories.”
Enigma Haunt will open every weekend in October at 1751 N. Military Trl., Boca Raton. The full schedule is on their website. Admission costs $30 for all three attractions or $20 just for Realms of Terror.
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