One Halloween, around the time he was 14, John Bersuch decided he wanted to do something big.
For the next week, he spent hours decorating with gravestones in the yard and stuffed dummies hung from trees. As dusk fell on Halloween night, he took a seat on the family porch, dressed as a dummy, eager to spring to life and terrify the night’s stream of trick-or-treaters.
So he waited …
And waited …
And waited …
“No one showed up,” says Bersuch, who grew up in Lee’s Summit. “For four hours, I just sat there as this dummy, waiting for someone to come.”
In the years since, his desire to go big on All Hallow’s Eve hasn’t faltered, and the crowds have grown significantly.
For five years, he has transformed his home into an elaborately planned haunted house, the centerpiece of a giant Halloween party some locals describe as the city’s best.
On a weeknight earlier this month, Bersuch, dressed in all black with a Coors Light in one hand and a cigarette in the other, trekked through his 5,000-square-foot West Bottoms loft detailing his plans for this year’s Halloween party. Even in its earliest stages, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the haunted house’s size and attention to detail.
Covering roughly half of the loft’s considerable floor space, the haunted house is built around a sturdy wooden frame with winding hallways that Bersuch has outfitted with a detailed sound and speaker system, a couple fog machines, a carefully arranged leaf-blower, some fake corpses, a lot of severed heads and a pair of ominous-looking doors. All are used to make the experience as enjoyable (or unenjoyable, depending on your perspective) as possible.
Bersuch traces his infatuation with the dark side to his parents’ divorce when he was in grade school. Things like death metal and Halloween offered a welcome distraction, and so he grew up immersing himself in everything from horror movies to creepy collectibles. He lived for Oct. 31. He is still a fan of popular public West Bottom haunted houses like the Beast and the Edge of Hell, though he prefers to frequent them alone because, as he puts it, “if you go with a girl, they’ll just scare her and then say hi to you.” A vast collection of horror-themed props and decorations fill his own home year-round.
There are skeletons and assorted masks, operating tables and fake corpses constructed by friend Melissa Birdsong. He hoards just about anything that can be construed as creepy or odd, and he’s still smarting about the fact that some of his building materials were ruined when they sustained water damage while in storage.
The idea to build his own haunted house came in 2005, when a friend turned his home into a makeshift house of horrors and invited friends to walk through.
The following year, Bersuch built his own, using black plastic sheets for walls, and this first effort was just a shell of what was to come. The next year, he used a combination of black plastic and wood walls, and the year after that, he shifted to a more solid infrastructure, complete with wooden framework and walls made of eucaboard, a high-density fiber board. He has sought to make each year’s house a little better, a little scarier, a little more in-depth than the last.
Three years ago, he moved to a house in Olathe and then to a place off Truman Road, neither of which was conducive to transforming into a haunted house. This inability to feed his creative side was his primary motivation for moving back to the West Bottoms in March.
“It sucked,” he says. “I went to the big haunted houses a couple times to get my fix, but it was pretty depressing.”
Now situated back in a suitably scary space that features, along with its naturally creepy facade, four live bats, Bersuch has poured himself back into the unenviable task of creating a haunted palace from scratch.
To pay for this year’s project, which he estimates will cost him about $1,500 (the lumber alone cost around $1,200), he sold his moog synthesizer. In addition to his day job at Guiding Light Electric, Bersuch is a member of roughly seven local bands, including Bacon Shoe, the Caves, The Water Moccasins and [Of] Tree.
One friend occasionally brings over discarded props from the Coterie Theatre and another helps set up speakers and sound effects, but the haunted house is primarily a solo endeavor.
On weeknights, Bersuch works on the house when he gets home from work around 6 p.m. until 3 or 4 in the morning. On weekends, he’ll sometimes work through the night and catch up on sleep during the day.
“I get up at 5:30, so a lot of times he’s just going to bed,” says roommate John Ferguson. “And then he goes to work by 10. So it’s something else.”
So conscious is he of the quality of the experience that Bersuch sought the help of friend Jeremy Cerda to record his own sound effects, so that when visitors walk through, a creaking door or creepy cackle seem authentic.
He’s particularly excited about this year’s house, which he insists is his best effort yet: a confusing maze of hallways, ramps and hidden doors and traps.
When he was unable to build his houses the last two years, he made mental lists of ideas he’d like to try on his next go-round. Unlike years past, he began building more than a month ahead of time, giving himself plenty of time to plan out some of the house’s more nuanced aspects.
“Every time he gets new ideas and a little deeper into it,” says friend Scott “Rex” Hobart, who supplied dozens of discarded Coterie Theatre pieces to this year’s house. “So I don’t think anybody that’s been to one of the other ones is going to get bored.”
In addition to the haunted house, which visitors will immediately venture through upon their arrival, this year’s party will feature music from bands Bloodfeast, Rat Salad and Umberto. The party, which kicks off at around 9 p.m. on Oct. 26, is invite-only, but Bersuch said that those interested in seeing the final product could reach out to him via Facebook or email email@example.com.
As for plans for the haunted house post-Halloween, there is talk of salvaging it for one more event this year.
Ferguson’s girlfriend has a collection of creepy Santa Claus decorations, and the two roommates have begun to devise ways to use them. The idea is to keep a lot of the house intact but transition the Halloween-theme into a creepy Christmas house.
Says Bersuch, excitedly, “(Ferguson’s) already started making this giant chair for Santa to sit in …”
— Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 816.234.4039. You can follow him on twitter at @duganarnett .