Gordon Wise is talking to me, but all I can focus on are the knives. There are hatchets, daggers, and something resembling a DIY katana Japanese sword displayed just above his right shoulder on the black office wall behind him. I spy a small dusty animal skeleton of unknown species propped atop a bookcase. A dirty Michael Myers mask, some mysterious jarred goo, and a faded Atlas of Human Anatomy accompany the bones on the shelves.
I'm ogling a couple of demented Beethoven busts on the desk to my right and the gruesome scars on a Freddy Krueger mask to my left when Wise's voice pierces my trance. "There's nothing more satisfying than knowing you terrorized a 13-year old," he exclaims, emitting a big belly laugh. There's a mischievous twinkle in this big tattooed fellow's eye, and if the relentless screaming coming from down the hall later that evening proves anything, it's that Wise knows how to frighten San Antonians of all ages.
Fear is the business of Wise, director of operations at Nightmare on Grayson for 15 years. We're sitting in Nightmare headquarters, a crowded office housed in the same giant warehouse as the infamous haunted house. Tonight is Retro Night, a special treat for loyal fans interested in seeing the return of monsters of yore. Through a window to the break room on my right I watch a bloody werewolf drinking coffee.
Founded by Haunted House mogul Gene Braden in 1989, San Antonio's oldest haunted house has been a yearly Halloween pilgrimage for generations of fiends for fear. Based 100 percent on the merits of live actors in a hodge-podge of campy settings, the ever-evolving attraction has a loyal fan base, keeping business relatively consistent throughout the years.
Lines constantly pour down the sidewalk, the busiest night on record bringing 4,000 customers one evening in 2007. The popular haunted house and its dedicated staff have watched their neighborhood explode before their eyes in recent years, however, bringing soaring property values and gentrification. It's been enough to force management to make the difficult decision to close Nightmare on Grayson. This is the group's final year.
"You know, when we moved into this neighborhood in 1989 this was probably one of the worst neighborhoods in the city of San Antonio," says Wise. "It was deserted. There were prostitutes. There was graffiti. There was unkept property."
Considering themselves stewards of the neighborhood, Grayson employees took pride in their surroundings. "We moved in and started cleaning up the neighborhood. We would go around cutting grass at all these lots and sidewalks where the city wouldn't maintain it, where the owners wouldn't maintain their own property." Wise speaks proudly of his accomplishments. "I had a can of paint in my shop for every building down Grayson. For every color building. And we would paint over the graffiti every time we saw it the very next day."
After overcoming a rocky start with their new affluent neighbors at the revitalized Pearl Brewery, however, Wise says the two entities developed a supportive relationship. The Pearl Brewery allows Nightmare on Grayson attendees to use their parking space. In return, Grayson management strives to keep their noise to a minimum and maintains a neat appearance.
Mike Franklin has been working security at Grayson for 16 years. "We're sad, but things change, things evolve," he says. "The property is worth more than the business. That happens all over, all the time. This place is real high profile so you know about it, but every day in San Antonio there's a little business that goes down because the property's gotten so valuable that the business just has to move. I'll miss it. I mean, I'll really miss it."
While management is keen on finding a future space for Nightmare on Grayson, they're not holding their breath. Fellow haunted house managers from across the city (they're brothers, not rivals, according to Wise) have been invited to scavenge Grayson's meticulously curated resources that have accumulated over the years. That puts the freaky masks and suits made by San Antonian Face Off contestants Joe Castro and Sergio Martinez for Grayson up for grabs. As are the boxes full of doorknobs, anonymous dental impressions, and innumerable oddities collected by workers over the years.
On November first, the countdown begins. The crew will have 90 days to hide all haunting traces from the premises to make way for new development. Of course, no one can take the memories.
The three couples who have gotten married at the haunted house will always have their photos. The Insane Clown Posse signing will forever live on in the hearts of San Antonio juggalos. The epic visit from Gunnar Hansen, the O.G. Leatherface, is something that every haunted house will envy for years to come.
"Ain't no-business like the horror business. It's an escape from reality," says longtime employee James Escobar, suggesting a world without Grayson won't stop the horror. "Reality. That's scary. 9/11. That's scary. World War III getting ready to happen in the Middle East. That's scary. Have you seen the price of gasoline? The price of food? That's scary." So, why does a world without popular characters like Jot the Dot, Punkin, zombie Valero agent, and the terrifying Clown-on-stilts, seem scarier yet?
Nightmare on Grayson
7:30-9:30 Thu, Sun-Tue
7:30-11:30 Fri, Sat, Wed
201 E Grayson
Through Oct 31