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Midvale Journal

Backyard Midvale haunt joins forces with Kuwahara’s Pumpkin Patch in Draper

Nov 23, 2020 11:34AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Autumn Burton (left) and Max Burton operate Thriller Manor at Kuwahara’s Pumpkin Patch and Thriller Park in Draper. (Sarah Morton Taggart/City Journals)

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

Some Midvale residents might remember a backyard haunted house called Scared Haunt that began in October 2010 and went on hiatus after 2016. This year the renamed Thriller Manor frightened young and old alike at a new location at Kuwahara’s Pumpkin Patch and Thriller Park in Draper.

After retiring from designing sets and co-owning a professional haunted house, Max Burton’s daughter talked him into setting up a small haunt in her yard. The following year he bought a house across the street and expanded the haunt. Spencer Mears, a neighbor, offered to help with puppets, lighting, sound effects and security. The show was wildly popular, with new rooms and special effects each year. The haunt was featured in local radio and television news programs, but also raised concerns among neighbors. 

After six years, the haunt had grown to 4,500 square feet and attracted as many as 5,000 visitors per season. The show had outgrown Burton’s yard on Princeton Avenue and he couldn’t find a more suitable location. After an unsuccessful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and other attempts to raise funds to lease a building, Burton decided to put the show up for sale. But two days before he was planning to post the listing, Burton met Alex Kuwahara and suddenly there was a feasible way to keep his haunted house running.

“My son-in-law came out for an interview to work in the nursery on Aug. 8,” Burton said. “I saw them starting to set up the pumpkin patch and we got to talking. It was just a chance meeting. They say that sometimes God wakes up and smiles at someone. Well, that day he smiled and pointed at me and Alex.”

Burton began setting up on Sept. 1 and opened the show on Sept. 25.

Kuwahara and his family have been operating Kuwahara’s Pumpkin Patch and Thriller Park at their farm at 12153 S. 700 West in Draper for years. The annual tradition includes live performances, paintball, food trucks, activities for kids and more.

“This year we partnered with Scared Haunt to make our haunted house portion of our fall fest even better,” said a Facebook post by Kuwahara Wholesale. “Some of the proceeds go toward benefitting Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake.”

In addition to sharing space, Burton and Kuwahara shared people and skills.

“When I got out here we grew into a big family,” Burton said. “We trade actors when we need help. I build for him, he builds for me. We combined the two shows.”

Thriller Manor featured a series of semi-enclosed outdoor rooms and hallways plus a spooky walk through a corn maze. At one point participants passed through a mausoleum built of foam bricks that was once the entrance to the Scared Haunt in Midvale. Terrifying dummies alternated with actors who would jump out. 

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, all actors wore masks to cover their nose and mouth.

“We heard people say after going through that they could tell who the real people were because they were wearing masks,” said Autumn Burton, Max Burton’s daughter. “So we put masks on the dummies.”

A section of the corn stalks had to be reinforced after frightened guests tried to crash through it to get away from a particularly scary actor.

Thriller Manor also let kids of all ages who aren’t quite as brave tour the show from 5 to 7 p.m. “We don’t jump out at them,” Burton said. “The lights are on and the kids can just look at the props. I tell them the only thing that’s real is my beard.”

With the move to Kuwahara Farms, Burton was able to start charging $10 per ticket. The show also operates seven days a week through the end of October, which is a lot to coordinate when it requires 30 to 40 actors each night. All actors began as volunteers, but the show was successful enough in the early weeks to pay some of them. Burton hopes to pay all of the actors next year and have them work on a set schedule.

“I’d say that two-thirds of our staff are family members,” Burton said. “My cousins, who are real old-timers, come out and we are terrifying. We come at you from everywhere. I don’t need screams in my soundtrack. When you hear someone scream, that’s real.”

The age of actors in the original show ranged in age from 2 to 82. This year, the actors included four generations of one family. “The 4-year-old buries barbie dolls in the dirt,” Burton said. “Her mom, great-grandma and grandpa are all in the show.”

The original haunt was not able to charge money due to its location in a residential area, so instead they asked for donations of food or cash. Mears estimated that the show collected thousands of pounds of food for a local food pantry and over $1,000 for Shriners Hospitals.

The haunt was also a haven for kids that didn’t fit in anywhere else.

“A cousin’s daughters were dropping out of high school,” Burton said. “They were done. They were teased for being goth girls. But when classmates saw them in the show, they were suddenly cool. Now one is in the FBI, the other is an attorney and the other wants to be a public defender.”

Burton also invited children from the neighborhood to volunteer as actors. “We had low-income kids working the show and bringing in food for their families,” Burton said. “We do this as a family and treat all the kids like our own.”

Mears echoed that sentiment in a Facebook post. “In the haunted house we put on, we took at-risk youth…We gave them a safe place to be able to make friends and feel accepted. I’m so glad to hear that doing something fun for the community had resulted in helping some of our local youth turn their lives around and be in a better place than they started.”

Burton also scared people as a teenager, if in a somewhat less organized way.

“I’ve been scaring my whole life,” Burton said. “Back in the ’60s at the Fort Union Cemetery I had a grave hollowed out that I would play in.” He also claims to be a prankster behind the urban legends of the haunted Old Mill near Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Burton grew up just outside Midvale in what is now Cottonwood Heights and began working for his father and brother.

“I’ve had a crazy career,” Burton said. “Same boss, 30 different jobs.” The jobs ranged from collecting rare bird eggs to building high-end custom houses. Along the way, Burton raised three daughters.

“My two older daughters joined haunted houses as volunteers,” he said. “That’s how I got started in haunting. I started hanging around, started building things. My daughters grew up, went to school, and I stayed.”

His youngest daughter, Autumn, who lives in Riverton is now owner of Scared Haunt. She attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco and uses her skills to build props and design backgrounds. One of her specialties is creating elaborate corpse sculptures. She starts with a cheap plastic skeleton from a Halloween-theme store and builds layers of toilet paper, latex and painter’s plastic to create what looks like rotting flesh.

“We’re here every day,” Burton said. “We get here at 11 in the morning and get home at 11 at night. But I live for this. I’ll be so exhausted I can’t even open my eyes. But that first person of the night that I scare…the adrenaline. I’m good for the month.”

Even with the hard work and long hours, Burton wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You’ll find me on Christmas morning in the basement building coffins.”