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Wicker Manor: Halloween Magic in a Two-Car Garage

Sean Herman's Wicker Manor is open through Halloween.
Sean Herman's Wicker Manor is open through Halloween. Sean Herman
What do most people have in their garage? A grassy mower? A workbench with random tools that weren’t put away? Boxes of books destined for Goodwill? Bikes and a car or two?

Amateurs.

Denver dad and design professional Sean Herman has an entire haunted house.

Wicker Manor began six years ago, when Herman and his wife and kids moved to a house in the Central Park neighborhood (then Stapleton). “It started with a front-yard display,” Herman says, “but it was pretty thorough. We had animatronics and a fog machine and the whole works.” They did that for a couple of years until, Herman says, “the weather got really annoying.”

Such is autumn in Colorado. “You know how it gets,” Herman says. “It’s beautiful one day, and then the next I’d find myself throwing tarps over everything so it wouldn’t get jacked up. I’d invested in some of the more professional-quality props, so if they’re out there in the weather, I’m super nervous. It wasn’t worth the headache.”

Both the weather and security concerns made Herman decide to move the spectacle inside his family's two-car garage. “I figured we could make a walk-through sort of thing instead of just an open display,” he recalls.
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An unfortunate miner...and some dangerous looking dynamite.
Sean Herman
It’s not much space — about 300 usable square feet, since Herman doesn’t remove the spare fridge and tool bench he keeps there year-round. But he fills it up as much as he can, building a total of five rooms in the garage. He rotates the theme every few years; the first was a Victorian haunt that emulated Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and provided the name Wicker Manor. The second has a Haunted Gold Mine storyline, which he first tried last year and is repeating this year, complete with greedy tycoons, doomed miners, a falling elevator and a deadly mystery.

Once greeted by Herman, decked out in mining gear and speaking in a Western prospector accent, visitors come into an entry room and are led into what looks very much like a mine shaft elevator. “It’s super realistic,” Herman says. He created the effect with a motion simulator box “on airbags...with 3-D animation that shows up on a TV screen, sequenced to the motion,” he explains. The resulting effect seems to take visitors deep down into a very haunted abandoned mine. There they explore the remaining rooms: a hallway tunnel, a tall cave that Herman calls the "Dynamite Explosion Cave," and an exit through a cemetery. The tour takes about five minutes to complete, though the level of detail will make many want to linger.

“There’s a whole lot to look at,” says Herman. “When you’re in there, it definitely feels much, much bigger than a two-car garage.”

And it’s not just the detail work on the props that gets Herman’s complete attention. Everything gets considered in the creative process, right down to the patches on the clothing that he and those working the attraction wear. “I embroidered patches with our gold mine logo for all the miners,” he says, referring not only to the living, but also the animatronic dead that fill the spaces. That logo was inspired by similar patches from Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a roller coaster with an Old West mining theme. “It’s even printed on the boxes of dynamite,” Herman adds with a pleased grin.

He generally works the attraction himself, with his wife and two kids helping where they can. A new attraction takes almost six months to create, while mounting one that's previously been made could take roughly six weeks. But putting it together is all part of the fun. "Neighbor kids will come by and watch, sometimes want to help," Herman says. "It's inspiration for some kid down the line to want to envision something and build it, whatever it might be."

Herman was that kid himself once. While his love for detail comes from his work as a web designer, his passion for horror has been homegrown in Colorado. He grew up in Longmont, and says he’s always been a Halloween guy. He credits his older brother as the main inspiration for his love of a good scare.

“We grew up listening to Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM. Or he did, anyway, and he let me listen with him. It was dark stuff, but we loved it. I’m surprised now I was allowed to listen to it, as young as I was. But that led to my brother and I heading out to some of the haunted houses in town," he says.
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It really is just a two-car garage.
Sean Herman
“The very first one I went to was in Skyline High School," he recalls. "I don’t know if it was put on by the drama team or some outside company that just used their gymnasium, but there was something about that experience, when I was so young — maybe ten? — that just petrified me, in a really cool way. I mean, it was cheesy, but there was something about it that stuck with me.”

The first professional haunted house Herman remembers was the Alice Cooper/Brutal Planet at Elitch Gardens back in 1999. “That was equally inspiring to me," he enthuses. "The first one was like, ‘Hey, this exists!’ and that second one was like, ‘Holy crap, this is crazy!’ It was stimulus overload in the best sort of way.”

Still, he lost track of those youthful passions until he bought his first house. “You get this idea that you should decorate,” he says. “'We should probably put up some stuff in the front yard' — and then it starts to snowball.”

He doesn't do it for the money: The tours are completely free, even though the attraction costs thousands of dollars to create, let alone run. Wicker Manor does collect donations for a new charity each year, however. In the past, proceeds have gone to organizations that support Black Lives Matter or fight climate change. This year, Herman's charity of choice is Denver’s own Judi’s House, the grief-counseling nonprofit created by former Broncos quarterback Brian Griese to support children and families through times of loss.

In the end, Herman's enthusiasm stems from being a self-professed “big Disney nerd,” as well as a dad. “There’s no gore,” he's careful to point out. “It’s more spooky and creepy. More ‘What’s around the corner?’ kind of scares. No one’s going to come at you with a knife or anything.

"There’s not much of that available in town — that sort of Disneyland experience, where the parking is easy and the bathrooms are spotless and the experience is just as cool if you’re in a wheelchair," he says. "And [Wicker Manor is] something that’s honestly all-ages. Kids can see it, and adults will think it’s cool, too. There’s nothing wrong with a haunted house that’s super intense and meant for teenagers and young adults, but there’s a much bigger audience that I want to reach. No one’s really doing that in Colorado.”

To that end, Herman says that his plans are to move out of the two-car garage relatively soon. “I want to either find a space big enough,” he says, “or find a piece of land and build.”

He’s even considering moving his family to a rural spot with enough land for a residence as well as an attraction, similar to Anderson Farms up in Erie. “Ultimately, that’s the goal," he says. "So there’s a possibility, if we figure out what we want to do, that this could be the last year in the garage. But we’ll see.”

It's clear that Sean Herman is a guy with both creative ideas and follow-through, scary style. “For me, Halloween is a way to depart from your everyday," he says. "Put on a different face. Make someone react a certain way. Transporting people to a different place. That’s what it’s all about.”

Wicker Manor is ongoing through Halloween. For the address and hours, see the Wicker Manor website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen

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