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Student’s haunted house turns screams into dollars

Courtesy of Nick Francis

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be buried alive or chased by your worst nightmare through a maze of horror? One Ohio State student is cashing in on people’s desire to be scared.

Nick Francis, a second-year in marketing, is the brain behind The Fear Experience, a three-part haunted house in Cleveland featuring two large-scale haunts and a buried-alive simulation.

Francis said he has been obsessed with all things spooky for as long as he can remember.

“We all had a Halloween party every year for friends and family, and the Halloween parties kept getting bigger and bigger,” Francis said. “We always had a little haunted house that I would put together.”

Francis said he realized the business potential of his haunted houses after he entered a competition called “Home Is Where the Haunt Is” for the best homemade haunted house in the country.

The nearly 3,000 square-foot set-up in Francis’s yard was so successful, that the city told him he could no longer use his yard for the haunt, Francis said. So Francis went commercial.

“We went into a commercial building, we paid rent and we did all that and it kind of took off from there,” Francis said.

For the next two years, Francis teamed up with the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a haunt in Toledo, Ohio, and then in Cleveland, Ohio. Before cutting ties with the charity, Francis said he raised about $17,000 for Make-A-Wish.

“After that, we said, ‘Let’s go even bigger,'” Francis said. “We wanted to be able to make it a more intense haunted house and kind of take it a little bit over the top and wanted to be able market to that demographic that wants a scarier haunted house.”

The Fear Experience this year had about 80 people on staff and scared about 10,000 customers in a 6-week period, Francis said.

Running a commercial haunt, Francis said he learned a lot about how to run a company versus a fundraising opportunity.

“It’s our first year being a for-profit company, and we’re learning a lot being on our own, not having everything handed to us,” Francis said. “It’s a different ballgame, and we’re learning that quick.”

Francis said about $50,000 went into the haunted house this year, and they made almost all of it back, with the biggest expense being payroll.

“We’re now kind of in the stage where we’ve had a great year, we’ve learned that this thing can make money,” Francis said. “We’ve learned enough and proved enough to ourselves now that I think we’re ready to take it to the ultimate level of either buying a commercial building and setting up there permanently … or buying a plot of land and make an outdoor thing or something.”

Jim Francis, Nick Francis’s father, said he helps his son build the business by investing, as well as working the haunt.

“It’s just been a family thing, and he’s just taken it to the next level,” Jim Francis said. “It’s just been growing every year.”

Nick Francis’s mother, Randy Francis, said her son has taken on a lot of responsibility by working hard in college, but also running this business while still in school.

“I think it’s fantastic that they started out really young,” she said. “He’s got the ambition, he’s got the intelligence and the motivation to run it and I’m just really proud of him.”

Randy and Jim Francis agree their son’s business has the potential to compare to the best haunted houses in the state, which bring in about 5,000 people a night, and they are in full support of The Fear Experience.

Nick Francis said success doesn’t come just from marketing techniques and investors.

“What really sets us apart is our actors and our makeup artists. We have some of the best people in the industry,” Nick Francis said.

With the Halloween season over, Nick Francis said he has mixed emotions about closing down for the year.

“At this point, running on 6 weeks of no sleep, I couldn’t be happier that I’ll get to enjoy an OSU football game, finally,” he said. “This year was good, but we have to up the ante even more, and it’s kind of rough knowing you have to wait an entire year before you can open your doors and prove yourself.”

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