It's hard to think of a time when Boone Hall's towering castle couldn't be seen from Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant. Its construction signals the start of the haunting season and means that pumpkins and ghosts are just around the corner. The temporary fortress, which typically houses half of the four Fright Night attractions, has been gracing the Lowcountry for a decade and has largely been in the control of one man and one man only: Trey Smith.
Smith started the annual event in 2004, and he's been producing it ever since through his company Dream Vision Entertainment — with a two-year hiatus in 2007 and 2008 due to a conflict with another project.
"I had been in Nashville all my life, and my first professional career was an audio engineer, where I also owned and operated my own professional recording studio," Smith says. "In 1990 I was looking for a way to raise some money to fix up the building I had for my studio. I had the idea to open a haunted house, and it was a success. After that I moved my haunted business to a vacant school and began Horror High, which established me in the business professionally."
Eventually Smith set his sights on Charleston. "Boone Hall had a small haunted hayride when I came along, and I talked to them," he says. "They liked what I had to offer, and the rest is history."
But what does it really take to put on Charleston's fright-inducing attraction? "It's a year-round process. We start designing next year, now," Smith explains. "Each year we figure out by Christmas or the first of the year what the design will be." Smith takes inspiration from lots of things. "It could be a photo or trend," Smith says. "I created Zombie Town because of the [zombie] craze." (Side note: this year's Zombie Town, along with the Frightmare Factory, are Smith's two favorite themes he's done at Boone Hall.)
From there, his team of four or five do their research and continue to design for that year's event before starting the actual construction on May 1. "My set-building ability goes back to my studio days as I built four studios, as well as had extensive experience in home remodeling," he says. "From there I developed creative ideas for haunted attractions."
But it's not just determining where to have a clown pop out or a smoke machine. Smith's team is always trying to keep the spooks fresh. At the beginning of August, people driving by typically start to see the attractions go up around Zombie Town and the haunted house. It's also around this time that Smith starts putting in extra long hours and working seven days a week.
It's not just the construction Smith has to worry about. He goes through approximately 300 applications for actors at the Halloween mainstay. And in order to make sure that Fright Nights has the best performers, Smith and his team interview each wannabe ghoul or ghost, ask selected prospects back for a tryout, and then bring the final A-list back for a dress rehearsal. Every night, Boone Hall uses 65 actors — on the weekends, they may use up to 75 — and it takes each actor about two hours to go through makeup and costuming. The scare team ranges in age from 16 to in the 60s, with an average age of 21 or 22.
"All actors are paid based on each night performed, and they make, on average, better than minimum wage. And if they're good, much better," Smith says.
All of which is to say, Boone Hall's Fright Nights is a massive production. But at the end of the day, Smith just wants to scare and entertain you — with some gore thrown in. "The fear of fear is almost stronger than fear itself, you know," Smith explains. "We just try to create fun, energetic entertainment that you can only get this time of year."
Boone Hall Fright Nights runs through Nov. 1. For more information, visit boonehallfrightnights.com.