Photography by Don Kadair
POSITION Owner and artistic director
COMPANY The 13th Gate
ADDRESS 832 St. Phillip St.
WHAT THEY DO Haunted house and escape games
NEXT GOALS Implement virtual reality into attractions
Like a lot of people, Dwayne Sanburn was a teenager when he first visited a haunted house. But unlike most teens, Sanburn didn’t just want to take another pass through the attraction as soon as he hit the exit—he wanted to create and operate his own. “I eat, sleep and breathe Halloween.” He spent a decade pursuing a career in nursing—his second love—and perfecting his business plan before opening The 13th Gate in downtown Baton Rouge in 2002. During his nursing days, Sanburn ran a haunted house in Alexandria in his free time. In 1998, he expanded to Baton Rouge by working with the Louisiana 4-H Club to operate large, portable haunted houses on the LSU campus. By 2001, he felt the market could support a permanent attraction and a year later he opened The 13th Gate on St. Phillip Street. It has evolved and expanded through the years to include new attractions, such as the Necropolis 13 New Orleans-cemetery that’s adjacent to the haunted house. “This is my entire life here; this haunted house.”
Sanburn’s unsurpassed dedication to his craft is evidenced by the accolades that continue to pile up. Over the past 15 years, The 13th Gate has been ranked as the No. 1 haunted house in the country three times by industry trade publications, and it has consistently ranked among the top 10 over the past decade. It has been featured on the Travel Channel as well as in some of the largest newspapers in the country. The stories all rightfully highlight the attraction’s keen attention to detail, realistic sets and professional actors. “I had the opportunity to be on the set of a horror movie and it opened my eyes to a new way of building haunted houses like movie sets.” Sanburn hires scene and set designers with professional filmmaking experience to present an attraction so lifelike that patrons sometimes can’t tell whether what they’re experiencing is real or not. “I can tell you right away that the reason we have been so successful is the people who’ve been working for me are very dedicated to this place.” This season, Sanburn is excited about offering new terrors set around a full-size pirate ship and a realistic London wharf.
‘TRIAL AND TERROR’
Contrary to most assumptions, operating a haunted house is anything but seasonal work. As soon as Halloween passes, Sanburn immediately begins working on outdoing himself the next year. “As soon as we close it, we’re back at it again.” As Sanburn sees it, his attraction is never really complete, so the work is never truly finished. Year round, he employs upwards of 20 people, ranging from costumers and sculptors to carpenters and scene artists. But come autumn, it takes a small army to actually operate the haunted house. In September, Sanburn casts upwards of 230 people, along with makeup artists, hair stylists, stage managers and security. Each night, it takes about 200 people to terrorize the masses, many of whom wait in line for upwards of a few hours on crisp, late-October evenings just to get inside. Although it gets harder to scare people each year, Sanburn says he’s only limited by his imagination. “Trial and terror; that’s what I like to say has gotten me here.”
Over the past two years, Sanburn has also been generating revenue year round by offering immersive escape rooms at The 13th Gate, which spans some 40,000 square feet. They’ve proved just as popular as the haunted house with visitors and critics alike, who last year ranked The 13th Gate as having the nation’s best escape rooms. “The demographic for them is much larger than a haunted house. It is probably the best team building activity that any business can do together.” Although he’s managed to corner the market for seasonal thrills and escape adventures in Baton Rouge, Sanburn doesn’t take his success for granted. “You have to do what you love, no matter how crazy of an idea it is, because when I told people that I wanted to open a haunted house, I can’t tell you the number of crazy stares I got.” Always looking for new ways to make his attraction even more attractive, he’s currently working to introduce virtual reality in the coming months. “I’ll never miss an opportunity to scare somebody. If the opportunity presents itself, you’re in trouble.”