MARY ESTHER — The Wentz family is taking back their living room.
For the past decade, October has meant their home in the Kenwood neighborhood in Fort Walton Beach was half haunted for the Wentz brothers’ haunted house, in which Alex, Andrew, Daniel and Jake transformed their childhood home into a spooky event for the community. This year, Andrew, 24, and Alex, 26, have moved the concept into a commercial space at the Santa Rosa Mall in Mary Esther.
Last Halloween:Four brothers create annual Haunted House
They are excited about doing a “real” haunted house this year, Alex said.
“Each year there, we’ve got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, but there was a hard limit on how much we were able to do and how many scares we were able to string together and how much decorations we could put up, because they still had to live there,” he said. “Now that we have a commercial space, we can do whatever we want, so bringing out a lot of the ideas we’ve always wanted to do but haven’t been able to. We’ve got a lot of new things that people who have been to our haunted house had never seen before.”
The Wentz Brothers’ Festival of Fears is from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays of October through Halloween weekend, which will include Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, near the north entrance to Santa Rosa Mall at 300 Mary Esther Blvd. Family days are noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday in October, featuring relaxed versions of the haunted house with no scare actors.
Tickets are $15 online at wbfestivaloffears.com and $20 at the door. Guests younger than 13 are best accompanied with an adult.
The Wentz brothers started the tradition after scaring people at their parents’ Halloween parties while growing up. Their 10th year was supposed to be the final one because the brothers were pursuing college or careers, Andrew said.
That is, until they had 1,500 people attend over the course of three nights in 2020.
“We were blown away by everybody coming out and supporting,” Andrew said. “So we just figured, ‘There’s no way we can call it. We’ve gotta continue. We’ve got to keep making it better for everybody who’s already invested into it, for everybody who’s already followed our Facebook page, everybody who’s looking for more, wanting us to grow, and so that’s why we’re doing it.”
This year, Alex and Andrew will run the event under their new digital marketing company, Wentz Industries Media. Their future goal is to create an entertainment subsidy with a permanent haunted house for different holiday themes other than Halloween, Andrew said.
“We wanted to provide that sort of experience that people can come get away from reality for a little bit and have a really cool experience in Fort Walton, just because there’s not too many haunted houses anymore,” he said. “We really don’t see them. Especially after COVID, there haven’t seen many in the Panhandle at all. So that’s another reason we wanted to do it is just to have something fun for everybody to go do in the community.”
Because of the new space, this year’s theme is one they have attempted somewhat unsuccessfully in the past, Andrew said. In it, a doctor has gone missing for 13 years and turned into a beast called Razorback.
“What he’s doing is, he has captured four victims from Fort Walton Beach and is now doing experiments on them, and so it is the job or quest of everybody coming through to help find those missing people,” Andrew said. “The beast is using those victims and basically experimenting on them and transforming them into animal human hybrids. And so, as you’re going throughout the haunted house, you will meet each victim.”
“And then, at the very end, you will encounter Razorback himself,” Alex added.
They began trying to find a space in May, Alex said. When they found out the former Ruby Tuesday location in the mall was available, they were eager to use it as a venue.
Operating in the mall has come with challenges, such as more overhead and liability, Alex said. They had to get insurance and have a fire inspection.
They have raised money through fundraisers with nonprofits, schools, sports teams and other community organizations in which members sold tickets at a higher rate for a profit.
“That’s been one of the really cool things, being able to give back to the community and basically just being really community involved this year with the sponsors, with the fundraisers connection and everything like that,” Andrew said. “As we grow and being outside of our parents’ house, we get to do different things like that.”
At about 5,600-square-feet, the venue also has more space to fill. The haunted house is a quarter of a mile of walking distance inside, which will equate to an estimated 15-minute experience, as opposed to the 5- to 10-minute experience last year, Andrew said.
“There’s a lot more material. There’s a lot more costs, so that’s one of the challenges that we had to work around,” he said. “And then also, there’s a higher demand for labor. We had to go through challenges of finding actors and hiring actors to be able to work in it, doing scheduling, finding the space. But it’s been a great process so far. We’ve had a super fun, super fun process of building it. We’ve done tons of construction inside, lots of decorating. It should be a really cool event.”
While filling the space is a learning curve, they have experience. Again, they have done this for 10 years, Alex said.
“We would do every inch of my parents’ downstairs at their house, all of the backyard, so we’ve been building stuff for it since the very beginning,” he said. “And since 10 years ago when we started, my grandpa helped with a lot of the construction projects, taught us how to do things and worked with us on a lot of that. My dad helped a lot when we were building things, using the power tools, all that kind of stuff. But now since we’ve been practicing that for 10 years, we can do a lot of it on our own.”
Having a blank canvas instead of their parents’ home has been Alex’s favorite part.
“We’ve been in the same location; we couldn’t move any of their walls because it was their house,” Alex said. “We had, more or less, one route we could follow. We would try our best to change things up a bit here and there, but it started becoming very similar because we only do so many things. But now that we’re here in the mall, we have this big open space. We were able to come in here with a pen and pencil, draw out all different kinds of fun, exciting new pathways and challenging scares.”
It is still a family affair. Jake is now in college, but he and Daniel — the other two brothers — still help when they can, Andrew said.
“Our parents, I’m sure, are very happy to have the house back to normal,” Alex said. “I know they’re really excited for the haunted house this year. They’ve both been over here a lot trying to get little sneak peeks and helping paint or put some things up here and there.”
The community is excited, too.
“We’ve got people talking about it on the radio. We have people calling us all the time asking about it, asking when we’re opening,” Alex said. “We can hear people when we’re in here building in the mall, walking by outside and looking at the signs and saying, ‘Oh, those guys are the ones from Kenwood, they did it in their house. We’re super excited now they have a bigger space. It’s gonna be really exciting.’”