Ray Don Mitchell, pictured with his cast of strigoi, has completely redesigned both the sets and the characters at the Screams haunted house theme park. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Ray Don Mitchell wants to make you scream

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
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When Ray Don Mitchell took over as creative director last January of Screams, the Halloween “haunted park” that takes over the grounds of Scarborough Renaissance Festival every October, it was a homecoming of sorts. He was, after some 20-plus years, back where he began his career as a fright expert.

“I have come full circle,” Mitchell said, “and I am glad to be back.”

Growing up different can be challenging in even the best circumstances. For a gay boy growing up in a tiny Texas town, it can be crushing. Mitchell said he was “very fortunate to come from an intelligent family. But at the same time, I was miserable, being gay in school” in a small town just south of Waxahachie, a town that even today has a population of less than 2,000.

Because he was so miserable, Mitchell said, he dropped out of school after 8th grade. Instead, he turned his attention full time to what he loved.

“Everything was about art and creativity,” he said. “That’s all I really cared about. But then I realized, if I wanted to make a living at it, I had to turn on the business side of my brain, too.”
Then, “about 20-some-odd years ago,” when Screams first opened, Mitchell and his best friend, Frances O’Daniel Woodruff, saw an article in the Waxahachie newspaper about the new attraction. “We loved haunted houses, so we called them up and offered our services” as makeup artists and set designers, he said.

But at the time, he said, Screams consisted of traveling “tent shows” that came in “turn-key” — in other words, the attractions came ready to go, with little to nothing for the local operators to do.

“They were intrigued by what we had to offer, but they said there wasn’t really anything we could do. Then, somebody said, ‘You know, we don’t have a kids’ area,” and asked if we could do that. Of course, we jumped on it,” Mitchell recalled, adding, “That was our very first job in the Halloween industry.”

From there, the two branched out. They helped design the Boy Scouts’ haunted houses for charity at Six Flags Over Texas, “and then we started marketing ourselves at Halloween conventions and trade shows,” Mitchell said.

Back then, most of the conventions and trade shows were focused on the retail market that flourishes each fall. But at the same time, “haunted houses were really a growing trend,” he said. “Then the owner of Cutting Edge found us and latched onto us. That’s where we really developed our abilities and skills.”

Cutting Edge Haunted House, in Fort Worth, is now in its 27th year and is one of the most recognized haunted house attractions in the country, and Woodruff continues to work there. But when Mitchell had the chance to branch out once again, he took it.

“I came out here [to Screams] last year to teach a makeup class, and while I was here I wanted to look around. I wanted to see what the artists would be using as their canvas, their backgrounds to play off,” he said.

As he walked around the grounds, he offered a few suggestions here and there, prompting the Screams management to offer him the position of creative director. And Mitchell said yes. “I decided that this would be a real opportunity not just to build on and improve on what was here, but to also create whole new environments.”

And that’s just what happened. This year, Screams is “all new and completely transformed,” according to the attraction’s public relations team.

Mitchell noted with a grin, “We’ve kicked it up a few notches. There are five haunted houses, and we’ve redesigned each one and giving them all new facades. I brought back the graveyard this year, and it is epic. We’re really dressing the park up this year, giving it much more of a theme park-type feel, with pumpkins and skeletons everywhere.”

In the past, the characters roaming the park — as opposed to those working in specific haunted houses — have been more like friendly spooks who interacted with visitors. This year, though, they have new name — strigoi — and they are not nearly so “friendly” anymore.

“Strigoi” are from Romanian mythology and are, in essence, “the undead,” Mitchell explained. “We’ve re-themed them all this year to match the houses — from the witches of the castle to the pirates of Blood Harbor. We’re going for more scary this year — for a LOT more scary.”

This year Mitchell will remain behind the scenes, making sure everything runs smoothly. But next year, he plans to step into the show. “We’ve renamed the maze. Now it’s P.T. Harmum’s Carnival of Chaos,” he said, adding that next year he will be taking on the role of P.T. Harmum himself, welcoming victims into the circus-from-hell-themed maze.

“Yeah, I am a performer, too,” Mitchell said, adding with a laugh, “I haven’t slept since 1975, and that’s when I was born!”

That claim becomes more believable when you realize that being Screams’ master of frights is just part of Mitchell’s job — and that his job is just part of everything else he does.

While it takes Mitchell and his crew months to get the park ready for Screams, the haunted attraction is only open four weekends out of the year. For eight weekends in the spring the grounds become the 1500s English village of Scarborough, and Mitchell is the creative director for Scarborough Renaissance Festival, too.

That, he said, came with a significant learning curve for him. As soon as he accepted the job last January, he said he started studying up on the Renaissance period and set about “adding color, adding life” to the Scarborough village sets.

“I didn’t have much time between the time I was hired and the time Scarborough opened,” he said. “So I had to focus on refreshing the place. My main goal is to make it seem more festive, because that’s the whole idea, that it is festival time in the village. We worked mainly on retouching the paint where we could, repairing stages and buildings and even building a new stage — just adding more life to the park.”

But the studying and the hard work were not new to Mitchell.

“Because I don’t have the formal education, I have always had to teach myself. I always had to be strong and work hard,” he said. “I lived in a very small town, and I didn’t have to come out, because I was never ‘in.’ I was always me.”

After dropping out of school, Mitchell said it took him “about a year” to realize that he wanted to “do something creative. So I just started putting myself out there, learning, getting this job and that job.

“I was painting these murals that, back then, I thought were amazing,” he continued. “I worked for Land Company Furniture for a brief time and I learned so much there about aging and faux finishes and stuff like that. I’m also a floral designer. When it came to the haunted house stuff, I attended all these huge events — in Dallas, Los Angeles, just all over.”

That work ethic holds true today, too. In between preparing the park for Screams, attending the conventions and markets to keep up with the latest trends and technology in haunted house, and then getting the park ready for Scarborough, Mitchell also spends time doing educational events with the exotic animals he raises — lemurs, kangaroos, capybaras, coatimundis, kinkajous and more.

“I’ve been raising exotics since I was 16,” Mitchell said, adding that he still lives in his tiny hometown, in the house his mother left to him when she died last year. “They didn’t run me out,” he declared.

It was also his mother, Mitchell said, he reinforced his determination to live his life on his own terms. “I asked her once, ‘What do you want me to do when I grow up?’” he recalled. “She said, ‘I want you to be happy.’ And that’s what I am doing.”

And for Mitchell, a large part of that is possible because of his adopted son, who is now 20 years old and works with him at Screams.

“He has been in my life since he was 15, then he moved in with me last year. We went from being buddies to having a father-and-son kind of relationship. It’s a very different thing,” Mitchell said. “He’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. He has shown me that there is a lot more to life than I ever believed there was. To care about someone more than you care about yourself — that’s something I had never experienced before.

“Life has changed a lot in the last year,” he added with a smile.

To have come full circle in his career, to be back where he began and to have the chance to create a whole new experience at Screams is a dream coming true for Mitchell.

“I love being able to create an environment that sends people to another place,” he said. “When someone comes out here, who knows what they might be going through in their life that they may need that kind of escape, that kind of fun, that special memory. I love to see them be terrified when they’re going through, and then come out laughing, saying how much fun they’ve had.

“When you can create that for people, when you can give them memories they won’t ever forget — that’s something to be proud of.”

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Screams Halloween Theme Park is open from 7:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. every Friday and Saturday through Oct. 27. Single admission price is $35 at the gate and includes all five haunted houses, live entertainment and Scary-Oke. Visitors may go through the haunted houses as many times as they like. A Fast Pass is also available for $20 to cut wait times.

Vendor booths and food and beverage booths are also available in the park.

Discount tickets can be purchased in advance on-line at ScreamsPark.com.

Screams off I-35E at exit 399A, just outside Waxahachie. Parking is free.

For more information visit ScreamsPark.com.