For owner Ken Swan, creating a haunted house was a different kind of scary.
“I've wanted to do this for so long,” he said. “None of us realized how weird and vulnerable it feels to be putting this idea out for judgment.”
Seventeen years ago, Swan, 37, and his wife Katie had one of their first dates at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. Now, they run the Gainesville Fear Garden — a sensory deprivation Halloween experience set inside a tent at 220 NW Eighth Ave. The attraction opened Oct. 6 and runs until Halloween night.
The Fear Garden is entirely funded by the Swans, fulfilling the couple’s decade-long dream of opening a haunted house for grown-ups.
Before entering the tent, groups of two to 10 are equipped with blacked-out goggles and noise-reducing headphones. Then, they’re given a quick synopsis for why they’re there: A company called Kojo Biotech needs volunteers to find special plants that talk to each other inside a sinkhole — but not without a few eerie mishaps.
Groups are handed ropes to hold on to while Swan and a few other voices guide them through the tent via their headphones, creating the illusion of descending underground.
“You’re in your own world,” Swan said. “It’s a theater for the mind.”
One of Swan’s main reasons for creating the Fear Garden, he said, was his passion for psychology as a former UF psychology professor and senior lecturer.
Swan left his job as a professor in 2018 but is now a courtesy assistant professor of psychology at UF. During the pandemic, he said, he spent time as a stay-at-home-dad. The Fear Garden only came to fruition about nine months ago.
“My wife and I took a long walk and debated the possibility of throwing the Hail Mary and seeing if we could make some kind of business out of the thing we've always wanted to do,” he said.
In the process of creating the newest Gainesville Halloween attraction, he’s also brought along 30 UF psychology students to be research associates at the garden.
Research associates prepare groups before they enter the tent and help move people through the 30-minute-long attraction while their vision and hearing is blocked from the outside world.
After Gainesville Fear Garden wraps up at the end of the month, the research associates will work with UF psychology professor Nicole Dorey to note their findings and analyze data from a post-garden survey.
Dorey dislocated her shoulder, preventing her from being on site for now, but she’ll be observing videos of groups walking through the tent from home. She’s especially looking for body movement, like jumps, that signify a person may be scared, she said.
Rebecca Martin, a 20-year-old UF psychology junior and research associate, said the team’s also looking for signs of trauma bonding when people come together during times of fear. Watching guests go through the garden, she’s found couples and friend groups tend to look toward each other for comfort, she said.
The Swans go to Halloween Horror Nights every year, Swan said. And some of his favorite moments are of them huddled together.
“This kind of started with me and my wife holding hands and feeling like it's a peak experience to be scared and vulnerable together,” Swan said. “I want to see if we can bring that to other people.”
But even though his dream is coming true, he said, there were many obstacles.
One was Hurricane Ian. The storm, which ended up sparing Gainesville a direct hit, only knocked down one fence — but the anticipation of a major impact delayed the garden’s opening weekend, he said.
Another challenge was reducing wait time, Swan said. The Fear Garden encourages parties to purchase tickets online and reserve a time to go through the attraction. But without knowing how long it took moving groups in the tent, he said, some people had to wait past their slotted time.
“We were behind like an hour, hour and a half,” Swan said.
The attraction also received some negative feedback online.
“Opening weekend was rough,” Swan said. “People were not into it. We got all these bad
reviews, and people were like ‘This is lame. I’m not getting scared.’”
In response, Swan said, he recorded new audio the morning of Oct. 14 and added a claustrophobia tunnel to the attraction — hoping to make the experience more unnerving. He also responded to some people on Google Reviews, offering refunds and the chance to return for free.
“We’ve already bared our souls with this thing,” he wrote. “Why not go for broke?”
It was ambitious to open the garden this year, Swan said. He and his team built the site in two months.
But this weekend was an upswing for the garden, he said. Around 150 tickets were sold Oct. 14. Now he may consider continuing the attraction next year — possibly with a wedding-themed storyline, Swan said.
Ellyse Rees, 31, experienced the attraction Oct. 14 with her husband and three friends. The experience was very different from a normal haunted house, Rees said, but she found herself more confused than afraid.
“I was laughing multiple times in there like, ‘What is this?’” she said. “Clearly, it’s not slimy worms — it’s like pool noodles and grass that they were touching us with.”
After the attraction closes Halloween night, Swan expects data analysis to start in November, said Garrett Johnson, a 19-year-old UF psychology and women’s studies sophomore. As a research associate, he said, the study will be a nontraditional one.
“I’m still getting into psych research and the literature of it,” Johnson said. “But I’ve never read or heard anything about a haunted house study.”
If the garden returns next year, Johnson said he would come back because of how receptive Swan is to making changes.
“It’s not mine anymore,” Swan said. “It’s theirs.”
Contact Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenBrensel.
Lauren Brensel is a journalism sophomore and a metro reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she's found going on mental health walks, being silly with friends, hiding from the public and reminding those around her that they did this song on Glee.