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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Student-run haunt creates chaos at UF’s Flavet Field

Gator Theme Park and Engineering Design’s Swamp Haunters operate the Crimson Carnival

The first room of the Crimson Carnival is titled, “The Carnival Grounds.” Photo courtesy of Andrew Long, taken April 14, 2023.
The first room of the Crimson Carnival is titled, “The Carnival Grounds.” Photo courtesy of Andrew Long, taken April 14, 2023.

All Hallow’s Eve marked just one nerve-racking night full of flashing lights and ear-piercing screams at UF. 

At 7:30 p.m., animatronic jack-in-boxes scared young students who flinched with fright as they pushed past the drapes of the Crimson Carnival. 

Andrew Long, a 21-year-old UF architecture senior, is the production designer for Swamp Haunters. His decade-long love for Halloween would help bring the Swamp Haunters and the Crimson Carnival to life, becoming a founding member of the haunted-house team in Fall 2022.

When Long was as young as 10 years old, he was disillusioned by the discount-store tombstones decorating the front yards of neighborhood homes. To him, Halloween was worthy of higher-quality work. 

“Yeah, I could do better,” he would say to himself as he approached doorsteps to collect candy from the homes he silently scorned. 

With his family, Long constructed and staged an at-home haunt that meant more to them than just to scare. From 2017 to last Halloween, the Longs raised a total of about $30,000 for Homeless Empowerment Program, a charity in Clearwater providing social services to homeless and low-income families and veterans. 

“Not only was I able to do something I enjoyed for Halloween,” Long said. “We raised awareness for the Homeless Empowerment Program.” 

Beginning his freshman year at UF in Fall 2020, celebrating the spooky season was off the table, as the world went into isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. But just about a year later, he was ready to bring Halloween back to campus when he joined the student organization, Gator Theme Park and Engineering Design (GTPED). 

“‘It would be cool if we built a haunted house on campus and had a design team that was focused on creating a haunted house,’” he said remembering his first words to GTPED leaders. 

Long started as a member of the Blue Sky design team at GTPED, a group responsible for miscellaneous projects, he said. His proposal in Fall 2021 about a haunted house would break barriers for the club, kickstarting its first full-scale haunt project. 

“We had to keep things relatively conceptual,” he said. “Because we didn’t have a space for this and we didn’t have any money.” 

Eventually receiving the $5,000 in funds from the UF department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Long and the rest of his design team gave themselves the green light to officially begin the planning process in Fall 2022. By Spring, construction was underway and, the now Swamp Haunters, began building outside of a co-captain’s apartment. 

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“We spent every weekend of Spring semester, 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.], outside of the apartment building the haunted house,” he said. 

Long and the design crew began with just 3D models and construction documents, steadily developing active animatronic robots and crafting 60 4-feet-by-8-feet walls, which they would paint over with red and white stripes. 

In April, the Swamp Haunters previewed the “Crimson Carnival” at the UF Band Practice Field in a three-day soft launch. The event witnessed a turnout of over 500 people and allowed the team to identify successes and areas for improvement.

“That was the telltale sign that this was something we can continue to do,” Long said.  

Friday, the haunted house officially welcomed guests in celebration of Hallo-week at the Flavet Field stage. The Crimson Carnival, as Long describes it, is “a carnival run by a league of vampires with its ring-leader being Count Dracula.” The attraction sports seven rooms, each with volunteer actors in full-face makeup hiding and jumping out of corners to scare all who pass by. 

Long said the Swamp Haunters aimed to elevate the effect of horror with the addition of strobe lights and black light to some rooms. Upon reaching the finale, guests are greeted by a tall Count Dracula, dancing maniacally on a runway stage. They then escape the carnival by sprinting past the feasting grounds of white mannequins in black hoods who “suck the blood of all their victims,” Long said. 

Ivan Saldarriaga, a 20-year-old UF digital arts and sciences junior and technical director of Swamp Haunters, is responsible for overseeing the smooth operation of the haunt and resolving any difficulties. Since joining the Crimson Carnival project, he led much of the research and planning into the special effects employed. 

“I do not have a lot of haunt experience,” he said. “But once I find something I’m really passionate about, it just doesn’t end.”  

Saldarriaga’s creative edge carried him through the one-year period between the beginning of planning to the Crimson Carnival’s grand opening at Flavet Field. Between April and the end of October, he said he and his teammates enhanced the haunt by changing locations, adding new set pieces and special projections. 

Brandon Barker, a 20-year-old UF computer engineering junior, was part of the large crowd previewing the Crimson Carnival during its soft run in April. He returned to the haunt on Monday, joined by two friends. 

“It is so much improved,” Barker said. “The atmosphere of fall and the night sky made it a lot cooler.” 

Reminded of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort, he said he intended to re-enter the haunted house at least “six or seven more times.” 

Long, a leading participant in the project for nearly two years, showed satisfaction toward the work of his colleagues and the reception of the attendants. 

“Every enclosure that you go into was handmade and built by UF students,” Long said. “It is revolutionary in the sense that (a haunted house) has not happened at UF at this scale.” 

The Crimson Carnival will remain at Flavet Field until Tuesday, where the Swamp Haunters will solemnly strike down the set and begin planning its next Halloween haunt. 

Contact Jared Teitel at Follow him on Twitter @jaredteitel. 

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Jared Teitel

Jared Teitel is a third-year journalism major, and this is his second semester as an Avenue reporter. In his free time, he enjoys running, shopping, and drinking coffee. 

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