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The Ghost in the Machine Interviewing the Guy Behind Thrill Builders

Listen to this article.

As I enter the warehouse I am greeted by a lady in a beat-up office swivel chair. Her back is to me.

“Hello?” I call out, my voice echoing. “I’m here to interview Guy?”

She’s still. Too still.  I approach her with caution, bracing myself for the jump-scare I just know Guy would be all too fond of. 

She’s a mannequin.

A mannequin with a manicure and blood streaming down her forehead. 

“I guess I’m in the right place,” I mutter to myself, eyeing my surroundings. The aesthetics are a little confusing here: a 20-foot-tall plywood guitar, a black and red animatronic silicone spider the side of a futon, a small but menacing robotic velociraptor near a shelf full of what appear to be severed limbs in various sizes, parts, and skin tones.

There is a distant hum from the fluorescent overhead lights and the smell of bleach mixed with sawdust. 

Finding myself in an environment I can’t quite fully understand is just par for the course for a paranormal investigator. But rather than investigating a haunted house to hear the ghost’s story, I’m now investigating the “ghost in the machine” – the man behind some of the largest haunted-themed attractions in the nation. The guy I’m looking for is Guy Kitchell, owner, CEO, and self-proclaimed “Serial Thriller” who recently appeared on episode #1506 of ABC’s Shark Tank. 

Thrill Builders headquarters is located in an industrial park in Madison, Wisconsin. They design and build escape rooms and other family entertainment centers like the old Wisconsin Scaryland, indoor mini golf, laser tag, and something called “hyperbowling” (I had to Google that one). Guy’s team creates custom props, special effects, and haunted houses where thrill-seeking birthday party attendees can blast animatronic monsters with laser guns.

Chances are, if you splurge to get scared, you’ve been to something Thrill Builders has had a (severed, bloodied) hand in making.

As I quietly make my way around the warehouse, I recognize Gargamel’s fireplace, some frosted Christmas trees, and a legless animatronic zombie wrapped in chains. There is a foam skeleton of a double-decker bus and a towering shelf containing scores of boxes of electronic guts – wires, buttons, magnets, sensors, and other gadgets.  A few coffins lean against the wall.

It’s like the theater department took over shop class on a much larger and morbid scale.  

As I am inspecting a tray of what appears to be very real-looking eyeballs, Guy appears.  He’s in a black zip-up sweatshirt, jeans, and is all smiles. A big kid in a candy store of gore. “Come along,” he says. “I want to show you something.”

Guy takes me to a series of shelves which contain individually-labeled five-ounce bottles of horrible smells. His explanation is simple: If your haunted escape room includes a custom guillotine, why not sweeten the experience with the metallic scent of blood? Or vomit?

Indeed, why not.

Why not have over 2,000 bottled oil-based scents including, but not limited to:

Sewage

Demon

Gothic Circus

Carnival

Asylum

Burnt Flesh

Gasoline

Baby Diaper

Dead Zombie (as opposed to living)

Electrocution

Vampire Rising

Mold

Moondoggy

Should you have the misfortune of finding yourself in a sanitorium-themed escape room with an exploding toilet prop, you can guarantee you will get your $30 worth of an immersive, full sensory experience and live to tell everyone about it (unless they smell you first).

Guy’s immaculate attention to detail and dark sense of humor is evident throughout the tour of the 46,000 square foot warehouse. A plasticized zombie wearing a tattered blue shirt lays askew a maintenance cart, a lanyard ID badge belonging to “Brad” is draped around its broken neck.

I feel that this is the appropriate time to ask Guy what got him into doing this sort of raise-the-dead thing for a living (and bite my lip at the bad pun).

“I’ve always loved Halloween,” he says. “I loved trick-or-treating. But I loved scaring people more.” Guy’s first experience with scaring people was in first grade when he made a touch-and-feel box of eyeballs for a Halloween party.  “I was just tickled when people would squeal,” he recalls. “I loved that feeling.”

The plywood stacked throughout the warehouse is made to look dirty, chipped, and bloodied by talented artists, carpenters, set designers, and graphic designers. Some of them resemble the futuristic smooth archways of a spaceship, while other pieces appear to be the makings of a rusty, bloody cage or rotting wood from an abandoned house.  “We try to make things look period correct,” says Guy. “Sometimes that requires beating the crap out of the wood. Our strength is our theming. And some of it has to be gross and dirty.”

I am impressed by the amount of work that goes into the customization and personalization of each prop, display, and room. Something as simple as a wall sconce and flickering candle prop that will open a secret door when moved can take days to create, some of it requiring working in complete darkness for creating black-light sensitive features. “Everyone here has a passion for just making cool shit,” says Guy. “They could work in a cabinet shop and make the same cabinet every day. And this is harder.”

We pass another tall metal shelf of charred limbs wrapped in gross-and-dirty-looking blankets. “That’s for the Hansel and Gretel themed escape rooms,” Guy casually motions as we step around a bloody prop sink with slabs of meat protruding from the garbage disposal. “Don’t mind that pile of dead stuff over there, and that’s a barrel of heads. There’s that giant skinned rat in the back somewhere.”

I ask Guy if anyone has ever fled one of his exhibits. 

“At one haunt’s opening night, a lady broke through one of the walls like the Kool-Aid guy and we had to shut down [the attraction] for thirty minutes while we fixed the doors,” he says without missing a beat. “No refunds by the way.”

Duly noted.

Thrill Builders is the next big thing in the family entertainment business. “We love fun, we love to build fun, and we love our jobs,” says their website. Voted Best Escape Room Builder for its seventh year in a row, Thrill Builders has nearly 8,000 clients worldwide at the time of this writing.  Guy’s next projects include a 50,000 square foot, 50-foot-tall Thrill Factory entertainment center – a $7.2 million project. He recently walked away from ABC’s Shark Tank with three Sharks offering $300,000 for a 30% share in the company. Ironically, Guy found the television experience terrifying and unnerving.  “But I wasn’t leaving without a deal, and I told them that,” he says.

The tour ends just about where it started, in front of the bloodied mannequin in the swivel chair. I learn that evidently, she, too, was cast from a living person (and does a fantastic job at “scaring the truck drivers,” adds Guy). I snap a few tentative selfies with the thing and away I go. 

Guy’s excitement and passion for spooky, campy entertainment is contagious, and I find myself walking back to my car (glancing over my shoulder periodically) with a newfound appreciation for the brains and brawn behind the buildings that we pay an arm and a leg (biting lip again) to experience. People love to be thrilled, scared, intrigued, and entertained by, well, just about anything that takes us away from the hum-drum of day-to-day life. 

Whether you’re looking to build a spooktacular Halloween-themed business or just harbor the morbid, mechanical curiosity of what all goes into designing and building such a profitable endeavor, you can find everything you need to know about Thrill Builders on their website (https://thrillbuilders.com/) as well as their social media (Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram). 

The faint but unmistakable scent of Baby Diaper envelopes me as I start my car. I make a mental note to wash my hands the second I get home. Indeed, I’ve lived to tell (and smell) the tale of the Thrill Builders experience.

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Kjersti Beth
Always on the lookout for the next weirdest thing to add to her obituary, Kjersti (Instagram: @kjee83) goes through life with her heart on her sleeve, her head in the clouds, and her cat on her lap. Her essays and photos have appeared in American Paranormal Magazine (2023), Haunted Magazine (2023), Paranormality Magazine (2023), The Feminine Macabre (2021), and The Quarterly Press: Myths, Fables, and Folklore (2020). Kjersti is also the 1st place winner of the Wisconsin's District 35 State Toastmasters "Tall Tales" Competition. With a foot in both worlds, Kjersti advocates for the continued research of the paranormal and leaving the world a little weirder than you found it.

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