Spooky spectaculars Skinful and Boone Hall’s Fright Night raise the bar for Halloween freak fests

Hank Bates wields a chainsaw as an actor at Boone Hall’s Fright Night.

Halloween comes but once a year, and Dr. Brian King prefers to enjoy it to the fullest.

Now in its 12th year, Skinful Halloween began as a party at his home in James Island’s Riverland Terrace neighborhood. King, a veterinarian and the owner of Pet Vet in Mount Pleasant, transformed his home into a haunted house each year, open to the local children on Halloween night. That act helped quell many concerns with his neighbors about Skinful, his pre-holiday Saturday party of later-than-normal music and frolicking.

“I was naive because it was probably the only neighborhood in Charleston that would put up with this party,” laughs King. “Our house really grew into a major trick-or-treat spot. The neighborhood really embraced it.”

Still, as the pre-haunted house adult party grew, it became clear that Skinful had outgrown the neighborhood.

After 800 people attended in its sixth year, King opted to move the party to an outdoor location in 2007. It has since been hosted in the woods of Johns Island, the Berle Shopping Center on Folly Road, in a warehouse on the old Navy base in North Charleston and at the Brick House Kitchen on James Island, its current location.

With Skinful now drawing several thousand attendees, King and his partner in the event, Dave “Big Hair” Brisacher of the Dubplates, decided to replace the charitable haunted house with donations to local and international charities. Over the past six years, about 15 percent of gross proceeds have been donated to Surfers Healing, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, Tanzania Education Foundation and Keeper of the Wild, which rehabilitates injured wild animals in the Lowcountry.

“They (Keeper of the Wild) spend $30,000 a year just in milk replacement, and they lost all of their federal funding when the economy tanked,” said King, a board member of the organization. “They’re as grassroots as it gets. Hopefully, our tie-in can help to keep the electricity on.”

Skinful’s organizers made the annual donation despite losing money on the event each year until finding a successful home at the Brick House Kitchen.

After an attendee died after being hit by a car while crossing Folly Road on his way home last year, some have questioned the motivation to host the party again. To King, those reasons are twofold: because of the charities that rely on it and in maintaining Skinful’s role in the community.

“There are people that look forward to Skinful more than Christmas,” said King, citing soldiers in Afghanistan who scheduled their two-week leave to allow them to attend. “We always joke that it’s Disney World for adults. People can let go of their life, just for a night, and just like Disney World, we want to create a safe environment for that.”

King laments media coverage that he said portrays Skinful as a rave, emphasizing that the party’s 21-and-up rule and his decision to turn down electronic acts like Pretty Lights that have approached him to play are out of concern for the younger crowd it would attract.

“It’s not a rave for teenagers,” King said. “This is for my friends with kids who can’t ever go to Bonnaroo or (New Orleans) Jazz Fest, who if I don’t spoon-feed them this, they would never see it. All they have to do is get a babysitter and arrange a designated driver and let everything go for one night. I think that’s healthy.”

Skinful is undoubtedly a Halloween party. If you show up in street clothes, you’ll feel horribly out of place. But don’t expect gore, goblins and bloody corpses to be hanging from the trees.

“We’ve always been way more about the sexy than the scary when it comes to Halloween,” Skinful co-organizer Brisacher said.

Although he and King admit that body painting was an element of the event during its days as a private house party, the “bare as you dare” aspect wore off as soon as it grew into a public event.

The reputation stuck, however, with Skinful garnering some press years back for its status as a “nudist” party. After a Fort Johnson Road neighborhood rallied against the party in 2007, Skinful made headlines in the L.A. Times and The Boston Globe.

“We had nudists from Germany calling to say, ‘Nudists unite!’ ” laughs King. “That spun Skinful into superstardom.”

Somewhat ironically, it coincided with the end of any real nudity at the event, although many people still brave the chilly fall weather in skimpy costumes.

King notes, “There’s rarely anything half as risque as what you might encounter on the same Halloween Saturday night at clubs in downtown Charleston.”

While Skinful focuses on the sexy, Boone Hall Plantation’s Fright Night has grown into one of the largest multiattraction Halloween events in the state through a strong emphasis on scary.

When attendees first approach Fright Night, tucked into the plantation’s fields along U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant, they’re greeted with a carnival atmosphere. Teens take turns dancing in the mist of a fog machine while a DJ spins One Direction and the “Cha Cha Slide,” and booths are set up offering funnel cakes and snow cones.

It’s a different scene from the madness that lies behind the doors of attractions with names like The Asylum and Chaos Quarantine.

Even a quick glance at Fright Night’ website reveals that this isn’t a candy corn and friendly scarecrow type of Halloween event.

At Chaos Quarantine, for example, bloodied actors appear from inside chemical barrels and under broken-down vehicles, grabbing at attendees (but never touching) as they walk — or run — through the attraction.

“The Quarantine is a biotech chemical compound that’s been shut down, full of infected workers that became flesh-eating zombies,” explains Trey Smith, the mastermind behind Fright Night since its inception in 2004. “It’s kind of like ‘Resident Evil.’ ”

Likewise, The Asylum seeks to scare visitors on a psychological level, leading them through a maze of hospital rooms where crazed patients bang their head against the wall, scream at visitors to get out, or in some cases stay in, and scratch words into the wall.

On any given night, more than 90 actors and staff members manage the attraction, which also includes the Terror Trail Haunted Hayride, a one-mile loop through the woods, and Little Amy’s Nightmare, a 3-D haunted house full of terrifying illusions.

It’s the actors who bring the different attractions to life, screaming at the tops of their lungs and maintaining constant intensity for each group that passes through. Most are in their late teens or early 20s, working long shifts each night amid the dark chaos of a haunted house.

“By the time we’re done on a five-hour night, they’re exhausted, they’re sweaty and they’ve lost their voice, but they’ve had as much fun as the patrons,” Smith said. “The actors get an intense thrill out of this.”

Behind the scenes, thousands of feet of wire and tubing rely on infrared sensors to control buzzers, sound effects, blasts of air and fog, carefully designed to maximize each scene’s effect.

Beginning in June, setting up the various attractions is Smith’s full-time job.

His attention to detail pays off. Group after group exits The Asylum at a full gallop, fleeing a chainsaw-wielding actor. And the chainsaw is real.

“People have tried to invent new ways to do it, like using battery-operated chainsaws, but you’ve got to have the fumes and the sound of the motor,” said Smith, just as another group shrieks in unison and hightails it to safety.

For Jim Chapman, a 50-year-old Medical University of South Carolina employee who attended on a recent Thursday night, the scariest moment came in a room where visitors must navigate in the dark through what appear to be body bags hanging from the ceiling. Bloodied actors eerily emerge as visitors make their way through.

“At my age, nothing really scares me, but that was pretty scary. I was pleasantly surprised,” Chapman said.

Weekend nights can attract 3,000 guests to Fright Night, but the variety of attractions helps to divvy up the crowd.

Including the hayride, Boone Hall uses more than 40 acres for the event, which is cumulatively its largest attendance draw of the year.

After screaming their way through The Asylum or Amy’s Nightmare, visitors can get right back to the music, check out a terrified-looking picture of themselves taken with a hidden camera or enjoy boiled peanuts and bratwursts sold onsite. But for a few minutes, inside The Asylum or the Quarantine, their world is turned upside down.

“What’s outside is totally different — we create a lively party atmosphere,” explains Smith. “The DJ helps build the adrenaline. Then when they go inside, we tear ’em up.”

Although people come to Fright Night to be scared, Smith said that the “number one goal is entertainment,” adding, “No other time of year are you going to find something like this where you can get that screaming excitement.”

It’s a goal of any major annual event to improve upon itself each year, but for those that rely on spectacle, like Skinful and Fright Night, it’s a personal challenge for the organizers.

Although past Fright Night attractions have included a vampire theme (Blood Stone Manor) and a Bloody Mary motif, Smith lauds The Asylum as his best work to date.

At Skinful, King and Brisacher have doubled down on their tent size and overall production level, keeping up their claim of “one of the craziest production sets in the world.” Between the pair, Brisacher plays the bad cop, keeping a close eye on the budget, while King has a hard time saying no.

“He’ll be like, ‘Let’s have a fire-breathing dragon!’ ” laughs Brisacher (they did just that last year). “We never cut corners on any of the crucial stuff. This isn’t a party where we say, ‘Let’s get our costs as low as possible and make as much money as we can.’ We’re pretty much the opposite of that.”

This year’s budget includes a considerably increased security presence, both inside the event and along Folly Road. Walking along the roadside is not permitted, and DUI checkpoints will be in place. Shuttles to the party are available from Gold’s Gym on Folly Road, as well as Loggerhead’s on Folly Beach, Fuel downtown and Juanita Greenberg’s in Mount Pleasant. Ample taxis will be available at each shuttle location, with set rates below the normal cost across town.

Most importantly, Brisacher said, they’ve upped the budget for production and music, “raising the bar to make sure no one ever says, ‘It wasn’t as cool as last year.’ ”

Skinful’s musical lineup includes DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, Cut Chemist and Chali2na of Jurassic 5, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, the Dubplates and DJ Logic, as well as burlesque and circus performers.

After years of struggling to book bands before a location had been nailed down, many of this year’s acts contacted Skinful, expressing their desire to play. DJ Muggs, who built his reputation creating the beats that backed Cypress Hill and House of Pain songs, came to them via the relationship with the Beastie Boys’ Mix Master Mike, who performed last year. And Dumpstaphunk will return after first playing Skinful in 2009.

“Ivan Neville called us up and said, ‘Hey, we had a blast and we’d love to come back,’ ” Brisacher said. “These artists are willing to work with us and tailor their tour schedules around Skinful.”

When Dumpstaphunk took the stage three years ago, it knew little more about Skinful than it was a Halloween party.

“It got pretty nuts as the night got later,” recalls Ian Neville, Ivan’s cousin and the guitarist in the band.

He promises that the group will arrive better prepared with costumes for this year’s appearance.

“Y’all do it pretty ... good up there. People go out and throw down like it’s the actual night of Halloween,” said Neville, giving Charleston credit, even when compared to his native New Orleans.

The band is flying to town after playing at home the night before. Skinful marks its only Halloween performance this year, so Neville said they’re ready to get a little crazy.

It’s that attitude of mutual excitement among artists, organizers and attendees that motivates King and Brisacher to keep at it each year. They’re already talking about bringing international artists as big as Femi Kuti, Sean Paul or even Manu Chao for future years.

“This party is about willpower — it’s not an easy thing to pull off,” Brisacher said. “We’ve been given 100 hoops to jump through, and we’ve jumped through each of them, and more.”

Brisacher emphasizes that any other charitable event of Skinful’s scale would have multiple corporate sponsors that help to relieve the financial risk of hosting such a large-scale event. Although he acknowledges that a major grocery store, for example, might hesitate to put its name on an event once associated with nudity, he said the decision not to label the party with an alcohol or energy drink sponsor stems from the desire to keep Skinful free of “corporate, in-your-face propaganda.”

“These are the things that make you realize this event is something special. We have the pressure to put on the craziest, biggest, wildest party, and to keep trying to up the professionalism of it each year, and the scary thing is that it’s just us,” Brisacher said. “It works because of all the painters, woodworkers, construction workers, production people, artists, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers and everyone else who donates their time and effort or just puts on a costume and buys a ticket.”

For King, hosting Skinful boils down to providing an outlet for his friends to let loose and be free, if only for a night.

“I believe it’s good for Charleston,” King proclaims. “For me — somebody that loves live music — what we’re trying to do is bring something special to this city, including artists who have never played here before and probably wouldn’t otherwise. Black, white, gay, straight — everybody needs a release from all the hum-drum things that drag them down.”

At Halloween, whether you’re more interested in sexy or scary, you can be anybody you want to be, and anything goes.

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