Melissa Carbone always loved Halloween. But it wasn't until she began decorating her own home in Los Angeles with elaborate animatronics and giant snow globes that she realized she might be able to turn her passion into profit.
"I was a home-haunter, which I didn't know at the time. I had everything short of live actors," Carbone recalls. "I went all out. One year I counted and I had about three hundred kids come through, and I saw their parents all canoodling, and I thought, 'There might be something to this holiday.'"
She dug around, did some research, and realized her opportunity: Halloween was a $6 billion-plus industry.
The year was 2008. Carbone was working as a marketing executive at Clear Channel Media + Entertainment, where she had been for a decade. She and co-founder Alyson Richards began plotting and saving.
Their idea was to launch an immersive, large-scale version of what Carbone had been putting on display at her own home, complete with vignettes, a story-line, and live actors to deliver the thrills.
"Halloween is kind of a dark-horse industry, and there are very few multi-billion dollar industries where you can't think of an actual leader," she says. "I started to think, there was an opportunity here, and the lane was wide open."
Carbone and Richards drained their life savings and raised nearly half a million dollars from friends and family, along with their first sponsor, Mini Cooper, to launch their company, Ten Thirty One Productions, with its first event, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, in 2009.
They held the Hayride in Calabasas at the King Gillette Ranch, and had actors stalk and scare attendees in different scenarios from churches to insane asylums under the stars. People ate it up. The duo "didn't lose a dollar" in year one, and Carbone was hooked.
"It was taking these city-dwelling, concrete jungle, 'all we do is go to movies, shop, and dine,' population of people and sticking them in the woods at night to scare the hell out of them," she says. "So this is something that doesn't happen."
But she wasn't done. The Hayride moved locations to Griffith Park in 2010, and in 2011 Ten Thirty One launched another event called Ghost Ship that takes place on a mega yacht in California. Since then the company has added a Great Horror Campout, an overnight experience.
"We reinvented the ride from a narrative standpoint and an action standpoint. We got really involved in this heavy, immersive style of entertainment where we were creating a true suspension of disbelief type experience," she says. "People loved it."
In 2013, Carbone appeared on ABC's "Shark Tank" and secured a record-setting $2 million investment from Mark Cuban to continue the company's expansion. Ten Thirty One also landed an undisclosed investment from Live Nation. In 2015, it brought the Hayride to New York City on Randall's Island. In 2017, it is expanding into Dallas, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana.
In total, the company now has eight live events that take place from February through November. It made $3 million in sales in 2015. With more than 130,000 attendees at both hay-ride attractions alone expected this year, when they are poised to rake in $5 million. The two hayrides make up 85% of the company's business.
Tickets range in price for the different events, starting from $35 for the hay-ride all the way up to $1,600 for the V.I.P. experience on a private wagon. In New York, one of the scariest attractions is the Blackout Maze, which features actors lurking in the pitch dark to scare those brave enough to walk through.
"It's a lot of people's worst nightmare, which is why we are doing it," Carbone said. "Fear is America's favorite drug."
As for herself, Carbone says she is basically, "un-scare-able" at this point. To her the stories at each of the attractions are simply "beautiful."
"It's a piece of art that takes us 11 months to bring to life," she says. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, while the rest of the world is screaming."
Disclosure: CNBC owns the exclusive off-network cable rights to "Shark Tank."