ST. PETERSBURG — When I tell Cody Meacham that maybe it's time for my two preteen daughters to toughen up and finally brave his annual Radley Haunted House, the 26-year-old self-taught spookmeister flashes me a dead-serious look:
"This would not be the best year for that."
Meacham looks like an Abercrombie model and talks like a genial camp counselor. But when he says something's going to be scary, the dude means business.
"Dr. Radley's Nightmare Machine," funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, will be his eighth Radley house and the most technically lavish — even though he still hand-builds the sprawling maze in the front yard of his parents' suburban home.
The plot once again swirls around that cursed family: Dr. Radley, a sleep therapist, is tormented, and eventually driven to murderous madness, by the god of nightmares. "Dr. Radley literally starts picking his patients' brains," says Meacham, who "carved," among other things, a foam sarcophagus for his nasty deity plus a full facade of the Doc's home office.
With the help of that $4,400 Kickstarter campaign — plus another $10,000 of his own and investors' money — the Radley, which opens Thursday, boasts an original score, two extra scenes/rooms, enhanced sound and several Universal Orlando-level special effects. (It's still cheaper than Universal, though, at $5.)
Meacham hired a dozen actors, script writers, musicians to record the soundtrack and costume designer Dakota Whittington. There's also a new hype man onboard, Ricky Brigante, whose popular theme-park and haunted-house websites (insidethemagic.net, outsidethemagic.net) will promote the Radley and hopefully help break 2013's attendance record of 7,000 guests.
"I came out here last year and said, 'Oh my god, this is amazing,' " says Brigante, 33. "I just needed to be involved."
Even with the help, Meacham's creativity and innate ability to scare you senseless lead the way. His houses, built via numerous trips to Lowe's and antique stores, are gorgeous with detail; he picks up tips at his day job designing sets for HSN. He prides himself on terrorizing people without resorting to gore, although there are "some exposed brains" this year, he allows with a shrug.
He also understands narrative thrust. Once you crawl through the fireplace in Dr. Radley's exam room, creepy gets disturbing fast. The finale, when guests get sucked into that nightmare machine, should be a doozy, too: "That room is a nightmare by definition," says Meacham, grinning at the thought of giving so many guests a few bad dreams of his own making.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife.