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Busch Gardens hires 'Blair Witch' producer for Howl-O-Scream scares

The producer of The Blair Witch Project has been enlisted by Busch Gardens to produce this year's Howl-O-Scream fright fest, and in a first for the Tampa theme park, he has filmed an elaborate story line already playing out online.

Enlisting a filmmaker is a new move for parent company SeaWorld Entertainment. Blair Witch producer Robin Cowie's vision for this year's Unearthed theme will be put in place at all three Howl-O-Scream parks: in Tampa, Williamsburg, Va., and San Antonio, Texas. In hiring Cowie, the park is juicing up a signature event at a time when the company's ticket sales are sagging.

"This was an opportunity to really broaden the storytelling experience," Cowie said in an interview before today's announcement. "This is full-contact creativity. I was a big Howl-O-Scream fan, and what I tried to do was not change it, but to increase the amount of storytelling."

Adults-only, spare-no-scares haunted houses have become big business in the amusement industry, generating more than $300 million last year, according to the trade group Haunted Attraction Association. Crowds at Howl-O-Scream and at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights have boosted what used to be a slow season in September and October, rivaling attendance seen during spring break.

While the haunted house and roaming scare actor format at Howl-O-Scream will remain largely the same, Cowie is adding new online interactivity and a new front gate experience (he wouldn't divulge details).

Behind the scenes, Cowie and his crew of cinematographers have been laying out the Howl-O-Scream tale on a fake website,, since June.

Here's the story: An excavation company was hired to investigate a mysterious house unearthed by construction crews at Busch Gardens in Tampa. A woman named Scarlett was trapped and buried in the house after being accused of using dark magic to avenge her husband's death. Now she has been unearthed "to summon death and destruction on unsuspecting guests," the park warns.

Cowie is best known for his work on The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 horror flick made by University of Central Florida film school graduates that became one of the most successful independent movies ever — scaring up more than $248 million in theaters worldwide. Since then he has worked on a variety of film and TV projects, including V/H/S/2 and Lovely Molly.

For Howl-O-Scream, he has brought on John Rutland, the cinematographer for the upcoming Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, to film mini movies in Tampa that are running online, and also Jamie Nash, writer of the horror films Altered, EXISTS and Lovely Molly.

Cowie found similarities to the theme park work and making indie films, trying to make more with less and using lighting and sound to create scares. But he also enjoyed economies of scale that allowed him to build effects that could be used for all three parks.

SeaWorld Entertainment has had a horror story of its own since the 2013 documentary Blackfish outraged animal rights activists. Attendance has dropped while other theme parks are seeing record increases, and the company's stock has fallen 50 percent over the past two years.

But Busch Gardens' attendance edged up at least 1 percent last year, according to estimates by the Themed Entertainment Association. And Howl-O-Scream has been one of its more popular attractions.

Theme parks don't release attendance or sales figures, but industry experts estimate Busch Gardens will see some 200,000 to 300,000 line up for gory haunted houses at Howl-O-Scream in October.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.