Cutting Edge Haunted House’s Todd James, Master of the Macabre

Todd James marches to the beat of a different drum – a zombie drum, that is.

As the founder, owner and Head Hauntsman of Cutting Edge Haunted House Fort Worth / Dallas, James brings his considerable expertise as a high school band leader to bear in coaching many undead musicians in a variety of endeavors, from an eerie, apocalyptic sort of precision drum line to a 14-piece zombie marching band.

“It’s not easy teaching zombies to play musical instruments,” says James. “They tend to have a short attention span.” Kind of like teenagers. “And their marching skills, well, you have to be very patient with them.”

Although Cutting Edge would seem a likely moniker for a haunted house built in an old meatpacking plant, with human “corpses” traversing the factory on an overhead conveyer belt system on their way to be sliced and diced and well, you know, human dismemberment was actually the farthest thing from his mind when James came up with the name. As a child growing up in Texas, Todd James knew that one day he would have the biggest, baddest haunted house around, something on the cutting edge of Halloween scares.

“Since I was very young, I was putting on my Halloween stuff in the summer time, hiding in the bushes and scaring young children,” he says with a wry smile.

In fact, it wasn’t until the third year of operation that the Cutting Edge moved to the 235,000 square foot building, built in 1908 on a patch of Wild West badlands once known as “Hell’s half acre.” The sheer size of the plant, the grisly undertones of a meat processing factory and the outlaw reputation of the neighborhood appealed to James.

“It’s perfect, because for one it’s a meat packing plant and it’s about 100 years old. It just lends itself. There’s a lot of character.”

With five full floors of chilling, thrilling action, Cutting Edge is the size of four or five average haunted houses. And with only 70% of the building currently in use, there’s still plenty of room to expand. Expand?

In addition to the Guinness record book title in 2009 and 2010, last year Cutting Edge garnered the #2 spot in Haunted House Ratings’ Top 13 Haunted Houses, as well as the #6 spot in Hauntworld Magazine’s Best Haunted Houses in America, adding to a long list of haunt awards and commendations that Todd James and his crew have racked up over the years, including top rankings from Fangorium Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Yahoo and MSN, as well as a feature on the Travel Channel called “America Haunts” profiling the “most terrifying, well-orchestrated haunted houses” in the United States.

“Every year they manage to come up with more amazing stuff,” he says proudly. “I couldn’t operate this event without a single one of them. They’re all so creative. I’m really fortunate to be surrounded by the challenging group of people that are here. I give them all the credit.”

“We’ve been pretty fortunate over the years,” says James, speaking pretty modestly for the owner of a world famous attraction that has its own Wikipedia page. Cutting Edge features over 400 mannequins and 150 cast members who like to slip in and out of “mannequin mode” so that you can never be sure whether or not something – or someone is real. “The sheer timing of the scare is an art” says Todd, and so after an extensive audition process, successful cast members undergo further training at “Boo U.”

James’ percussionist background also reflects in the thumping reverberations of the massive sound system that sends heart-stopping gothic music resounding throughout the building. It’s not all musical zombies and maniacs with chainsaws, however – although those are certainly frightening enough. A number of animatronic monsters abound, in the form of fiendish dragons and dinosaurs and a giant snake that slithers around in search of human prey.

All in all it’s a massive undertaking, requiring the efforts of several hundred seasonal and nearly a dozen full time employees to create, maintain and operate the attraction. And every year it gets even bigger. Might there ever come a time it could become just too much work?

“I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop. It’s fun,” says James with a chuckle. “I don’t know why I would stop, you know, honestly. We get paid to play practical jokes on people. That’s pretty cool. As long as I can still push a button and make something pop out I’ll still be at it.”