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Spooked

It dices! It slices! It secretly wants to kill you! It's our annual Halloween issue.

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In the early 2000s, I was a huge fan of Salt Lake City's haunted house scene, but there was something undeniably classy about Rocky Point that set it apart from the rest. It was a sophisticated tapestry of small details—every tombstone seemed to have been crafted and painted with meticulous care, and every maniac that leapt out of the attraction's collection of dark corners told some kind of tragically beautiful story. I knew that if I really wanted to impress a date during the Halloween season, I'd take her here. It was a strategy that totally paid off, by the way; Rocky Point was where my wife and I went on our first date.

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It didn't really occur to me how much I'd missed it until I had the chance to sit down with Cydney Neil, the self-styled "Queen of Haunts" who was the beating heart behind the attraction for more than two decades, right up to its 2007 closure. Seeing her for the first time, I'm a bit intimidated by how effortlessly stunning she is—sporting platinum blond hair, black nail polish and a sleeveless Rocky Point T-shirt. After geeking out about some past memories, our conversation inevitably leads me to ask why she decided to close such a successful and revolutionary business. She considers the question, but it doesn't take her long to answer. "From the beginning it was about serving a mission, and that mission played out inside a haunted house," she says, "but I knew there would be a time when I would have to burn the house down."

It's an ironic choice of words, considering the fact that the award-winning attraction originated from a fire that gutted an Ogden restaurant Neil's father owned back in 1968. It was her brother who first had the idea of creating a haunted attraction, and, in 1979, he converted the building's remains into a fledgling spook alley. In 1986, when she returned home after living in Arizona, she was shocked to see that the restaurant was now a haunted house being run by a local acting group called The Maniacs. Initially, she wasn't happy with the turn of events. Her career as a model and fashion designer attracted her to the beautiful things of the world, and she had never expressed interest in anything that could be construed as horror.

"I didn't really want to do a haunted house," Neil says with an exasperated chuckle, "but I fully engaged in the mission until it was clearly, painfully complete."

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Over time, she came to see the experience it as a blessing in disguise, citing it as a positive experience that brought a lot of good into the world. "There was a spirit about it because it had a purpose," she says.

For the next 20 years, Neil shaped Rocky Point into a much-lauded attraction that made waves on a national level. At the height of its popularity, people came from all over the country to be terrified and thrilled by the horrific landscapes and characters that populated the site.

"We really pioneered this creative, purpose-driven business," she says. "Not only was it this amazing place to go and see, but there was this heart to it."

In addition to becoming one of the most innovative haunted houses in the state, Rocky Point also established itself as philanthropic resource. Throughout its years of operation, Neil partnered up with charities like the Utah Special Olympics and the Boys and Girls Club.

The decision to finally close the business didn't come easily. Neil had attracted and inspired a loyal and hardworking crew that found a much-needed sanctuary within the walls of Rocky Point. "I wasn't training kids to work in a haunted house," she says. "I was training them to live their lives, fulfill their dreams and to create something that could give back, and so many of them have done that."

Over the past 10 years, Neil's path has continued to intersect with the world of haunted attractions. After completing some work with a Hong Kong-based amusement park called Ocean Park, Disneyland Hong Kong contacted Neil to design and build a Haunted Main Street attraction for them. "I was the only woman outside of Disney Imagineering to design and build an attraction for Disneyland," she says proudly. Upon finishing her work with Disney, she received national recognition from the Haunted Attraction Association (HAA), which presented her with a lifetime achievement award in March of this year.

Away from the ghouls and goblins (at least temporarily), her current focus is a memoir titled No More Fear that chronicles her tenure as Rocky Point's owner and operator, as well as a follow-up documentary to 2005's 25 Years of Fear.

Despite the fond memories that Rocky Point evokes, Neil looks back on her days in the haunted house industry with mixed feelings.

"The industry did what I expected it to do; it's gotten massive all over the world," she says. "I'm very happy not to be involved with the industry; it's gotten quite gory, and it wasn't something I wanted to spend my life doing."

Ever the trailblazer, Neil's efforts also addressed a scary issue felt across industries year-round: gender bias. "We were doing theme park numbers before the industry got started," she points out, "and the group of boys didn't want to see some woman be more successful than they were."

Still, the legacy lives on for those who were fortunate enough to count themselves as patrons. The haunted-house industry is huge in Utah; and many, if not all, of our local attractions owe a debt of gratitude to the unique, escapist realm that Rocky Point created.

"If I do nothing else with my life—I really expect that I will—I will always feel honored and grateful," Neil says. "I will miss it."

That makes two of us. Or 2 million. It's tough to keep track.

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