As a sophomore year of college at Texas A & M University, Leonard produced his first commercial haunted house in 1976 as a fundraiser for the dormitory he was living in. He organized, designed and marketed the two night event. With a budget of $300 and a $0.50 per person admission price, the operation grossed over $1,000. He experienced similar success with two more dorm-sponsored horror productions in 1978 and 1979, before graduating with an architectural design degree in 1980.
In 1982, during his architectural apprenticeship in Dallas, Leonard volunteered his horror production expertise to the local March of Dimes Haunted House and as chairman of the charity Halloween Event from 1983 – 1986, Leonard was in charge of design and construction of the Haunted Attraction. During this time, Leonard formed the basis for what later became known as the “Pickel Theory of Haunted Houses,” a high startle, low gore, high throughput, low theatrics approach to dark amusements. This innovative and non-offensive style of Haunted Attraction lead Leonard down a different design path than most of the industry, which generally relies on heavy blood and gore to “gross out” rather than to frighten patrons. These Haunting concepts are outlined in three room design idea booklets, written by Leonard in 1987 through 1989 and still used by commercial haunted house owners today. His creative accomplishments include the industry’s first turn-key Haunted House “˜kits,” the first adaptation of the “Field Theory” for Haunted Attractions (The Triangular Grid System), and the first to promote the multi-element approach to Haunting.
In 1987, Leonard created the name “Hauntrepreneurs(R)” when he formed his first haunted house design firm, and was granted a Registered Trademark for the name in 1992. During his long career, Pickel has designed over 200 original and creative Haunted Attraction designs for major venues including Madison Square Garden, Universal Studios Florida, Six Flags St Louis, Six Flags Great America, Six Flags Over Georgia, Six Flags AstroWorld, Paramount’s Carrowinds, Paramount’s Kings Island, Kentucky Kingdom, and SCREAMS Terror Park. Leonard has designed Haunted Attractions in foreign countries including Puerto Rico, Canada, Russia, Australia and India. Over 1 million people from Los Angeles to New York, Orlando to Seattle, have experienced the “Pickel Theory” firsthand.
Believing that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, Leonard has done extensive research in the field of dark amusements, both past and present. Each year, he travels around the country, experiencing as many Haunted Attractions as possible. This research provides invaluable insight into the state of the haunting industry, and emerging trends. In one October alone, Leonard has experienced over 100 Haunted Attractions.
Leonard applied his October seasonal experience toward a summer seasonal haunted house in 1993, with Mayhem Manor® in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In the seven years that followed, Mayhem Manor provided Pickel a hands-on testing facility for new fright concepts, which were then implemented into new designs for his clients. Leonard learned a great deal about the differences between a Halloween Haunted House and one that needs to operate for the full summer season or year round operation. Decreasing overhead and maximizing the experience within a small foot print are key lessons Leonard implements into all designs.
In 1994, Leonard co-founded Haunted Attraction Magazine, the premier publication for the dark amusement industry, striving to provide information vital to the success of the industry, with in-depth articles on the country’s major attractions, “How To” instructions for the latest new effects, historical spotlights and commentary on timely industry news. As Editor in Chief, Leonard was the driving force behind this innovative publication for 50 issues before selling the business in 2009.
In 1997, Leonard took on the task of forming the Haunted Industry’s first trade association, the International Association of Haunted Attractions (IAHA). Against heated opposition from some factions of the industry, Leonard was instrumental in establishing and organizing the fledgling association. In less than one year after IAHA’s non-profit incorporation, the association had an impressive 150 voting members and in the 5 years that followed, membership reached 500.
The world’s largest supplier of props for the haunted attraction industry, Philip Morris of Morris Costumes in Charlotte, North Carolina, contracted Leonard in 2000 to facilitate the creating of a muli-element October seasonal Haunted Attraction, that would double in the off season as a display case for the Morris Costumes line of Haunted Attraction Props and equipment. Leonard was in charge of all facets of the event, including design, theme, code compliance, construction, art direction, installation, costuming, actor training, operations and marketing. Opening on time and under budget for October, this event had more props per square foot than any Haunt in the world, and over 17,000 people attended the event in its opening season.
In 2004, Leonard launched the first national convention devoted solely to the Haunted Attraction Industry. The Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention (or HAuNTcon(R) for as it is known to the industry), was designed for Haunters, by Haunters. This annual exposition moves to a new location each year to offer staffed and lights on tours of area Haunted Attractions. Specializing in Haunt education, HAuNTcon has become a must attend event for Haunted Attraction owners from across the country and around the world.
An accomplished speaker, Leonard has given seminars on numerous aspects of the Haunted Attraction industry ranging from high capacity design and code compliance, to how to get started and effective scare techniques. He has spoken at Haunted gatherings and industry conventions including the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention (HAuNTcon), Midwest Haunters Convention, HauntX, Ironstock, the Pennsylvania Spring Amusement Ride Safety Seminar, both the Chicago and Las Vegas National Halloween, Costume and Party Show, International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association Convention (NAFDMA) , National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), Carolinas Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CARVC) the Global Halloween Convergence, Detroit’s Haunted Attraction Workshop, Design Lab, Horrorfind Weekend, Rue Morgue Festival of Fear, and the Texas Haunter’s Dinner. Pickel’s “Getting Started in the Haunted Attraction Industry” seminar has grown from a one hour annual favorite presented to standing room only crowds, to a full day workshop covering in depth the ins and outs of opening you first Haunted Attraction.
Called the “Godfather” of Haunting by supporters and detractors in the Haunted Attraction Industry, Leonard was awarded a life time achievement award from the International Association of Haunted Attractions and was honored with a question using his name in the Millennium Edition of Trivial Pursuit. He was also appeared as an industry expert in several television programs including the Travel Channel special about Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida, and America’s Best Haunted Houses, where Pickel offered insight into what makes a great Haunted Attraction and the theory behind scaring people.
Leonard is constantly searching for new challenges and striving for new heights in his Haunting career. His vast 30 plus years of experience designing all types of commercial Haunted Attractions, and his unique vision for the future of Haunting, has kept Leonard two steps ahead of his closest competitors. His industry accomplishments, leadership and high moral character has garnered Leonard great respect from his peers and set a lofty standard for those who would try to follow in his haunted footsteps.
Leonard now lives with his wife and partner Jeanne in Orlando, Florida.