PROGRESO — Toluca Ranch Haunted House is experiencing a spike in attendance, but a recent incident at the attraction has raised concerns about a change in format there this year.
This is the first year Toluca Ranch adopted policies allowing employees — called actors — to make physical contact with patrons. Characters roam the haunted house touching customers’ arms and legs, or grabbing them to separate them from their group.
While these types of scary attractions are the trend nationally, local haunts like Nightmare on Broadway in McAllen and Rotting Flesh Factory in Harlingen, don’t allow employees to make contact with customers. Representatives from both establishments acknowledged the liability in such a policy.
“We’re different than the other haunted houses,” said Toluca Ranch’s owner Domingo Gonzalez, who portrays the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Before patrons can enter the haunted house, they’re read the rules and customers must sign their name in a notebook, which is meant to function as a waiver.
“The actors are allowed to touch you, grab you, drag you, isolate you — whatever it takes to scare you,” an employee said to a group over the buzzing of a chainsaw in the distance when this reporter visited Toluca Ranch last Sunday evening. “Y’all came to get scared so that’s what we’re planning to do. That’s our job.”
She then warned that individuals who get violent are ejected from the attraction.
Pedro Solis, 14, said he signed in as “Luigi,” when he and his friend entered the haunt Saturday dressed as the pair from Super Mario Brothers. They were part of a group of six, which included four adults.
“We were having fun,” Solis said, until he was separated from the group.
Toluca Ranch employees said that holding someone at the end of a group back is a common tactic employed.
Marine Corps veteran Gustavo Alfonso Miranda, 25, delayed the teen and isolated him in a dark room, according to them both.
Solis said he tried to sneak past Miranda, but was unsuccessful. Solis added that Miranda was using obscenities toward him, which was not covered in the haunt’s rules.
“He pulled me back, and after that he told me to stay in the room,” Solis recalled. “I was scared and I wanted to leave.”
Miranda admitted to grabbing Solis from behind by both shoulders, and said he thought that’s when the teen got scared.
“He kept saying, ‘let go of me. Let go of me,’” Miranda said. “And then he kept throwing wild punches.”
Solis admits to hitting Miranda, which he said he did to show he felt threatened.
Miranda said he let go and tried to guide Solis out of the haunt by grabbing his arm or hand. But Solis hit him again when they were face to face, Miranda said.
“At that moment, I was thinking ‘I need to squash this right now because there are other kids up ahead,’” Miranda said. “If I let this kid through, he’s going to keep hurting those kids and it might escalate to something much worse.”
Miranda said he draped his arm across Solis’s chest and grabbed his shoulder with his hand to escort him out. Solis, however, remembers it differently.
“He grabbed me and he put me in a chokehold,” Solis said. “I was losing consciousness.”
Miranda denies putting Solis in a chokehold, but said he took him out of that portion of the haunt, reuniting the teen with his group.
“I just pushed him to his family and I told him, ‘Hey. Don’t ever touch me. Don’t ever touch the actors again. There’s no place for that here,’” Miranda recalled. “And I closed the door.”
Yet Solis’s group remembers it differently.
Atreyu Alcantar, 14, Solis’s friend who was dressed as Mario, said he was in a headlock.
“ He swung him out of the door into an aluminum wall. (Solis) was crying and he could barely breathe,” Alcantar said. He remembers Miranda saying “‘get the (expletive) out of my house.”
Solis’s feet were off the ground when Miranda threw him out of the haunted house, according to multiple members of the group.
“ He couldn’t talk,” said Lizette Garza, Alcantar’s aunt. “He was crying and crying.”
Solis’s mother, Marifina Gonzalez, who was not at Toluca Ranch, was told by the owners that actors could restrain unruly guests and that the security cameras weren’t in operation.
“I don’t think that’s a way of de-escalating an incident,” she said. “If you’re an adult, you de-escalate another way.
“A restrain(t) shouldn’t leave marks,” she said of what looked to be a bruise and scratches on her son’s neck. The images and story circulated around Facebook this past weekend, after Garza first posted them online.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the matter.
Toluca Ranch’s owners say there was no way of knowing Solis’ age judging by his height. Haunted house staff and members of the teen’s group described his height as deceptive for his age.
The owners emphasized that the attraction is suggested for adults.
Julia Gonzalez, Domingo’s wife and co-owner of Toluca Ranch, said she and her actors have bruises from customers.
She said a customer kicked her son unconscious last year before the new policy was implemented.
“It is what it is,” she said. “They hit us but we don’t do anything.”
Miranda said that it’s common for customers to resist, but the altercation with Solis was the first time he’s “ever had anyone throw wild punches at (him).”
“I hate to see all these stories going up on the internet tarnishing the reputation that these guys have,” Miranda said, adding that the haunt staff should review the policies about making contact with customers to prevent future incidents.
Toluca Ranch’s owners say the attraction is intended to be a fundraiser for local charity RGV Helping Hands, which supports low-income individuals with disabilities.