Haunted Houses: How to Correctly Bring the Scary Back

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street at 6 years old cured me of fear.  I simply don’t scare now.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t love a good scary movie or haunted house attraction.

I’ve been to a fair few haunted houses and, while there weren’t any I didn’t enjoy, the elements that each got right still stick in my head.  I thought I’d share what I think are the best elements of haunted house attractions and what can be improved.

Waverly Hills does a Haunted House every year.  Perfect location.
Waverly Hills does a Haunted House every year. Perfect location.
  • Atmosphere: The best element of the most effective haunted houses is the atmosphere. Nothing takes me out of a good horror experience than something that doesn’t fit.  A lot of haunted houses either have a theme or have various themes; so you either go to a “haunted factory” or go to a big building that has sections, each with its own theme.  Either can work as long as they stay artistically cohesive.  Your spooky clowns shouldn’t be wandering around your industrial buildings and you’re the Ring inspired escaped mental patients shouldn’t lurk in the Frankenstein castle set.  Likewise the best haunted houses make excellent use of props and setting.  Sometimes the best part of the experience is seeing the environments they’ve put together.  I’ve seen great cemeteries, houses, and even car wrecks in good haunted houses.  When these elements combine it creates a memorable event.
Making non-standard, unexpected characters adds a lot to the scariness.  Familiarity is anti-horror.
Making non-standard, unexpected characters adds a lot to the scariness. Familiarity is anti-horror.
  • Characters: I’m not referring here to just famous horror characters, though that can be an element. This refers more making the best use of your performers.  Don’t overdo it on lurching zombies and chainsaw guys.  We’ve all seen the guy without a chain on the chainsaw coming after us, so how do you make it different?  One of the best I’ve seen is a “stalker” where the “same” chainsaw character (likely played by different people but all similar and representing the same character) randomly reappeared throughout the maze, sometimes in front of us blocking out path, sometimes breaking through walls, sometimes behind us.  It was like being hunted by Nemesis from Resident Evil 3.  He could be anywhere, it kept us on our toes and we never knew where he would come from.  Also see above concerning where your characters fit.  Your Freddy Kreuger really should be in the right place, so should your Michael Meyers.  Understanding the best use of each character you have really goes a long way…

  • Lighting: Ok this is an important one. Don’t make the entire place one color, one brightness, and one mood of lighting.  Going from bright areas to super dark areas is unsettling.  Or having a well-lit hallway with sharply dark alcoves or ending in a pitch black tunnel build suspense.  See what effective lighting techniques are used in movies and even great horror games.  When everything is the same level of dark your eyes adjust and the spookiness loses its effect the longer your there.  Also the more realistic the lighting is for the place your in (having a school hallway lit like a school hallway) is far more immersive.  And here’s a big one…  Strobe lights people.  Ok strobe lights can be very scary.  One of the scariest images I’ve witnessed was a horror trailers in Las Vegas as a kid.  The strobe was perfect.  Just choosing the epileptic seizure setting doesn’t usually work.  Having it set to flash slowly, so characters seem to disappear and appear close to you like a movie missing frames is the best use of strobes.  There’s a reason this imagery became so prevalent in films!
  • Choreography: This ties closely with characters but it is just as much about the design of the rooms and events.  Mediocre haunted houses have people in makeup standing in corners jumping out saying “boo!” from each dark corner as you pass by.  They aren’t so much scary as pestering.  Arranging performers for maximum effectiveness is something to really consider.  Some great positioning recommendations: having a narrow grate bridge in a long cylindrical room with a single character blocking the way; going through a ceiling so low you have to crouch and finding characters meandering in front of you and turn to find more stalking up behind you, being surrounded is deeply unsettling; my friend Mike saw a child performer portraying a cut-in-half adult dragging himself toward the guests, no matter what that’s creepy!  Remember there’s more to scaring than jump scares.  Use the entire range of fear (claustrophobia, the unknown, tension, sound) to make a memorable series of set pieces.
Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern is terrific.  A great use of environment to create a unique haunted house.
Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern is terrific. A great use of environment to create a unique haunted house.
  • Creativity: I can’t stress this one enough. Don’t just set up free-standing drywall, throw some farm tools on it, and have people in Goodwill clothes jump out.  What is unique about your location?  One of the best I attended was in a cave; another was in an abandoned school. Do you have any specialist performers who can do interesting things?  Is there something prevalent in horror pop culture right now?  What are the trends in horror movies and horror culture?  Can you put your own creative spin on them or even do something completely different to set yourself apart from the pack.  If everyone is doing zombies…maybe more zombies aren’t such a good idea.

I love haunted houses and a great attraction will be something guests will remember for years.  The more quality haunted houses there are the better a Halloween season it is!

 

 

 

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