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!

 

 

 

The Strange Brilliance of Stranger Things

Stranger Things was sold to me inaccurately.  I came to the show very late (I just watched it last week) but I was told by multiple parties “If you love 80s horror you’ll love this show!”  That couldn’t be less accurate.  A more true statement would be “If you love the 80s AND love horror you’ll love this show!”  I do love both and, like everyone else who has seen it, I love this show.  At its core it’s just a story about a missing boy, but surrounded by excellent high-concept storytelling that takes it to the next level.  It’s part Goonies, a little X-Files, some Monster Squad, with a bit of Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure.

So what makes this series another spectacular notch on Netflix’s already festooned original content belt?

  • Characters: it always comes down to characters. You can hang the simplest story on phenomenal characters and make something special (Star Wars anyone?), but a complex epic story is just white noise if the characters are flat and useless (looking at you Jupiter Ascending).  And this is where Stranger Things gets it all right every time.  A dorky science teacher is 100% accurate, but science dork isn’t ALL he is (he knows DnD, he helps with a search, he’s on a date).  Surly Chief Hopper has a reason to be surly, but he also has backstory with other characters (that’s rumored and speculated and nothing more) and also an obvious reason to be obsessed with the disappearance of Will Beyers.  Even the characters on the periphery have deep characters built up, like Steve the would-be boyfriend.  He’s not Johnny from Karate Kid who’s just kind of a jerk to be a jerk. Steve has good qualities and his character arc isn’t what you expect it to be.  The same is true for Nancy and Jonathan, who have realistic and believable character arcs.  The show is stolen by Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers and Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp as the main child leads.  Ryder’s performance as a frantic, but determined and brave mother is terrific and I can’t recall when I’ve seen such authentic child characters.

  • Tone: The show is a masterpiece of pacing and tone. It’s set from the opening battle with monsters in a make believe fantasy setting during a Dungeons and Dragons game.  It then becomes a battle with real monsters and a real fantasy setting and never loses its authenticity.  You believe in this world, its characters, and its lore.  You believe in interdimensional monsters and psychic kids.  Strangely the tone isn’t one of traditional “horror” either.  While yes there are monsters and victims, I never found it to be scary in a normal way.  It has a feeling of tense suspense, with the tension coming from a desire to see as little harm as possible come to these great characters.  Or alternatively see the deserving ones get the chop.

  • Concept and Execution: This is a story that is unique and original. It’s not based on a treatment of a comic book or from the characters featured in a novel.  It’s a new idea encompassing everything we love about the time period and bringing in elements of modern science fiction horror from films like Super 8.  It even gives subtle nods to period-specific media, from the music (which isn’t ALL accurate, some of that is post 1983 people…) to movies (kids riding their bikes from imposing authority figures anyone?)  It’s a slickly made, well-executed piece of storytelling that again continues the gradual shift from single-narrative feature films to the expansive mini-series formula as the potential preferred medium of up-and-coming creators.  And it also shows just how well it can be done.

It’s not all roses of course.  I think the creature is significantly scarier the less we see of it (it was never more frightening than the first glimpses Will sees of it while riding home) and even though they may have needed to show the creature for the themes they were going for, I think less is more for it.  Also the vague “government” enemy is a little bit of a cliché, but it does tie in nicely to the 1980s Cold War fear mongering prevalent in the period.

Stranger Things shows just how much can be done when the right group of creators, meets the right distributor, and mixes the perfect cast with the right idea.  It’s perfect for the Halloween season, and if you haven’t seen it yet catch it right now!  If you have seen it, hell catch it again;  I definitely intend to!

The World’s End Original Artwork: To Err is Human

Off the PageOne of my favorite movies of the 2000s is Edgar Wright’s The World’s End.  The conclusion of the so-called “Cornetto-Trilogy,” the movie brings together everything Wright, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and their acting company learned from their previous experiences; those they’ve completed together and those they’ve completed on their own. It’s hilarious, unique, moving, perfectly cast, wonderfully performed, and masterfully directed.  It’s a terrific film and the best original idea I can recall seeing in a decade or more.

Because of my OCDs I tend to get movies stuck in my head and this can result in binge watching movies or TV shows on repeat.  That was the case with World’s End several weeks ago.  Watching it, then with the writer’s commentary, then the cast commentary, then the technical commentary, then with the trivia subtitles, then just again with all of that behind-the-scenes knowledge, the movie truly got stuck in my head.  I had an idea for a drawing and just had to get it on paper.  This was the scene that stayed with me, along with The Sisters of Mercy song “This Corrosion”:

errmov

I started in light 4H pencil to get the basics down:

errpen01

Then worked left to right to keep the 4B and 6B graphite from smearing too badly as I went:

errpar2 errpen4 errpen4a errpar5

In the end I had to take additional pictures from my Bluray copy of the movie in order to get the costume details accurate.  Each character took around 3 hours each with Gary King taking around 4-5 as he required the most work and it was most important to have his accoutrements correct.

The final version:

errfinal

I decided to add the blue eyes for Gary’s “Blank” mates, which is different from the film but made a more powerful image.  I added the bright red “To Err is Human” the partial Pope reference purposefully misquoted by Gary in his confrontation with the Network and appearing correctly written on a wall in the epilogue.  The quote became the unofficial name of the drawing.

To make perhaps my artistic life, I posted the drawing on Twitter, not expecting too much only to find the next day Edgar Wright himself, my favorite active director, actually liked the Tweet.  I did a bit of minor bragging about this one!

ewtweet

 

Dragon Tales: Experiences at DragonCon Part 2

Cosplaying it Up

In my last post I mentioned Cosplaying at the con.  Cosplaying is a huge part of just about every kind of convention now and one of the best aspects of going to a con is seeing the effort and work participants put into their costumes and the terrific creativity on display.

Everyone is appreciated no matter the skill and everyone is there to enjoy and not judge.  it a great atmosphere, especially for new cosplayers. This was my first year in costume to a con like this and I found it to be an amazing experience.  I was stopped for pictures with con-goers and other cosplayers.  Mad Max and Nux stopped me to ask me how I made some of the material.  I got fist bumps from random strangers out of appreciation.  And most of my costume was done on the cheap!

Here are some of my favorites from the Con:

20160902_220157
A great Mr Oogie Boogie. That’s a deceptively difficult costume, especially to get the face right!
20160902_111351
This Mr Freeze was a show stopper. All those lighting effects and crafted armor pieces, not to mention the freeze ray!
20160902_111551
An excellent Tidus. The costume crafting and weapon were terrific!
20160902_112711
Dr Doom! One great thing about taking pictures of cosplayers is how each one usually has an in-character pose they use for their pictures.
20160905_102950
We loved this master shake. Again it looks simpler than it is but it’s still a basic idea and the simplicity of the costume matches the art style of the show.
14212657_1076387922408569_3498556326459172534_n
We saw this Penguin from Batman Returns several times and had to get a shot of him.

14192571_1076388269075201_3504382755606169840_n

20160903_155339
I lost it when I saw this Nurgle Chaos Terminator. It was a very creative construction and looked great!
14192571_1076388269075201_3504382755606169840_n
Mugatu was in character all night and even won the prize in a costume contest.
14264142_1076387652408596_8979490739507255111_n
My best friend’s wife went as Elektra from Netflix’s Daredevil. It was a very creatively compiled costume!
She went as Psylocke on day two. She made everything herself!
She went as Psylocke on day two. She made everything herself!
14264231_1076388575741837_8669949291215152892_n
My Judge Dredd. Even though I felt it was incomplete it got a lot of positive reactions.
14264142_1076388355741859_1915667782777003560_n
I got to pose with Cobra Commander!

 

14203236_1076388739075154_6541999123028102001_n
Kylo Ren even asked me to dance!

Cosplaying is so much fun and so empowering I highly recommend it.  Even if you’re an obsessive introvert like me who obsesses about accuracy and details, you’ll be surprised how many people just love that you’re there in costume.  No one sees the missing details, trust me!  It’s all about fun and for me it was the most enjoyable part of the con.

Dragon Tales: Experiences at DragonCon Part 1

Atmosphere and Impressions

I’ve only ever attended smaller conventions.  While there are still crowds, panels, and interesting sights attending a large convention is a completely different experience.  So how about one that attracts half a million people to Atlanta in September?  This was my first year at DragonCon and it was a terrific experience.  I thought I’d share some general thoughts on the Con and then get into detailed thoughts in future posts.

DragonCon night at the GA Aquarium. One of the many outside events taking place during the weekend.
DragonCon night at the GA Aquarium. One of the many outside events taking place during the weekend.
  • Atmosphere: One of the great things about attending a broad topic-specific convention is that everyone is there because of their love of something. You might like video games, maybe comic books, maybe sci-fi TV or movies, or is it horror-fantasy?  You’ll find fans of all of them and everyone is there to celebrate these things.  Despite the general nerd/geek tendency to harp on minor complaints I saw very little negativity at the con at all.  Even in long lines, during the long walks, or amidst crowded food courts.  The only complaints I heard revolved around waiting for shuttles (which were free, so complaints were minimum) and being stuck in the parade crowd (because people really didn’t have any idea how to navigate through a crowd…)  Other than that, even with a couple of potentially big SNAFUs, it was just a good atmosphere of positivity and enjoyment.
You never know what you'll see. That's a 1:1 scale (No Pun Intended) Toothless. you could pose with him for charity.
You never know what you’ll see. That’s a 1:1 scale (No Pun Intended) Toothless. You could pose with him for charity.
  • Seeing the Sites: The first full day of the Con (we got our badges Thursday night but that doesn’t count) we spent the morning in the Sheraton watching the Friday morning crowds. Everywhere you looked were cosplayers of all levels happily posing with ecstatic fans.  The vendor halls are packed with unique items you can’t find anywhere else.  Arcade machines are set up free-to-plan, gaming tables are everywhere for every conceivable type of game.  Themed parties take place at all hours and many of the local restaurants have convention-themed menu items.  Celebrities  can be seen talking with fans and in one case even playing an RPG for fans’ amusement.  It’s not just a convention of fans it’s a convention of all the peripheral activities fans love.
Team Cosplay is amazing. This is a spot-on Tidus, Yuna, and Wakka. He even had a Blitzball! (not pictured)
Team Cosplay is amazing. This is a spot-on Tidus, Yuna, and Wakka. He even had a Blitzball!
  • Cosplay Love: I’ll do a fuller post on Cosplaying at the Con, but one aspect that shows the best side of fandom is how loved and accepted all cosplayers are. You of course have highly skilled professionals or near professionals who have spent a lot of time and money perfecting screen-or-page-perfect costumes.  But you also have creative people who have used the means they have to make great costumes, or even knowingly cheesy or goofy costumes and wear them proudly.  What makes this a wonderful experience is that all of these cosplayers receive equal love from fans.  People of all genders, shapes, and sizes playing characters they love and fans accept them with joy and excitement.  It’s hard to find a more welcoming community, especially for beginning cosplayers…but more on that next time.

I loved the Con and I’m actually eager for next year.  Next post will focus specifically on the cosplay experience!

 

Dragon Dredd: Judge Dredd Costume for DragonCon Complete!

With DragonCon this week I thought I’d share an update of my Dredd costume.  I didn’t have the money to make it as 100% as I’d hoped but with the stuff I already had plus some creativity I think it turned out pretty well!

SONY DSC

The helmet was the most difficult part.  Fiberglass is brittle and nasty to cut but by adding a $5 motorcycle helmet visor (which was very difficult to cut to fit, who would have thought chopping up DOT legal vehicle equipment would be so hard!?) and the padding (made from PC component packing) it ended up being pretty sturdy!

SONY DSC

The kneepads I got for less than $10 from a store closing.  They work well enough.  Next time I’ll add the Megacity-style ridges to them to make them more legit.  Those are East German Army Boots I’ve had since high school.  I’ve got around four pairs so I wouldn’t mind trying to modify some of those for a more 2000AD style Judge Dredd for future costumes!

SONY DSC

It was a lot of fun to put together and while, yes I’ll roast in the September Atlanta sun, I’m looking forward to being at least one Megacity Judge at the con this year!