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!




Ghost Story # 2: In the Hall

I’ll keep this simple. I believe in ghosts. Thirty years of living in haunted houses will do that to you. I don’t think I had a choice not to believe. I grew up listening to ghost stories about various houses I lived in, and there were too many unexplained things that happened… and still do.

Submitted for the approval of the RevPub readers, I call this story:

A Stranger in the Hall

My son was four days old. We returned from the hospital the day before, and he was asleep. I desperately wanted a hot shower, so I took advantage of the nap. He hardly slept when he was little.

I was alone with him in the house, so I locked all the doors and left his and the bathroom doors cracked open. I got in the shower, and as I was washing my face I heard footsteps in the hall, which is adjacent to the bathroom. (map)

I poked my head out and heard squeak, squeak, squeak, down the hall again.

I knew better than to say, “hello, is anyone there?” That will get you killed. I left the water on, quietly stepped out, wrapped a towel around me, and poked my head out the door. I assumed I would see my husband, but there was nothing.

Cussing to myself, I checked the doors, and everything was still locked. My son was fine, too. I stepped back in the shower, and as I was washing my hair, I heard footsteps in the hall again. Squeak, squeak, squeak.

I listened longer this time, and heard it again. Back and forth, back and forth. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I rushed out of the shower, grabbed the towel (again) and scissors this time, and slowly crept out of the bathroom.

Nothing. Not a sound, not a movement, and my son was sleeping in the exact spot I left him.

Irritated, I checked the doors and made my way back to the shower. I waited a couple of minutes and didn’t hear anything, so I got back in. As I finished and turned the water off, there were footsteps again. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I got out and dried off. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I got dressed this time, with scissors in hand, and was ready to kill someone.

With hair in towel, I stepped into the hall. Nothing. Every door locked, my son asleep, and not a sound or disruption. My only reaction was to get mad, and I simply said, “I don’t know what or who you are, but you can at least let me take a shower.”


Later when I told my husband and mother-in-law about it, they were calm and believed me. They explained my deceased father-in-law’s spirit was still in the house, and he was watching the baby while I took a shower. And to this day, I believe it.

Thankfully, it’s never happened again, or I don’t care enough to notice, but sometimes I still hear footsteps in the hall when no one is there. Sometimes while laying on the couch in the living room, there are footsteps in the same room. Squeak, squeak, squeak.

You can think I’m crazy, and I’m sure some of my friends do, but no one has been able to explain it. And I’m okay thinking it’s a good spirit keeping watch. I hope to do the same one day…

Have you ever heard anything and couldn’t explain it? Tell us about it in the comments section!