When designing your haunted house, the first thing you need to decide on is your theme. Get creative with your theme; anyone can put some gravestones up and call it a day, but how are you going to genuinely scare and surprise your return customers? Once you pick your theme, make sure you stick with it, don’t have clowns in your insane asylum or witches in your amusement park.
A haunted house is similar to a story in that it should have an introduction, climax, and ending. In the first room or two, you need to set the mood and really impress on the customers whatever theme you’re trying to create. Throughout the haunt, your scares should increase in intensity so you can save the best for last. Customers will often be so scared they’ll only remember the first room and the last room, so make sure they remember the best you have to offer. One more thing to keep in mind when implementing your theme is to make sure it is not too complex. Customers will often be way too frightened when going through to notice any intricate details or concentrate on any storyline you have created. But having a simple theme that progresses throughout the maze will be innately understood and add a nice touch to your haunt.
Have you ever seen those light shows people put up around Christmas time where the lights are timed to flash in different patterns to the music? If you haven’t, go look it up right now, I’ll wait. Done? Good, we’ll continue. Once you have your outside waiting area all set up with props and music, the next step is recreating one of these awesome shows to keep your guests entertained throughout the night. If you make the show good enough, you’ll have people flooding in just for the experience of waiting in your line, let alone going through your haunted house!
I’m sure if you have been inside someone else’s haunted house before you’ve wished you could walk through with all the lights on so you can see what the set actually looks like and all the tactics actors use to scare you. Well you now have the perfect opportunity to make people’s dreams come true with a lights-on tour. One or more afternoons in your season, open up the haunted house to guided tours where an actor will take a group of customers through the maze and show them all the details and secret spots where actors can hide to perform scares. In addition, for all the scaredy-cats who are too afraid to come through your terrifying haunted house with all the lights off and creatures present, this is their chance to see what this haunted house business is all about.
More ideas to improve your haunted house are possible plans for your haunt in the off-season. You have 11 months of the year in which your awesome set sits there, just wishing to be put to use. You can keep it profitable all year long by turning your maze into a laser tag arena or miniature golf course. Both of these are fun businesses that would fit in great in a haunted house!
So now you have the best haunted house in town, but there is still one main issue with your attraction. People are lining up for hours to go through your haunt, and there’s nothing for them to do in line. Customers may choose to go to a different, lower quality show if you fail to keep them entertained throughout their entire experience, waiting in line included. The most important thing to keep in mind is creating the right atmosphere; don’t have your customers be waiting for a haunted house inside a brightly lit room with the only sound coming from conversations around them. If you are located at a venue, see if you can turn off all the lights and create your own mood lighting with soft or colored lights scattered around the room. Also, you will need to set the mood with some music, ranging from creepy gothic or metal music to pump up electronic and dubstep, depending on who your crowd is. If you can find live music like a band or DJ to play for you, even better!
Some more things to keep in mind for your outside area are selling food, drinks, and merchandise. You can keep your customers happy and make some easy money at the same time. Did you just upgrade your props and have some old ones lying around from last years set? Then sell your “custom” pieces at a stand along with other party or Halloween themed items like fog machines and strobe lights. And lastly, if you really want to create an awesome experience, turn your whole waiting area into a set itself by placing extra props around the room. For example, turn one corner into a graveyard scene, or have some actors walking around the room, scaring unsuspecting customers.
In the haunted house world, you will become well acquainted with 4×8 sheets of plywood and 2×3 beams. It’s amazing the things you can do with them! I recently had a friend walk through my haunted house and ask where on Earth did I find such awesome, realistic metal boilers. He couldn’t believe me when I told him a little wood, paint, and scrap pieces of metal can go such a long way. One thing you’ll learn when building a haunted house is that most men’s trash will be your treasure. Have some old rusty pipe? Give it here, that will look great in my electrical room.
One thing you do have to be careful of when constructing your haunted house is that you’re essentially building a labyrinth; a maze that you must carefully construct to avoid it being a deathtrap. Before starting construction, make sure you’re aware of all the building code in your city, which may require up to 4 feet gaps in your hallways to make sure they are wheelchair accessible along with other not well-known requirements. In addition make sure your walls are sturdy enough that when the building inspector comes through, kicking and knocking into your walls, they don’t fall down in a domino effect!
Horror, gore, thrillers, slashers. People watch these movies everyday for the sole purpose of getting scared. Sometimes it works and a movie will terrify you, but other times it is just a cheaply made film covered in blood. But watching these types of movies is similar to being in the passenger seat of a car; you are just along for the ride, not really in control. You have a feeling of detachment when watching these movies. It is hard to really get engaged in the horror when you know in the back of your mind that you are safe at home and nothing in the movie is actually happening in real life. And that is where haunted houses come into play. Haunted houses are a growing, thriving business because they take you out of the passenger seat, now you are driving, and you better buckle up! No longer are you yelling at the TV screen, “Don’t open the door, he’s in the bathroom!” You’re finally making your own decisions on which doors to open, which path to take in the maze, and whether that shadow in the corner is just your imagination or really a demon waiting for you to pass by to strike. Haunted houses will immerse you in fear; you will see it, hear it, feel it, even smell it. Here your nightmares come alive right in front of your eyes. That is why we love haunted houses.
As a haunted house set designer, I’ve learned a lot about how to scare people. Actors that scare from different heights, variations in the soundtrack, flashlights that emit the perfect amount and size of light, and the list goes on. There are four main essential ingredients to a haunted house: sets, lighting, music, and actors. In order to put on a successful show, none of these can be lacking.
However, the thing that I’ve recently come to appreciate is just how much detail matters. Customers come to haunted houses to be scared. The easiest way for someone to avoid being scared in a haunted house is to not buy into it. We all know that none of it is real, but if you can somehow trick your customer into believing that it is, that’s how you can inflict real fear. So, how do you make everything seem real? It all starts with set detail. Sure, your haunt will be good if you paint the walls, throw in some props and dirty them up. But, if you want a truly realistic set, you have to go the extra mile. Paint over every screw, pull an all-nighter to get your fabric textures just right, and hide rebar in places that nobody will ever see. Any glitch in your sets that shows the customer that your haunt isn’t, in fact, haunted, will break the illusion and seriously detract from your show. Real life is detailed, and your haunt should be too.
Are clowns scary? Ask somebody this question, and chances are they’ll automatically say yes. For many reasons, society has developed the popular opinion that clowns, intentionally or not, are one of the scariest things, well, ever. Clowns typically have exaggerated features; a big, round nose, a wide ear-to-ear smile, large feet, and sometimes a huge belly. That, in addition to makeup covering every inch of skin, can make for a pretty creepy sight. And that just applies to normal clowns. The category of ‘scary clowns’ takes it all to a whole new level.
For a clown-themed haunted house, however, that is hard to pull off. Scary clowns aren’t demons, dead, half-animals, or magical. They’re just normal clowns with serious eye shadow, dirty clothes and maybe some blood running from their lips. They giggle and ride little tricycles, which, ultimately can be pretty lame. Perhaps it’s because we all know that clowns are just adults playing dress-up, and scary clowns just wear another layer of makeup. Unless a haunted house can figure out a creative way to develop the ‘scary clown’ character, it should aim for something that isn’t so obviously an actor in a costume.
The most important part of making a terrifying haunted house is the soundtrack. Have you ever been watching a scary movie, maybe it’s too scary you’re not even looking at the screen, and you’ll jump at certain scenes solely due to the music choice? Slow, creepy violins and abrupt, hard strikes on the organ. These sounds are meant to build up the suspense, draw you into the movie while keeping you still in anticipation, and then overload your senses with fear by timing loud music with images on the screen. This same tactic needs to be used in your haunted house to create a horrifying experience for your customers. Are they walking through a little kid’s bedroom? Have a little girl whispering for them to come play with her. Have a heartbeat thumping or footsteps scuffing right behind the customer to really add another dimension of fear.
In addition to audio, lighting is another important aspect to creating an awesome haunt. On one hand, you want it dark enough to create a spooky atmosphere and so customers can’t see your actors until the opportune moment, but you also don’t want it too dark that customers are running into walls, or missing your great, detailed sets. One solution to this problem is to create an almost pitch-black room, but give your customer’s dimmed flashlights, one per group or one for every person, so they can explore your room. You will often want to highlight some of the cool or gory props and details you have in your room, which is where can lights come into use. Have a blue light glowing inside a fridge or a red spotlight shining dimly behind a bloody corpse and you can direct the customer’s attention wherever you want.