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.
You know what’s really scary in a haunted house? Little creepy girls with black hair over their face. We’ve all seen enough zombies and insane chainsaw killers to last a lifetime, and they’re just not scary enough for a top-notch haunted house. You need to step out of the box and think of new creatures and monsters to terrify your customers.
The same goes for the setting. You don’t want your customers thinking, “Wow what’s the haunted house going to be this year?” “Oh it’s a zombie apocalypse or a haunted manor again, seen it too many times.” To create a haunt that people want to return to year after year, you need to be creative and detailed. For example, how many abandoned amusement park haunted houses have you been to? Haunt owners won’t typically make these sorts of sets due to the difficulty of recreating an amusement park theme and procuring enough props to fill the whole haunt. It’s a lot easier to find some dressers, beds, and desks to make an actual haunted house than it is to make a cool theme. In addition, when you are creating your sets, you want to be as detailed as possible with your gore, grime, and props. True, most customers will only see 10% of your details, but its their knowledge of how much they missed that will draw them back. If they can go back through your haunt another time and get a different experience, seeing a whole new side to the haunt, then you’ve done your job.