How They Make Haunted Houses (and You Can, Too)


Halloween is upon us and with it there are signs everywhere about haunted houses, corn mazes, and graveyard tours. Halloween is one of the most popular holidays of the year with the average American spending over $70 dollars on costumes, decorations, and other Halloween-related purchases. Whether you like to spend your holiday looking for the best haunted house in the area, or would rather stay at home with a handful of Reese’s pumpkins, scaring the daylights out of people is a $300 million industry in the United States.

But, what makes a good scare? If you’ve ever been to a really good haunted house, you know that the atmosphere alone can make you turn into a shivering, wide-eyed ball of nerves. On the other side of the spectrum, we’ve all seen “spooky” settings that were supposed to be scary and only managed mildly amusing. Where is that line between corny and creepy? How do the professional scarers ensure their short-lived businesses have what it takes to make it thru to the next year? And how can you incorporate those same ideas into your own spooky settings?

Many haunted houses (and other settings like old prisons, asylums, museums, etc.) use a three stage setup when designing their experiences.

SCARE, SPECTACLE, and STORY

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the sight of “Terror Behind the Walls,” a nightly haunted house experience. The old prison is voted one of the best haunted houses in the U.S. and even had its share of ghostly sightings before it every housed any professional haunts.

Of course, choosing an old penitentiary as the sight of your haunted house does do a lot of the work for you. For one thing, most people will already be creeped out by the idea of going to a dilapidated prison at night. There are long, narrow hallways and dark, dank cells, and wall to wall peeling paint. But, that same foreshadowing sets up a certain expectation that you now have to match. Your guests want to be scared. And with the $250 million dollars spent watching horror movies these days, scares have to be more than just smoke and mirrors.

SCARE

The folks at “Terror Behind the Walls” know they have a good thing going. Instead of recreating the wheel and setting up elaborate stages of “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Dracula’s Lair,” they take inspiration from what’s already there. Rooms that were once used as an infirmary, a psych ward, or a solitary confinement cell, are restored and elaborated for maximum effect.

Professional haunted houses have brought scaring to a science. Many techniques have been tried and tested in moving large amounts of people through relatively small spaces. Guests need to be moved through as quickly as possible, while still being given enough time to have a truly terrifying experience.

Distractions is one of those techniques. Distractions occupy a guest’s attention away from the key scare: a figure about to jump out from behind the wall. These can be a rustling a fabric in the corner, fog spilling from a doorway, bloody footprints, etc. Once the big scare does come, haunted houses have learned to “scare forward.” Instead of a zombified man jumping out in front of you, he’ll sneak up behind the party and scare you all off into the next room. When the next group is only a minute or so behind, keeping everyone moving is important. Also, the designers have to keep in mind where everyone will be at at all times. Long, dark hallways are creepy, but if the guests in back can see all where all of the scary stuff is coming up, they won’t be scared once they get there. These masters of fright have learned to hide the scares that are coming up. This takes practice, both from the people in masks and makeup, as well as clever tricks and careful planning from the set designers.

SPECTACLE

​If you’ve ever noticed that old horror movies aren’t really scary anymore, you’ll find a haunted house’s biggest problem. People aren’t as easy to scare as they once were. Simple ghosts and ghouls don’t do the trick. Today’s scary movies have millions of dollars-worth of special effects. Haunted houses have spectacles. Using a lot of the same special effects techniques from Hollywood, haunted houses use everything from animatronics to prosthetic flesh and special effects makeup to create terrifying haunts no one has ever seen before.

They also make use of different types of spaces. The East State Penitentiary has a central atrium with a radial pattern of cell blocks. The guests go through the wide open atrium to set the stage, and then move into progressively smaller spaces, increasing their feelings of unease. The E.S.P., like a lot of today’s haunted houses, have their guests’ consent to be grabbed and used in part of the experience. This also increases that feeling of “anything could happen.”

STORY

The real secret to selling anything, be it a haunted house, or Mary Kay products, is to incorporate a story. Add a story and your customer is invited to engage and immerse themselves in the experience. When animated movies are screened for audiences, entire scenes are often unfinished. The animators insert storyboards or frames lacking, lighting, special effects, etc. The amazing thing is, if the viewers are engaged in the story, they often won’t even notice.

Establishing a story, or a progression of scenes, can do a lot for creating a thrilling experience. Music, sound effects and lighting all affect the viewer, too. Being in control of these things is just another tool for making a killer haunted house.

VISUALIZE YOUR OWN HAUNTED HOUSE

Here are some more tips for making your own haunted house next year:

- Use foam to make tombstones. Don’t forget to cut cracks and chips, etc. Apply a layer of concrete spray from a home improvement store to make it look authentic, without it being authentically heavy.

- Make a maze: back yard, basement, barn, etc. Even a garage can be turned into a few scenes. Guests don’t actually have to get lost. Just hide the next scare coming up around the corner. Use mood lighting and sound effects EVERYWHERE.

- Draw your space on graph paper (1 ft = 5 squares)

- Use old projectors, computer screens, TVs, etc. to create creepy visuals and hints of movement. Disguise these with fabric or mock photo or window frames.

- Dark purple and red lighting is best, but dark greens and dim yellows can be good too.

- Start small. There’s no saying you can’t add more next year after you’ve gotten your feet wet.

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