Haunting Down Under:
October 30, 2010
An American Perspective
Halloween is an American holiday celebrated with trick or treating, costumes, candy, jack-o-lanterns, Halloween parties, and of course month-long October haunted houses, corn mazes and more. Other countries, including Australia, know of this holiday, but don’t actively celebrate it the way Americans do. Australians, however, have a passion for horror movies and therefore enjoy scary activities and events any time of year. This high interest made a 2,600-square-foot unit called “Hollywood Horrors,” purchased by Jay Jones of Xtra Ordinary Events of Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and his partner Jamie Pickett, of FJF Amusements, a sure bet for the EKKA Festival, which is Queensland’s largest annual agricultural-based amusement event, and other fairs and festivals on the continent.
Jones realized after purchasing the unit from ScareFactory of Ohio, that it was now time to finish the job and hire a consultant who specialized in management, acting, and training to make the attraction highly successful, and Turner Enterprise, Inc. was selected for the job.
I left Detroit, Mich., on August 1 for Australia to complete the job. I took with me one of my most trusted friends and dedicated workers, Jerry Chaffee, who agreed to stay the months of August and September to finish out the programs I started. I realized that with all of the intercommunication between Jones and myself that we would have to jump start the event and do training during the festival. There was a total of 15 staff from all over the world including Germany, Italy, England, Spain, Brazil, Vietnam, Australia and the United States. There were some language issues, but for the most part the staff spoke or understood English. There is a large group of commonly called “backpackers” who compose a percentage of the labor force in Australia, who at ages 18 to 29 are students and adventure seekers. I was truly blessed to have owners who were already in the fair and festival markets and were experienced in hiring good staff.
I visited the haunt, which was 95 percent finished, and then found that I would need to immediately create the makeup room out of an 8-foot-by-8-foot area for the next day’s crash training program. So off to the department stores I went with one of the staff. Hollywood Horrors had some makeup but needed standard items such as mirrors, cleaning supplies, props, simple costume pieces and other bits and pieces. Many a fellow haunter and small business owner, as well as some park owners, know what it is to be right upon the opening deadline and all the loose ends keep popping up to make life so challenging at best. So, the day before the festival opened, we set up a functional dressing room/makeup area and took the better part of the day to train staff on acting and makeup. Knowing full well that I would not be able to accomplish this all in one day I chose to take extra care to explain the art of scaring customers to the staff and using masks with minimal makeup except for the key positions in the unit.
As anyone can see in the photographs, the extra care taken by Jones and Pickett in having a solid completely level raised floor, the high weather/wind resistant solid framed light blocking tent, as well as an absolutely gorgeous front castle façade, made any customer understand they were entering a unique interactive walk-through experience. My job was to make sure the customer had just that and the staff was eager to learn. By nightfall I felt that the staff was finally ready for the EKKA Festival opening the next morning. To be sure, I worked with several key staff till the wee hours of the morning, but it was definitely worth all the time and effort. As with any event, there were on opening day the usual hiccups with a few things including some electrical issues, and last minute decisions as to where to position the staff for maximum scare operations, since this unit was designed to be truly a “horrifying experience.” Not only did it deliver, but we experienced a daily average of 25 to 50 guests who entered but could not make it all the way through the event to exit out the last room. Nice to have plenty of panic doors located throughout the unit. (Thank you ScareFactory.)
Haunted or horror events at the festivals up to this time were what the Australians call “ghost rides” consisting of sit-down, two-minute rides in cars on a track system. I learned a great deal working the front door actors’ position very quickly how new this type of haunt experience was to Australia. The smiles, giggles and shrieks from scared patrons were easy examples of Hollywood Horrors’ huge success with the EKKA Festival.
Day by day the confidence of my actors grew and I was able to start swapping them around to give them some variety to their acting jobs and their makeup talents as well. Masks were still an absolute need but listen carefully readers, our day started at 8:30 a.m. with a 30-minute make up job and the festival started at 9 a.m. and went to 10 p.m. nightly for 10 days straight. By any standards, this is a very demanding time commitment and we were working in two shifts with a 30-minute break every two hours. This was a first, even for me, to be in costume and working with actual patrons for 10 to 13 hours a day and training staff as I went. Everyone pulled together and we had the hit location of the festival. Just to prove it, on one of the days it rained all day and even into the night (it rarely rains in the winter in Australia) for a record total rainfall that flooded out the festival. However, the Hollywood Horror lines stayed busy even into the evening. When other rides and locations were shutting down, we had to stay open due to its success. Customers were wading in 6 inches to a foot of water at times to get to our location. Now that’s what I call real success with patrons. Thanks to the raised floor construction, the unit was protected from the water.
Additionally, we also dealt with 50-mile-an-hour gusting winds on the next to the last day of the festival. True to fashion, Jones and Pickett pooled their collective minds and resources to rebuild some of the castle’s internal structure to better handle the serious safety concerns Mother Nature was throwing at us that day. The daily average temperature was in the mid 50s, and nighttime settled in the mid to low 40s. All in all, it was a positive temperature situation as far as I was concerned. I found the Australian folks to be very pleasant to work with and the customers very open to the new concept of a haunting experience. We even had a promo board made up explaining what type of attraction we were. I would like to thank Jones, Pickett, and the entire acting staff I worked with, as we accomplished a lot in a very short time span and now the future looks very bright for interactive haunting in Australia year round. I have been asked to return again in April to help Xtra Ordinary Events with a very large festival in Melbourne during Easter, so maybe I will get to go back to Australia again.
As a final evaluation of Haunting Down Under from an American perspective, I would like to say that despite the 13-hour flip-flop of time (their day is our night), and the basic accent barriers, Australia is a progressive country that has financially remained very stable during a worldwide economic meltdown. Evidence of this can be seen with the construction of new, high rise buildings and major traffic arteries being built in all major cities. The labor force is strong and employment does not seem to be an issue. Leisure money for the typical Australian family is evident in the huge success of the EKKA Festival and other similar events.
(Bob Turner owns and operates the Haunted Hydro Dark Attraction Park in Fremont, Ohio. He is a founding member and former president of the International Association of Haunted Attractions (IAHA), an educator in and speaker for the haunt industry and the author and creator of Hauntertainer University video training tools. Contact Turner at Hauntedhydro@sbcglobal.net.)