By Jessica Leigh Brown
Zombies, ax murderers, sadistic clowns and classic Frankenstein’s monsters all make great characters at haunted attractions—but what will be the hottest haunt characters in 2015? The answer to that question depends on several variables, but the most important is the specific haunted attraction’s target market. “We target teens and college-age young adults, who tend to be influenced by popular culture and Hollywood,” said Chris Stafford, a partner at 13th Floor Chicago. “Because of the TV show ‘American Horror Story,’ clowns are probably going to be the number one haunt character in 2015.”
While Stafford heeds trends in pop culture, he recognizes that creativity is an important element. “Twisty the Clown from ‘American Horror Story’ is probably [one] of the more innovative clowns that’s come out of pop culture,” said Stafford. “Within our industry, a lot of people looked at that and said, ‘Maybe we can reimagine it.’ Taking a character and putting your own creative twist on it makes it fresh and interesting instead of cliché.”
At Ghostly Manor Thrill Center in Sandusky, Ohio, Director of Operations Billy Criscione also emphasized creativity. “All our characters are original,” said Criscione. “Within haunted houses, some haunts do have an iconic character, but most don’t. During haunt season, some of our actors change up their character every night.” While Criscione and his team haven’t planned to add new characters this year, they have been tossing around some fresh ideas. “We’ve discussed the option of putting hoods over customers so they can feel their way through a haunt but can’t see what’s going on. They’re responding to smells, sounds and the feeling of what they’re touching or stepping on. The focus is more on the scare than on the visuals.”
As Criscione and others recognize, many haunted house customers come with the goal of being scared rather than impressed by visual effects. 3-D effects are falling in popularity at haunted attractions, according to Brett Molitor of Haunted Hotel 13th Floor in Huntington, Ind. “3-D is on its way out,” Molitor said. “I think a lot of haunted houses have been doing 3-D as a side attraction and it’s turned out to be more entertaining than scary, so it’s a distraction from the scare factor.” Opened in 1967, Haunted Hotel 13th floor is likely the oldest continuously operated haunted house in the world, according to Molitor, who also operates Hysterium Haunted Asylum in Fort Wayne. “The asylum themes are really popular now,” Molitor explained. “Our theming led to the character development of demented patients, doctors and workers for that location.”
For upcoming seasons, Molitor is investigating a new idea called the escape room. “Guests are attempting to escape from some type of danger, such [as] a zombie who’s chasing them,” Molitor said. “Like in a treasure hunt, they must follow a whole series of clues in order to get out. Most escape rooms have a success rate of only about 30 percent.” Because of the game-like nature of the escape room concept, Molitor said it lends itself to collaboration and is ideal for corporate team-building events.
When it comes to new ideas, pop culture leads the way, said Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, Ga. “Right now in pop culture, you see two major trends: apocalyptic and the supernatural,” said Armstrong. Alien invasion and zombies fall under the apocalyptic heading, while the supernatural encompasses ghosts, spirits and unseen evil forces. “There are so many supernatural-themed TV shows right now, it blows my mind,” said Armstrong. “As a result, this year our primary show will be ghosts and the supernatural, including illusions, lighting effects and specialized costuming. We’re going to theme it as a ghost lab with containment chambers holding spirits and creatures.”
At Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City, Utah, Owner Mike Henry is planning new sets and characters for the 2015 season. “We’re putting together a steampunk-themed area that we’ve never done before,” Henry said. “There will be lots of gears, machinery and cyborg-type characters.” Because the attraction will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Henry is planning to bring back popular characters and sets from the past few decades for a best of theme. “We’re going to bring back our very best scares of 25 years, and for us, that’s going to include an awful lot of characters.” Henry agreed with Stafford that clowns are very popular, and he’s planning to expand the circus-themed section of Nightmare on 13th, entitled CarnEvil, before October.
Creating fresh characters is an essential goal for the haunt industry, but Stafford noted that classic Halloween characters and scenes will always be needed. “To a certain degree, we’ve run the gamut with custom characters,” he said. “You want to keep innovating and moving forward, but there’s also something to be said about returning to your roots and the nostalgia of Halloween, and trying to wrap what you’re doing around a holiday people celebrate.”