The season for most haunted attractions is fleeting but the creative minds behind them are seldom at rest. Owners, managers and directors are always contemplating ways to increase the scare factor at their respective haunts. Determining the right mix of animatronics and live actors usually factors heavily into the equation.
Trey Smith is the mastermind behind Boone Hall Fright Nights in Mount Pleasant, S.C. His company, DVE Productions, mounts a program that entertains approximately 30,000 people over 20 nights. “Animatronics are what I call eye candy. They make people go ‘Wow!’ ” Smith said. “But I’ve yet to find any animatronic that can get a response out of people the way a good actor can. The skill, the spontaneity, the timing, the natural motion and interaction an actor has with patrons far surpasses what an animatronic can do.” Smith is experienced enough to know it takes a good balance of animatronics, scene and set design, lighting, sound and good actors to get the full show. He counts on animatronics to tie scenes together and uses them as distractions to give patrons something to look at while setting them up for situations where actors will scare them.
Smith finds that if you take care of animatronics, they will usually last quite a few seasons. As a 25-year industry veteran, he’s definitely seen the quality of machines improve. “In the early days, some of them wouldn’t even last a season. But they’ve gotten better and I’ve gotten better at knowing what an animatronic can and cannot do. We put a lot of people through our haunts and give stuff a pretty hard core test,” he said. Smith often repurposes animatronics. He will change the way they look or where they appear in his production to keep things fresh. Although he’s never come across vendors that offer trade or buyback policies, Smith often trades animatronics with other haunted attractions. There are online forums and Facebook groups which exist for that very opportunity. “I’ve even considered opening my own shop where I’d acquire other people’s used props, refurbish them and put them back on the market – if only I could find the time!” he said.
Actors are favored at RISE Haunted House in Tickfaw, La., as well. “We prefer to have actual people in the haunt versus animatronics. We have a few animatronic props but most of the haunt runs on actors,” said Shontay Laiche, one of the owners of the family-run business. The actors often play a role in setting off props, triggering a body to pop out of a chair or leap from a bed, for example, but those are just distractions. “The patrons are made to think that’s actually the scare when the reality is the actor is going to get an even better scare,” Laiche added.
As RISE enters its fifth season, its proprietors are slowly adding more animatronics to their haunt which hosted 8,500 visitors over 15 days last year. A lot are props they’ve built themselves. “We hit a lot of auctions and garage sales and we take everybody’s junk and turn it into props that automatically go off or just stationary props inside each room,” Laiche said. Yet actors will always play a primary role at RISE. “In our opinion, it’s more realistic when you have real people inside the haunt.”
Camp Spookynaw in Oxford, Pa., is embarking on its second season and from the very beginning its creators chose an actor-heavy approach. They plan on using 55 to 60 actors this year and approximately 11 animatronics at their attraction which saw close to 5,000 visitors last year. It’s no accident that 80 percent of their animatronics are actor-driven. Co-Owner and Art Director Mark Moyer cited the example of a 10-foot tall tree beast where an actor sits in the bottom and manipulates how loud it roars and how close it leans in toward patrons. The actor can intensify or mute the special effects depending on who’s in front of the tree, an especially nice feature when families with young kids come through. “I like being able to have that human element in there,” Moyer said.
The Camp hasn’t had to replace any animatronics yet but expressed satisfaction dealing with manufacturers thus far. “They’ve all been really supportive. When things go wrong, we’ve called them on the phone and they’ve walked us through problems in real time. When it comes time to replace things, I imagine it’s going to be the same positive experience too,” Moyer said. He said that establishing a relationship with vendors is key, going to conventions and talking face-to-face with them. “Just like your mechanic. If your car’s going to need to go in, it’s better to go to somebody that you’ve been going to for years.”
The USS Nightmare in Newport, Ky., likes to use a combination of animatronics and actors. “Early on, we decided that animatronics were important to have to stand out in the industry but we never thought we could rely on them for the only scare in the room,” said Earl Rizzo, general manager of the attraction where attendance ranges between 25,000-50,000 a year. “We try hard to utilize animatronics in ways that support the actor. Some are diversions so the actor can get in behind them. Some are things the actor interacts with. But their real effect lies in the human part of the scene. By themselves we don’t feel animatronics are totally effective – they leave the customer wanting more. People want to be scared by real people. They don’t want to be scared by a machine.”
The haunted steamboat has kept animatronics around for as long as 15 years and retired others after just a couple of seasons. “A lot has to do with the quality of the product. If it’s still a good product and still useable, we’ll continue to use it one way or another. It may not be the way we intended when we initially bought it but it ends up adding depth to the scene.” said Rizzo. His experience with vendors has been that many of them will work with you on price, expecially if you have a large budget and are buying several pieces, but he’s never encountered any trade or buyback policies. “For the most part these props depreciate pretty quickly.”
At Saint Lucifer’s Haunted Asylum in Flint, Mich., Creative Director Kris Werner will pick an actor over animatronics any time. “When a good actor delivers a scare, it’s going to be spot on,” he said. Typically, he uses animatronics to set up actors and as eye candy. Interestingly, he’ll sometimes have a fledgling actor play a role similar to one an animatronic would fill as a sort of training ground. “I might have bought an animatronic to put in there and I wouldn’t have had to worry about it all night long. It would happen right on cue. But a kid might play the role this year, then next year he might have a better approach, and eventually he might develop into a really good actor,” he said.
Werner is a big fan of repurposing animatronics as they age. A lot of times he will disconnect the air hoses from them and turn them into static props. He’ll salvage pieces as they fall apart. He’s never encountered any trade or buyback policies with vendors but no matter, his position is that creative haunt operators always have to be rethinking the box. “Anybody who’s any good in this business will look at anything and say ‘I’ve got to figure out what to do with that. There’s got to be a purpose somewhere down the line.’ ”