New Twists on Classic Creepiness
How Haunts Keep the Characters and Scares Fresh

August 27, 2015 No Comments

When people visit a haunted attraction around Halloween, they are looking for one thing: to be scared out of their minds. Visiting the same haunt year after year can get a little stale, especially if the attraction does not do much to keep the scares coming. For this article, owners and managers at haunted attractions across the country revealed some of their secrets for keeping classic characters exciting, and most importantly, frightening, year after year.

Jan Knuth, owner and operator of Grey House Haunts in Holdrege, Neb., which had about 1,200 guests during its three-night run in 2014, said that she doesn’t use classic characters in classic ways, as that’s just not scary enough for the type of audience she wants to attract. When a haunt caters to a younger crowd, it’s OK to use characters such as the classic witch with a black pointy hat and green skin, she said.

The actors, and owner Jan Knuth in the grey stocking cap, from Grey House Haunts photographed on closing night 2014. The attraction entertained about 1,200 guests during its three-night run last year.

The actors, and owner Jan Knuth in the grey stocking cap, from Grey House Haunts photographed on closing night 2014. The attraction entertained about 1,200 guests during its three-night run last year.

But, the witch in a pointy hat comes across as a joke to adults and teenager visitors, she noted. To make a haunt truly scary for an older crowd, she puts a twist on those characters to up the fear factor. Instead of the expected Wizard of Oz-style witch with green skin, a soul-stealing, spell-casting old hag might appear at her haunt.

Timing is also an important part of keeping the thrills going at a haunted attraction. Tagsylvania in Big Flats, N.Y., makes ample use of classic movie tropes and characters. Jesse Reib, the operations manager, stressed the importance of delivery and timing when it comes to keeping guests scared. He also noted that using the tropes in a new and unique way, and working them into scenes in ways guests don’t expect is essential to keeping excitement high.

Playing with guests’ expectations is also how Norm Glenn, the owner of Scream Hollow Wicked Halloween Park in Smithville, Texas, keeps things scary. He stressed the importance of the suspension of disbelief when it comes to using classic characters in new and unexpected ways at the park, which anticipated about 20,000 visitors over the course of its 21-day season this year. His characters wear realistic-looking, silicone, movie-quality masks. A witch at Scream Hollow looks like someone who’s been wandering in the woods for several decades.

Characters also interact with the visitors who are waiting in line to get into the attraction. A witch might single out one of the guests in line and put a hex or spell on him or her. “It really works,” Glenn said, “people get really freaked out and wonder ‘[Is] she really putting a spell on me?’ ”

A costumed character at Scream Hollow Wicked Halloween Park, in Smithville, Texas. The attraction anticipates about 20,000 visitors over the course of its 21-day 2015 season. Photo credit:  Karen and Steve Jackson, twokeysphoto.

A costumed character at Scream Hollow Wicked Halloween Park, in Smithville, Texas. The attraction anticipates about 20,000 visitors over the course of its 21-day 2015 season. Photo credit: Karen and Steve Jackson, twokeysphoto.

High-quality, authentic costuming also keeps things scary at the Haunted Backwoods in London, Ohio. Owner Janie Davis said that she purchases new products each year from the TransWorld Midwest Haunters Convention and makes many of the costumes herself. Going out of her way to make costumes or source them from vendors who sell at conventions means that the characters at the Haunted Backwoods, which drew in 1,000 visitors in its second year, are unlike any people would see elsewhere.

The fact that the haunt takes place outdoors, in the woods, also puts a unique twist on things. As Davis noted, “Being in the backwoods is very exciting. You never know what will happen in the woods; they are much scarier than an indoor haunt.”

Being really into Halloween also helps owners keep their attractions frightening and helps them come up with new twists each year. Davis has been passionate about Halloween for more than two decades and studied haunted houses across the country.

The same is true for the team at Hysteria at Connors Farm in Danvers, Mass. Bob Connors, who owns the farm and haunted attraction with his brother Patrick, said that he has a team of people “who eat, drink and sleep Halloween. They watch every [scary] movie that comes out, go to trade shows and keep up on the newest trends.” They tell him when something is out and when something is coming in. He said that he follows their lead, which seems to be right on track with what Hysteria’s audience wants. The attraction, which is divided into a traditional haunt and zombie paintball, drew in around 50,000 people last year.

Grey House Haunts’ Design and Build Staff Preston Rath, Shai Christensen, Loren Breinig, Jo Breinig, Jan Knuth and John Skaggs. Jan Knuth is the haunt owner. The Holdrege, Neb., attraction uses classic characters with a twist to scare a contemporary audience.

Grey House Haunts’ Design and Build Staff Preston Rath, Shai Christensen, Loren Breinig, Jo Breinig, Jan Knuth and John Skaggs. Jan Knuth is the haunt owner. The Holdrege, Neb., attraction uses classic characters with a twist to scare a contemporary audience.

Playing with the environment of the haunt or focusing on the psychology of being scared means that haunted attractions will continue to frighten people. At Dungeon of Doom in Zion, Ill., the focus is on immersing the visitor into the world of the haunt. According to Pete Koklamanis, the president and co-founder of the attraction, which is recommended for people over the age of 13, the building is 22 inches below grade level, which creates a cold and clammy atmosphere. Along with focusing on the environment of the haunt, Koklamanis and his team create custom creatures that align with the attraction and are not like anything else out in the haunt world. The haunt brings in between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors each year, many of whom say that they have never seen anything like it.

At the Haunted Hollow at Olde World Village in Augusta, Mich., General Manager Michael Kuhn noted that the focus is on creating a psychological scare, which often involves using traditional characters in surprising ways. He stated that they tend to stay away from trends, and that “one of our favorite things to do is to find out what truly terrifies somebody and plan ahead from there,” when developing characters or deciding what to use in the haunt.

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