Some folks simply can’t get enough of the haunted house experience, the scarier the better. Interactive haunts are designed for audiences like these. As with everything, there are pros and cons to operating one. For this article and sidebar, four haunts in different parts of the country described their experiences.
In the beginning, Castle of Chaos saw itself as a kind of anti-haunt. When the Midvale, Utah, Halloween attraction first opened in 2001, it resembled interactive theater more than it did a typical haunt. “People would come through and it was a slightly medieval, campy story, fun type of thing. It was really interactive and everyone who worked on it was just a straight actor. There were no real scares. But as we progressed and tried to make it a real business, we realized that hey, as fun as this is, there’s more money in the scares,” said General Manager Dalton Brown. Castle of Chaos started incorporating half-interactive theater and a half horror theme. After another couple of years, it embraced the concept wholeheartedly and became an interactive haunted house instead of an interactive theater.
An interactive haunt generally requires guests sign a waiver before entering. Essentially, people give their permission to be chased or touched during their tour. “It differentiates us from a lot of our competition and that’s a definite plus,” said Brown. Mindful of varying tolerance levels, Castle of Chaos developed a concept they felt would appeal to a wider base of participants. They call it their Four Levels of Fear. Level One guests are given a glow wand they can point at approaching actors who then shrink away. Level Two guests receive the typical haunted house experience including startle scares and actors who invade their personal space but don’t make actual contact. Level Three guests wear a glow bracelet giving actors permission to grab their shoulders, touch their feet but never actually remove them from a space. Finally, there is Level Four which is extreme hands-on, or “Ex-Scream” hands-on as Castle of Chaos likes to call it. “We can grab you, pull you away from your group, lift you up over our shoulders and run off with you,” Brown explained. Level Four guests wear a glow necklace.
It’s advantageous to offer something to otherwise jaded guests. “Some people have been going to haunted houses since they were 12 years old and now they’re 30 and it’s just not as scary any more. They’re used to people popping out at them. So, when you can take them up to that next level, it adds an extra effect for them,” opined Brown. On the down side, a haunted house with an “extreme” reputation can cause certain people to refrain from visiting. “Even though we have the Level One option, there are still some people who feel it is too much for them,” he added. Liability concerns exist as well. “Our insurance costs are definitely a little higher than other haunted houses because of the interactive factor.”
Haunted house fans intent on visiting Dead Acres Haunted Hoochie in Pataskala, Ohio, don’t actually sign a waiver before entering. The act of purchasing a ticket is permission enough, according to Owner Tim May. Now in its 28th year of operation, the Haunted Hoochie, as it is more commonly known, sets out to terrify guests through a series of elaborate illusions and close-up encounters.
Fifty-three thousand people passed through the Haunted Hoochie last year, spending $50 a ticket. The attraction has built quite a following and its “extreme” haunt reputation precedes it. There is considerable advantage to having positive word of mouth. “This will be my seventh or eighth year without any money spent on advertising,” said May. Of course, to keep patrons coming back year after year and to intrigue new ones, he has to keep things fresh. May is a strong proponent of originality, eschewing anything smacking of what he refers to as a “Walmart mentality.” The Haunted Hoochie is always developing new ideas. “It has to be something that pours out of us. You’re either leading or you’re following. And we are interested in leading,” he said. The downside is there’s a lot more sweat equity involved but the upside is, it’s ultimately more rewarding than simply stamping out a standard ho-hum haunted house.
Many haunted attractions attempt to tell a story but Delusion – a much-lauded interactive theatre experience in Los Angeles, Calif. – invites guests to become part of the plot. The fully immersive, highly interactive play thrusts groups of eight people at a time into an otherworldly adventure where they must play their parts in order to move the story forward. They interface with live actors, encounter spine-tingling creature effects, and in some instances, perform stunts on an elaborate set and to the tune of an original score. The production is celebrating its sixth season with an approximate three-month long presentation of an all new, original play titled Delusion: The Blue Blade. Tickets – which traditionally sell out every Halloween – are $95 each and purchasers only learn the exact location of the play when they book a date.
“An interactive experience that sparks imagination, play, childlike wonder and creates hauntingly wonderful memories can have lasting effects on the way we see the world and spend our time in it,” said Delusion’s visionary creator Jon Braver. He has watched his passion project inspire creativity in others. It has also been gratifying to see lifelong friendships form among the theatre company’s members and to observe strangers coming together for an adventure on any given night. That being said, there is a great deal of stress involved in mounting a production of such scope. “With the current format, we create it 15 times a night. There are many moving parts to each Delusion production so the risk of something going wrong, something detracting from the story I’m trying to tell, is far greater than performing it once a night,” Braver explained. Delusion: The Blue Blade has outdone itself this year in terms of production design so the very daunting specter of financial risk versus return also looms. “This is live theater and most would understand we don’t do this for the money,” he concluded.
A Flash of Fright: Still Interactive but Not Quite as Terrifying
Mortem Manor Haunted Attraction in Kissimmee, Fla., has figured out a way to give guests a bit of an interactive thrill without actors having to lay a hand on anyone. The year-round haunt distributes flashlights to patrons at the entrance, telling them not to be alarmed should the flashlight flicker or turn off and on.
“We give them that full sense of comfort for the first two or three rooms and then after that third room, we just go crazy with the flashlights,” said General Manager Benjamin O’Connor.
Not only will the flashlights flicker, they can actually vibrate and make sounds. At certain points in the haunt where Mortem Manor wants to maximize the scare, flashlights will turn off altogether, only to turn back on again a few steps later. There are transmission receivers installed throughout the attraction and operators control everything the flashlights do.
“Flashlight activity is tied to certain sections of the haunt and what is going on there. It enhances the experience,” O’Connor said.