The Haunt Trifecta: Sound, Lighting and Special Effects

Well, our season is just around the corner. Some of us may even be starting the build out for what promises to be a great year. So what will set us apart from not only our competition, but even our last year’s haunt? The currents trends seem to focus on a new Haunt Trifecta; sound, lighting and special effects. While a new room, a new cool animation or even a new theme might make for an exciting build, the biggest impact to a new or existing haunt can be achieved through the Haunt Trifecta.
Today’s audiences are much more sophisticated, or should I say desensitized.  A children’s theater company I worked with in the 1970s did a play called the “Glass Mountain.” The featured set piece was nothing more than a ladder with a translucent plastic sheet over it. Turn on a light under it and our mountain turned to glass! By the time I resurrected the play for a production in the late 1980s, our simple ladder effect was now a 12-foot-high mountain of Plexiglas with multicolored internal lighting effects.  A special canvas covering was whisked away during a blackout coupled with the lighting effect to provide our transition. Today that mountain would have to include laser effects, pyro and some sort of computer projection to achieve the same “Wow” factor. As soon as you install that new prop or animation it becomes obsolete. Focusing on the Haunt Trifecta allows you to get the best effect with what you already have and improves anything new that you build.
In days of old, the Haunt Trifecta was the least addressed of any haunt tools. Sound was usually provided by the screaming of the patrons, with maybe a loop cassette tape playing a background on a boom box. Lighting, if even used, was a couple of 25 watt red bulbs or maybe a “flicker bulb.”  Scenes were either too dark or too bright. Special effects were, well, not very special.
Over the last 10 years haunters have tried to respond to our audiences. In the beginning, only the big boys had expensive animations. To compete on the next level, haunters felt they too needed sophisticated animations. Haunt vendors readily fulfilled those needs and brought it down to a level most could afford. Haunts were not scary worlds we were transported to, but expensive walk-through catalogs of effects. What really sets the big boys apart from a typical haunt is not just animations, it’s actually the Haunt Trifecta. It is the entire environment created by coupling the correct sound and lighting that makes the special effect effective.  This is what will not only set us apart this year, but for the next few years.
Sound has been long ignored but is actually one of the most effective tools of a haunter. Just watch a horror movie with the sound off. Not as scary. Sound can build tension. It can accentuate a scare and bring it to a new level. Even that animation can be ramped up a notch with the correct accompanying sound clip. Gone are the old loop tape cassettes with the same old Halloween background track.  Today it is digital audio clips and MP3 players. Sound can be synced to props and effects to maximize their effectiveness. MP3 players can now be triggered and many even feature their own on-board amplifier. Sound can now be manipulated as in real life. It can come from where we want and when we want it. Entire customized soundscapes can totally immerse our audience in this world we are trying to create. Effective general sound and specialized sound effects can elevate an attraction and create our own walk-through movie.
Haunters sometimes have had one major flaw. We worked so long on our scenes that we lit them too much trying to make sure the audience would see our handiwork. Sometimes too much is not a good thing, especially with lighting. Again, tension and anticipation can be created by setting the correct mood. Go see live theater productions and observe how lighting plays an integral part in the overall tone of the production. Unfortunately, good lighting had a few drawbacks, such as electrical draw, heat and the expense of fixtures. Enter new technology in the form of LED lighting. It addresses all the drawbacks. One DC power source can power several rooms of lights. LEDs are virtually cool fixtures. Haunt vendors and new technology are lowering costs and increasing availability of new LED fixtures.  Now, instead of a bright light flooding an entire scene, small LED spotlights can effectively light, but not over light, our scenes.
Special Effects
Computer generated effects have forever changed the movie industry. The trickledown effect is now making its way to the haunt industry. In a few short years, we have gone from simple cartoon-looking computer effects to new props that marry video projections with physical effects to create new and exciting experiences for our audiences. Recent Haunt Forum discussions are probing the possibilities of incorporating high definition video projection effects into our attractions. This is becoming available as cost of equipment begins to come down. Ten years ago, a haunt controller could basically only turn something on for a few seconds and turn it off. Today, for the same price, controllers can have several off and on sequences, delay on or off, have multiple inputs, can control several outputs, and even include digital audio effects.
So what does this mean to the average haunter? Well utilizing the benefits of the Haunt Trifecta can breathe new life into existing rooms, props or themes. We can create a higher impact with any new prop or effect giving you the biggest bang for your buck. Focusing on the Haunt Trifecta can make that “average” haunt anything but average. Sound, lighting and special effects, it is what will set you apart. –
(Rich Strelak is the owner of
R&J Productions, Las Vegas, Nev.)

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