For some haunts Halloween comes once a year, for others it lasts all year long. Those ghoul-enamored proprietors that keep one sanguine eye peeled for audience reactions conclude it’s not all blood and gore that visitors want, and design accordingly.
“Generally visitors are seeking out thrills and as popular as roller coasters are for getting adrenaline going, haunted attractions certainly achieve that,” observed Alex Nerad, executive director of the Egyptian Theatre, DeKalb, Ill. The historical theatre provides a unique setting for the Amenti Haunted House, which attracts a primary audience of visitors in the 15-to-40 age range.
“We target the excitement of the event. It’s all about providing entertainment and thrill,” said Nerad, in accordance with the views of many haunt designers, yet a certain amount of goriness oozes in.
One Part Gore, Two Parts Thrill
There are many types of haunted attractions, explained Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House in Norcross, Ga., progressing from the traditional Halloween trick or treat vein to early movie characterizations of Frankenstein, to Jason and Freddy on to many in the extreme hostile assault category with an increasingly gory component.
The less gory route holds appeal for the family audience, said Armstrong. “And though many are turned off by it, a small demographic core, exposed to gore because the video game level of what’s acceptable is higher, are not. Profanity gets an R rating before blood and villains and store masks fit that profile.”
That core demographic at Netherworld, open daily throughout October, plays out differently depending on the day, said Armstrong, who notices older adult date duos filter in on weeknights, impressed by detail and theatrics. Weekends are swamped with kids, typically teenage boys, currently, teenage girls partially attributable to the popular Twilight series and teen vampire movies. “We’re filled to brimming with juvenile girls. The fiction is aimed at them, recreating their interest in vampires. They like being scared in a safe environment, yet on the edge.”
Netherworld’s major gothic show resembles Lord of the Rings, appealing to kids hooked on vampire and werewolf television shows and Goose Bumps and Harry Potter books, noted Armstrong. “We create a larger other world concept of fantasy and monsters unseen in the real world.”
Armstrong went on to dissect the older crowd even more sharply. The late-evening segment appreciates the richer mythic world. The downstairs show adds gore to a scary thrill ride for the early hour 18-to-20-year-old “notch demographic,” that are into realistic blood and gore.
Designing next year’s show at House of Torment, Austin, Texas, is a year-round endeavor. January finds staff at the drawing board pulling inspiration from day-to-day influences, the interactivity of video games, behind movie scenes and other sector technology, according to Co-Owner Jon Love. “We extrapolate and incorporate what might be cool in our haunted house, from aerial rigging systems for people to fly to gadgets and gismos to modify into costuming.”
Creative problem solving and brainstorming continues into March, configuring and executing the change in the haunted house into summer.
The House of Torment’s target audience is 14 through 35 year olds and those younger accompanied by parents or guardians. “It’s an intense experience. Some kids run to the car, others want ‘high five’ from monsters.”
In Love’s view, the gore element can be done right or wrong. “People come primarily to have a good time, be entertained and scared, not offended or upset by a bad experience. Gore can be a part of it, if not taken too far in controversial or sensitive directions. For us, we’re here to entertain people. Teens and young adults primarily come to get scared and [to get] a sense of edginess. Everybody’s line is different. We draw the line in going too far. It’s good for us and customers. We don’t want to look back at something controversial and say we messed up, or for parents to say they don’t want their kids to experience it.”
The haunt is a dynamic event, a changeling of sorts that alters its form. Haunted Enterprises, Las Vegas, Nev., is equipped with over 400 of them, stowed away in 29 trailers. Owner Randy Grigg tries the “new ideas” out at the Transworld Haunt & Attractions Show, and if they pass the test they are moved into the full-time company’s product line of mobile haunts.
In business for 14 years, Grigg continuously upgrades. “Kids expect more. The competition isn’t just with other haunts, it’s also with movies and video games, both so graphic now. We can’t get by with drapes and booths. We have to have special effects, and unlike movies, repeat the event hundreds of times a night with electronics, not just some guys with cables behind a screen for a couple of takes.”
Grigg added that props have to be increasingly more elaborate and gory. “They want more, so we just add more blood.”
Tops in terror for Grigg’s market are clowns, their ghastly effect enhanced through 3D glasses, and a coffin ride experience, popular worldwide. “People are scared of clowns, and The Last Ride is growing in popularity.”
The Ride scenario delivers all the sensations of an old English burial from hearse to dirt, smells of roses, exhaust and decay, creepy crawly tickling, shackle-shaking spirit sounds to dead silence created for the willing victim in total darkness, producing scary imaginings, explained Grigg, whose clients realize the Ride’s free press merits. A night vision camera records facial reactions often posted on YouTube. “Reporters write about it, it’s seen live on the six o’clock news and replayed at midnight.” The ride’s strongest advertising group is 14 to 28 year olds, and it has attracted several celebrities.
Denver, Colo.-based Scream Works Entertainment Owner Chris Stafford acknowledged that the high-gore trend in haunts still matches the horror and torture movie level, yet he notices a shift to psychological and paranormal-laden attractions. “If the event comes up with good characterization then gore is relevant with the shock value it presents. But the shift to psychological and supernatural movies with a haunting twist adds more suspense, which is relative to our haunted house.”
“It’s an encompassing approach that has something for everyone, incorporating over-the-top set design and special effects in sound and lighting, all the aspects to hold the interest of our expanding customer base, typically tweens through mid 20s, and skewing toward the late 20s to early 30s crowd. It’s easy to scare little kids with a black-wall backdrop. We have to grow and evolve, adding a higher caliber set design to increase audience appeal of the older, sophisticated clientele to come back and see what’s new.”
The design philosophy for Netherworld is simple, said Ben Armstrong. “Give them what they want and give them what you want. They do want chainsaws and car crashes. Then give them what you want, which is a product that stands out and what they’ve never seen before. A scare house flourishes by playing both ends of the spectrum.”
Armstrong designs to scare, startle and shock, as well as to amuse, entertain, impress and provide the good time visitors want. “Whatever you do that strengthens you, keep doing. But to be successful, never stagnate or you’ll never grow and flourish beyond survival. If safe and do the basic Freddy or make a movie that’s not engaging and doesn’t provide the unexpected, why do it?”
The 6th Street Massacre, Amarillo, Texas, is staged within an old movie theatre, and Director of Operations Mike Fisher’s objective has been to match the haunted house with the building. “We play up on the historical value, have had ghost hunts posted on the internet, and are heavy on social networking.”
Design is relevant to today’s movies such as “Saw,” familiar to the core demographic, 70 percent 12 through 18 year olds, the other 30 percent, a bit older. Entering 6th Street they relate to what they’ve seen before, a scene identical to the popularized “Saw” bathroom scene, then sink deep into the movie theatre theme via actual 1920s movie theater seats, movie props that shoot out 8 feet in 3D, a tilted room, a 20-foot hallway that shifts left and right, and a neon vacancy sign, relevant to classic horror movies.
“Each year a new introduction is devised,” said Fisher. “Our haunted house is interactive and about solving problems, not just a walk-through.” Last year, visitors were caught off guard by a skeleton answering a doorbell ring. This year, Fisher gutted a video game machine. Following a scene rotation of what to expect, the visitor presses start and a puppet pops up stating rules and then, “The game is simple, crawl inside my game,” and the visitor actually crawls into the attraction through the machine.
Though intrigued by gore, visitors seek the thrill of being scared, said Fisher. At the exit, a videographer interviews guests and posts their reactions to the event on the website. “No one says anything about gory or gross. They talk about it being funny yet scary and never say they wish there was more blood or gore.”
“We’re a pretty intense attraction at Blood Manor,” said Jim Faro, part-owner of the 6-year-old New York City business. “More than gore, it’s mental besides physical and involves all the senses. Gore plays a part and heightens the experience, though the thrill comes from a full vicarious experience.”
The attraction draws visitors 14 years of age on up so much so that Faro has opened a new Manhattan location. “They don’t run from gore or run to it, rather they like more suspense, a change of pace or misdirection, creating their own sense of the desired effect. There’s no success with just dead body parts. You have to have intelligence and psychological terror. At the end of the day, we just want it to be a fun experience.” –