Every autumn, when the wind whistles a chilly tune against the backdrop of a full harvest moon, haunted attractions open their doors to throngs of customers who welcome Halloween and its accompanying horror. Wielding terror yields profit: According to the Haunted House Association, there are more than 1,200 haunted attractions in the United States that generate more than $300 million in ticket sales annually.
These numbers make sense when you consider that Halloween is the second-largest commercial holiday in the country. Apart from pumpkins and candy, haunted attractions play a major role in the holiday’s central theme of thrills and chills.
Fear comes in many flavors, from shock to terror to the “creep factor,” which is a scare that “stays with you,” according to David Scott Harris, a filmmaker and artist who developed the House of Blackbeard, located near Los Angeles. In its fifth year, House of Blackbeard is a 4,000-square-foot space that caters to families with children between the ages of 3 and 6. As a family operation, Harris said that his venue does not offer typical horror fare.
“Our audience isn’t primarily teenagers, who want jump-out-at-you horror. We don’t do that.” Instead, Harris relies upon narrative, the story of Blackbeard, who married often and murdered each wife. “I look at the haunted house like filmmaking. I want our customers to think about the scare after they leave here,” Harris said. “I want the effect to be like that of a good ghost story.”
House of Blackbeard uses automated, animatronic characters, building upon the Blackbeard tale every year with new figures and story lines, all of which focus on giving customers what Harris calls a “visceral, creepy” scare. If numbers are any indication, customers like this type of scare-factor: Visitation was up for 2011, although Harris said he noticed that people were “price-wary.”
Harris pointed to another “fear factor” used in some haunted venues: humor. “There is an element of fun in being scared,” he said. Fright Kingdom, a 70,000-square-foot venue in Nashua, N.H., features three haunted attractions under one roof, including a Psycho Circus 3-D, complete with clowns. Owner/operator Tim Dunne pointed out, “It’s not always about the scare. Some people want to laugh. Of course, it’s good to play on people’s phobias, and lots of people are scared of clowns.” Dunne uses one of the top 3-D artists in the country to create his clown house. In this attraction, just as in the Vampire Castle and Bloodmare Manor, which are also part of Fright Kingdom, Dunne aims for “360-degree immersion” in the experience.
“I try to entertain from the moment people pull into the parking lot,” he explained. Dunne does this without the use of gore, which he said his customers appreciate because they know they can bring their kids to Fright Kingdom. “Our primary demographic ranges from 13 to 24 years of age. We have a separate show called Hardly Haunted for small children.” Since its founding eight years ago, actors have been Fright Kingdom’s mainstay. “Live actors make any show,” Dunne explained. Even without the gore, Fright Kingdom is so scary that it isn’t recommended for kids under age 13. Dunne credits the unique make-up developed by Deirdre MacDonald, a well-known make-up artist, for the realism of his attraction. In addition, he constantly changes the venue, demolishing 25 percent of the attraction annually and adding new rooms and animatronics.
Al Fletcher, president of Nashoba Valley Ski Area, of which Witch’s Woods is a seasonal haunted attraction, also goes for the scare without gore. He said, “We have a family atmosphere primarily for ages 8 to 16 years old. We startle and scare rather than terrify using the grotesque.” Witch’s Woods has always been a family attraction; Fletcher’s father started the business in 1954. Witch’s Woods relies upon 140 actors, high-end animatronoics, elaborate costuming and make-up to create its unsettling atmosphere.
The highly-talented make-up crew at Witch’s Woods creates looks that are so elaborate, Fletcher said, that people comment on how realistic the actors look. This level of make-up is no small feat, considering the size of the acting pool of men and women, and the scope of the figures represented. “We’ve got witches, zombies, werewolves, vampires, goblins, ghosts and banshees,” Fletcher noted. And “giant demon” animatronics. The total effect, Fletcher said, is that of a real-life horror movie. Everything relies upon the actors, who use the basic technique of startle, attract and scare.
Making customers feel that they are in another world, a haunted world, is a key element for Witch’s Woods and other haunted attractions. Reign of Terror, an 8,000-square-foot haunted house in Thousand Oaks, Calif., boasts sets “as believable as anything on view on haunted nights at Universal Studios,” according to the 13-year-old venue’s website. “We cater to people who love the detail and realism of a haunted house,” commented owner Bruce Stanton.
“We are completely believable,” he said. “Our house is set up like an old grandmother’s house. The rooms flow together, with extreme attention to detail.” This focus on details, one-third of which Stanton said are never seen, is an important part of the scare that takes place when customers are focused on the venue and not anticipating the scare. “Because they are so enveloped by the scenery, they are not looking to be startled,” Stanton said. Reign of Terror uses the “traditional scare,” and the venue “upped its gore factor in 2011,” Stanton said, although he does not espouse the new trend of immersing visitors in pitch-black environments. “There is no fun there,” he said. In addition to detailed sets, Stanton relies on 25 actors and volunteer make-up and special effects artists who have film experience. As House of Blackbeard, another California attraction, Reign of Terror’s attendance was up 35 percent in 2011, according to Stanton.
Attention to detail in sets and make-up account for the success of many haunted attractions, but often there is no replacement for location. Such is the opinion of Mike Rich, owner of Fright Farm’s Haunted Mansion, located in Smithfield, Pa. Opened in 1990, Fright Farm boasts an authentic farmhouse as its centerpiece. Rich found the site while walking home alone one night. “It was dark and creepy, and the farmhouse was full of vines, really scary. Three months later we opened. It was an overnight success.” Rich’s formula for this success? Ensuring that guests enjoy a total immersion experience. “We do everything we can to be as good as we can be every year, no expense spared,” Rich noted. This includes using 100 actors and 10 make-up artists from local schools in Pittsburgh, incorporating a one-mile hayride into the haunted house experience and re-creating the scenery every year, taking three months to conceive and construct the sets. The result is a venue that relies on suspenseful and shocking horror that is, Rich said, “not very high-tech.” For Rich, the original farmhouse, which he has built onto, makes Fright Kingdom the best in the country. “Nobody can duplicate our setting.”
Rich, who does not rely on anyone else’s ideas, builds on his visitors’ fears, such as claustrophobia, just as Tim Dunne uses a fear of clowns at Fright Kingdom.
Success in the haunted attraction industry, measured in shrieks, startled reactions or nightmares, is a blend of attention to detail, immersing visitors in realistic settings, re-creating venues to keep them fresh and capitalizing on the innate visitor fears. In the end, all haunted houses want to scare the pants off the visitors who enter their creaky gates. As Tim Dunne of Fright Kingdom said, guests should heed the warning: “If you come here, don’t come alone.” –
Top Tips for Reinventing Haunted Attractions
- Use your gut instincts to generate new ideas. – Mike Rich, Fright Farm.
- Go to industry seminars and trade shows, and other haunted attractions, to generate new ideas. – Al Fletcher, Witch’s Woods
- Watch horror movies.
- Offer photos with groups of people who tour the venue together. – David Scott Harris, House of Blackbeard.
- Target trends. Tim Dunne of Fright Kingdom is developing a Zombie/Apocalypse venue to capitalize on the public’s zombie fixation.
- Bring in celebrities to promote your venue. Fright Kingdom had a successful marketing campaign using the original Michael Meyers and Ghost Hunters.
- Look to increase the size of your venue. “Getting to 15,000 square feet gives you the chance to be a multi-option event,” said Bruce Stanton of Reign of Terror.