Not-So-Scary Advice on Investing in High Technology

The time for surprises is definitely not in the beginning, when first setting up a haunted house attraction, agree proprietors. Maybe at that time, a little fear and timidity is a good idea.
Crypt Master Chiller Chucky, owner of Fright Haven, West Haven, Conn., admitted to a beginners lack of business acumen albeit the passion to open a haunted attraction. He consulted with an expert on the matter, a middleman between seller and buyer of haunt-friendly, high-tech equipment, great, said Crypt Master, “for someone who doesn’t need to turn a profit but get all the tools to learn themselves – also the most expensive way. Better is to intern at an existing haunt. Had I known what I know now, I would’ve trusted my instincts, capability and knowledge.” Chucky concluded that to start big is a mistake, rather, small as possible, and build because the haunted house product is never perfected and can be made better the next day or season.
The second-year mistake, made to save money, was the purchase of animatronics, in the hopes of eliminating the need for extra actors for certain roles and scenarios. “We found that when animatronics are exposed to the crowd we still need people for the right sensor timing and use the same amount of people. The scare factor is not enough to justify the change.”
Chucky’s current practice of constantly looking online and at haunt trade conventions landed him with his best animatronic that garners attention and press. The Angel of Death jumped out at him, at a good price. He places it outside behind the building because the haunt front faces the highway and the most visible and effective spot is the back. Chucky advised, “Get a large controversial piece seen from the road or high traffic. “Many people ask to use or buy it so it’s definitely a dynamic piece.”
As video projection gains in popularity, it is best to know the dark side of its haunt usage and from whence it comes. “Do your homework on your supplier,” said Chris Stafford, co-owner of 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver, Colo.
“Find out if they do similar work with others in the industry, if they’re reputable, and deliver on time. Some vendors may not deal with the haunt industry, so explain the exact use and environment because elements can be tricky and not friendly to hi tech. Experienced suppliers know if theirs is applicable.” For example, many projection videos may work in the perfect environment, but not so well in an atmosphere of fog, disorienting lighting, dust or dampness.
As the industry advances, said Stafford, many haunters look to high-tech elements to create enhanced experiences of disbelief and enhance the environment, such as having sound specifically come from the correct area, prop, equipment, or actor paying attention to quality.
For the 13th Floor, last year’s investment was in high-tech sound equipment that produces that lower range sound frequency to hear, feel, shake, vibrate and effectively unnerve customers.
Often, companies take cues from other areas of the entertainment industry and then replicate the large-scale effects on a smaller budget affordable to haunt attractions. The Hall of Talking Portraits at Universal’s Harry Potter ride, which projected images of the three main characters in a room, influenced Stafford’s usages of the LCD screen. It may create the effect of looking through a window or fog or fire coming through a wall, along with video projections that mimic reality of outside elements or of a creature attack. “Guests enjoy anything they’ve not seen before in this setting. They expect it at Disney, not in this caliber of a haunt and it reflects well on your attraction.”
Sometimes a bit of luck and timing is involved in finding the right company to partner with, as occurred for the Field of Screams the Haunted Stadium, Lake Elsinore, Calif. Vice President and General Manager of Diamond Stadium, Bruce Kessman recalled, “The Bloodshed Brothers we discovered in the area helped build and come up with ideas. They attend all the hot conventions, are up on the latest and greatest.”
The more senses stimulated the better, said Kessman, and sound and light helps set the tone. A small animatronic with a big effect is a screen programmed Door, which an actor hits repeatedly with an ax and then pops out.
If success is in numbers, last year saw the biggest turnout ever at 10,000 thrill seekers through the attraction.
Vendors offered good deals when they realized Cemetery of Lost Souls, Yorba Linda, Calif., proceeds were to go to the Hope teen suicide prevention organization, said owner, Trent Zappen. “I started making calls for strobe lights and other special effects props. Blue Haze and Spirit of Halloween helped solve problems, we created a relationship, they continue to work with us every year and we accumulated equipment that way. Working with a charity foundation is especially good if on a limited budget. Initially Zappen went online to research what haunted houses used in special effects and negotiated with companies. It’s not a cheap venture, he confirmed.
Zappen uses everything from spot lights, lasers, fog machines, circuit switches for timed on/off lighting, to a three-channel sound system for playing music in specific areas through specified speakers. Also, sound-automated strobes hit a certain bass frequency, timed with music or whatever setting desired.
Customers chill walking through a tunnel where a laser creates a vortex special effect of spinning. Also frightfully successful is a switchboard to control lights for a mannequin room. One light for each of eight mannequins, some, real people, synchronized to come on and off individually, all turn off, and in the pitch blackness, mannequins walk toward visitors, followed by music and strobe lights on the moving mannequins.
Zappen found the mannequin room system online after describing what he wanted to various vendors. The results are epic, phenomenal, he said. “The sound, lighting and effects make it hands down the best.”
Boot Hill, Irvine, Calif., started small, said co-owner, Shea Foley, who found it best to research online.
Keeping it simple works better, too. “There’s less to break down.”
Effects are basic, most sound and music run from a CD player and external home sound system speakers. A composer friend created the music, loaded onto an iPod.
Lighting and video effects in the yard also run off of a CD player and video projector. Foley bought colored clamp on flood lights and black light florescent tubes from Home Depot.
Tension mounts for visitors when the video projector in the yard and another upstairs in the haunt window cast shadow projections upstairs of human silhouettes projected on sheets.  A three-minute skit was written for what appears to be people behind the window curtains. Foley had seen similar effects at Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
Most of the elements for Sinister Pointe, Brea, Calif., are created from the ground up, said owner and Lead Production Designer Jeff Schiefelbein. His recommendation, when buying animatronics, is to decide on the quality of the show desired, considering available budget.
The more money you have to invest, the more animatronics parts you can buy. With limited budget, your werewolf may only have four movements or spend more, for 24; for only fingertips to move or all the joints; for arms and legs to move or a winged mechanical puppet to bring the creature to life; for a choosey or cheesy animatronic.
The team developed elements that bring the set pieces to life. Lighting creates atmosphere and mood, animatronic bring creatures to life, control floors moving, walls shifting and warping, visual special projection affects to add depth to a screen on the wall making it look bigger, and sounds of crickets and toads to bring the forest scene to life.
The big animatronic hit is the suddenly shifting walls and floors, not your typical animatronic monster and people don’t expect walls to shift left or right. Foley said inspiration often comes from the movies and after watching the room shrink and walls come closer together in Alice in Wonderland, the shifting wall idea emerged.
If Greg Defatta and company is going shopping for horror help to add to the special effects he produces on his own for The Haunted Trail of Balboa and The Haunted Hotel, San Diego Calif., he attends the National Halloween Convention in St. Louis, Mo. “It has every new product for a haunt as well as the good old favorites.”
One purchase at the show he modified was the tentacle table. Placed in a room, he built around it pulsating walls with tentacles coming out, spinning around and emerging from a well, “a great centerpiece.” –

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