An Investment in New Scares: The Year Ends on a High Note for Haunted Attractions

Is gore “out” and startle “in” at haunted attractions, or are both still very much the trend? It depends whom you ask, but one thing is certain: introducing different elements and features annually is a “must” if operators are to maximize the appeal of their venues. So, too, is maintaining year-round contact with customers through a variety of vehicles.
For the 2012 season, Terrorplex Screampark in Mansfield, Texas, unveiled a haunted clown/circus house and an outdoor blackout maze with a chainsaw “terrorizer” inside. This was consistent with Owner Scott Davis’ policy of adding to or changing 30 percent to 50 percent of the venue’s components every year, in order to ensure that it appears “new and fresh” and sees increases, rather than plateaus, in its attendance figures.
Davis deemed demand for “gore” and “startle” relatively even, noting that while the goriness of today’s movies and videogames renders the former important to retain in the mix, “good actors with startle scares” are also key because customers want to see live bodies “in the haunts.” Moreover, he cited a trend toward using customized costuming and makeup to render each character in a given haunt more unique and give it the appearance of being new. Five such one-of-a-kind characters now staff Terrorplex Screampark’s queue lines, startling and entertaining visitors as they await their turn for the attractions.
To keep Terrorplex Screampark top-of-mind among visitors, the bulk of whom are 15 to 35 years old, Davis does not limit his communication with them to the months immediately preceding Halloween. Rather, he leverages a variety of social media throughout the year, posting frequent updates and news on the venue’s Facebook page and in Twitter feeds. The operator also sends mass email updates and teasers via the Constant Comment email program and posts videos, commercials, and promotions on You Tube.
Carrie Basta, communications manager at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., and Jennifer Blazey, senior communications specialist at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., corroborated Davis’ comments about the even demand for haunted attractions built around “gore” and “startle” factors. Dorney Park’s Halloween Haunt haunted attractions and shows attract a clientele from all age groups, beginning with young teens. The Halloween Haunt ® at Knott’s Scary Farm, as it is known, caters to a primary audience of men and women ages 19 to 35; some older visitors who first came to Halloween Haunt ® as teenagers now return with their own teenagers.
“Different visitors look for different things in haunted attractions, so there really is no other strategy than to address the gory side and the scary/startle side,” Basta said. “It has worked for us for a long time.”
New at Dorney Park this year are “Desolation” and “Bloodshed.” In “Desolation,” visitors are trapped in a small, secluded Pennsylvania town that endured a disastrous event in 1952 and has been in government lockdown ever since. “Survivors” in the “lockdown” have been subjected to secret experiments, illness, food shortages and rumors of a government cover-up; visitors are warned that entering the haunted attraction may cause them to “become infected.” Meanwhile, “Bloodshed” is a deserted farm that has been taken over by zombies.
To build excitement about its Haunt V 2012 Halloween lineup and haunted attractions, Dorney Park held a “Zombie Invasion” event on September 14. Guests were invited to arrive wearing makeup or be “zombified” by professional makeup artists. They then had the opportunity to preview some of the park’s haunted attractions as well as ride the roller coasters.
As the haunted attractions were constructed, Basta and her colleagues used Dorney Park’s Twitter feed to push out updates. Web site updates began to go live in August.
At Knotts Berry Farm, Knotts’ Halloween Haunt®, which in 2012 featured 13 mazes and ride-through attractions along with four “scare zones” and nine live shows, has been a staple for four decades.  Consistent with a push to minimize repetitiveness for return visitors, Knotts’ policy calls for “swapping out” several mazes annually and replacing them with others. Added to  this year’s roster of haunted attractions were “Trapped,” an interactive maze in which guests were plunged into their own custom-designed nightmare and became partners in their own demise; “Trick or Treat,” a witch’s house inhabited by trapped trick-or-treaters of years past and rife with havoc being wreaked by helpers who engaged in cooking children and other horrors; “Dominion of the Dead”, where guests became part of the startling art being created by vampires; and “Pinocchio Unstrung,” which featured the character Pinocchio “in search of human flesh to cover his twisted body,” Blazey explained. New too was “Evil Dead,” based on the movie slated for release this April. “Evil Dead” took guests on a ride through the woods to an isolated cabin, where they fought to survive a demonic force that had overtaken the structure.
Year-round, Knott’s remains in touch with its haunted attractions guest base with updates in publications. As has become an annual protocol, Twitter feed updates were released “a morsel at a time” beginning in early summer, and a separate Facebook page for the Knotts Halloween Haunt made its debut around the same time.
For its part, Screams Halloween Theme Park in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas., “stays away from gore” because “startle and catching guests off guard” has “become a signature point,” noted Danielle Guinn, director of sales and marketing. “It resonates the most with our audience, primarily, males between the ages of 18 and 24.”
Screams’ Castle of Darkness haunted castle was completely revamped for 2012; “our site manager thought it would bring more gasps and overall interest and appeal” to the venue, Guinn said. Previously, the castle was inhabited by Scottish cannibals, who this year were replaced with some 20 to 30 classic Frankenstein-style vampires. The castle was also enhanced with a new “black hole” into which guests descended without any warning.
Email bulletins about Screams are sent to visitors during the off-season. A Facebook page, a blog and a website are updated throughout the year. “Social media are extremely important in staying top-of-mind with guests,” Guinn concluded. “Over the past few months alone, we have added more than 1,000 fans to our Facebook page.” –

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