Gone are the days when darkly lit hallways with creaky floorboards were the key components to a successfully scary haunted attraction. Over-the-top shocks and gory horrors, with a mix of special effects, are now drawing large crowds looking for a scream with their Halloween.
For terror created outside the box, Scream Team Productions, a Murrieta, Calif.-based haunt consultant, partnered with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, producers of the movie “Paranormal Activity”, to create a theatrical experience called The Blumhouse of Horrors. Blumhouse of Horrors inhabits the downtown Los Angeles Variety Arts Center, a 1930s-era venue with its own haunted history involving a theater owner’s wife’s desperate attempt to become a magician’s assistant and her tragic disappearance in a magic box.
“The theater is a great location for a haunted attraction,” said Willie May, CEO and executive creative director at Scream Team. “Jason Blum said he wanted to produce a horror play in Los Angeles, similar to an interactive horror show he saw in New York. Blum created the detailed set designs and we provided the haunted house input. We brought the scare factor.”
That scare factor was performed by 40 actors who carried out a hair-raising plotline that had them interacting with guests in a “close encounters” kind of way.
“We implemented subtle physical interaction between characters and visitors to the theater,” he said. “This personal space invasion was intended to prey on people’s senses, making the experience more intense. We want to scare people, but also make them feel like they are a part of the story.”
May said that the haunted attraction industry is moving in the direction of this more realistic, interactive experience. “It’s not just about people jumping out at you anymore,” he said.
This approach proved successful for May, landing Blumhouse of Horrors in the number three spot on Travel Channel’s “World’s Spookiest Ghost Tours” for 2012.
Other attempts at differentiating attractions involve the incorporation of multiple activities into one haunted destination. At the Festival of Souls in Hallendale Beach, Fla., for example, a haunted hayride takes a different turn as a Zombie Safari experience where riders shoot the living dead with paintball guns armed with UV paint.
“In South Florida we have places like Disney World and Universal Studios setting the bar for entertainment,” said Brandon Kittendorf, president of The Monster Academy, producer of the Festival of Souls. “When developing this site, we felt we needed to be unique, so we added something more than just the haunted-aspect of the attraction.”
Also part of the Festival of Souls, located in approximately 8,400 square feet of space at Gulfstream Park and Casino, is the Demon Mansion, a 17-room labyrinth of demons and monsters that prey on people’s fears of things like spiders, scary clowns and vicious dogs.
While the public may not associate festivals with haunted attractions, Kittendorf believes creating an overall festive environment featuring a variety of activities serves a larger audience and results in more visitors.
“We created an attraction where families could come, stick around and have fun,” he said. “For 2013 we’re thinking about adding a third activity to the festival, as well as having bands and vendors set up on the site.”
Huntsville, Ala., haunted attraction developer Shane Dabbs looks to his surroundings for his inspiration. Most recently, he took the blank canvass of a former mega-store location, applied popular phobias, such as fears of snakes and spiders, and created Disturbia Haunted House. During his 20 years in the business, he has learned not to overlook the features, or lack thereof, offered at each location
“You need to look at what’s in your area when considering a theme for your attraction,” he said. “I once had a haunted attraction called Greystone Manor that was an old house with a graveyard and an old hospital on the site. I could market the local folklore about the house being haunted and capitalize on that.”
Planners at Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, Pa., have their own local notoriety to call on as they come up with characters for the park’s Phantom Fright Nights attraction. As Director of Ride Operations Marie Ruby explained, no haunted attraction in the Pittsburgh area would be complete if it didn’t have zombies.
“The movie ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was filmed in the Pittsburgh area, so zombies are a signature of any haunted attraction in our area,” she said.
In addition to the standard zombies, Ruby said they also look to the media for character ideas, combing pop culture for news about “what kids are reading and watching.”
While zombies are at the forefront in some locations, they’re “on the way out” and “not as impactful” in places like Glendale, Ariz., according to Chambers of Fear owner Paul Boyd. For 2013, Boyd said they’re getting “back-to-basics” by bringing back the fright classics like Frankenstein’s monster and vampires.
“I just got back from visiting Universal and Disney and saw their haunted houses,” he said. “I liked what they did with the classic horror characters and would like to expand on that theme. Places like that can provide great inspiration.”
Turning to a more traditional classic, with a scary slant, Boyd plans to include some twisted fairytale attractions and Alice in Wonderland-themed characters.
Boyd also said that adding technology to an attraction is a way of differentiating one haunt from another.
“We’re always looking for new technology upgrades,” he said. “We’ve added scream cams and photo scares where visitors can go on our website and see themselves while they were in the attraction.”
The scare business takes a number of twists and turns from year to year. In the end, however, the attraction with the most creative production stays a step ahead of the latest trends in what makes people scream the loudest. –
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