Is anyone scared of vampires anymore? Sure, they suck the life out of humans and usher them into an eternity as an undead ghoul. That’s scary. But the Twilight series has also turned them into sensitive boys from the Pacific Northwest who fall in love too easily. That’s not scary.
But zombies: those are still scary.
“Zombies are where it’s at right now,” said Mary Barrett, a co-owner of Barrett’s Haunted Mansion in Abington, Mass. “You could not have a haunted house without zombies.”
Times change, for the undead, and for the living. The classic haunted house monsters, the wolfman, the vampire, the mad scientist, the scary clown, the psycho with the chainsaw and the zombies, go in and out of style. For the owners of haunted houses, staying ahead of these trends is probably half the fun.
Television shows like The Walking Dead and movies like World War Z have cemented the zombies’ status as must-have characters for the haunt – for now at least. And pop culture remains a key reference point for the hordes of the living set to descend on haunted houses this fall.
When creating a new character, Scott Simmons, the creative director and co-owner of Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, said he likes to add a dark humor twist to an old archetype.
Creepo the Clown, one of Scare House’s most popular characters, “hates birthday cake, doesn’t want to sing, and he thinks you’re a brat.” Simmons said. He tells people ‘You’re why daddy drinks.’”
“It’s not groundbreaking to say there’s a haunted house with a scary clown,” Simmons said. “But what would be funny is a clown that has been a clown too long. He made a bad career choice and should have retired a long time ago.”
At the same time, these iconic monsters need to be renewed to avoid seeming dated and cheesy.
“There’s been characters we’ve semi-retired. You don’t want the guy trying to promote Saw Part 9,” said Scott Simmons, co-owner and creative director of Scare House in Pittsburgh, Pa., who was referencing the horror-film franchise that has reached its seventh installment.
For Harold Lacks, who runs the 2-year-old Creepy Hollow Haunted House in Rosharon, Texas, new characters should have a basis in reality.
“Some characters now are reality-based – things you think could really exist,” Lacks said. “You can never get away from those core characters. You’ll always have the chainsaw character, or the scary doctor in some way or form.”
But Creepy Hollow, which expects to see about 7,000 visitors this year, still looks to the movies for inspiration. An example of this thinking is the haunt’s werewolf character. “You have to have a really good costume,” Lacks said.
Pop culture is just one of the many considerations that haunts have when choosing a character. Today’s haunts have no shortage of technology, and no lack of talent to use it. But other factors play a role in choosing and developing characters.
The time it takes to put on makeup is a common consideration. The heat of a costume too is also a factor. Budgets are an issue too.
“Some characters are ergonomically difficult. A gargoyle is visually impressive,” says Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld. “It’s hot, but takes a long time to get the suit on, and it’s hard to maintain.”
For actor Todd Merriman, who plays The Devil at The Devil’s Attic in Louisville, Ky., the time it takes to put on the costume influences how he plays his role.
Initially, he was supposed to serve as the host of the haunt, and his role meant that he needed to explain the house’s theme. At The Devil’s Attic, the devil is a collector of souls, and the worst of the worst are kept in his attic. That speaking role is all well and good.
“He’s scaly, has horns. He’s very, very red. He’s dressed in black and has shoulder armor,” Merriman said. “I don’t like to put all that stuff on without getting a scare out of it.”
There are, or course, characters that have lasted for decades. At Kansas City’s Edge of Hell, Rat Man has wowed visitors for decades. But only two characters have played Rat Man, who keeps live rats in his pockets and pretends to bite the head off of one. Live rats crawl all over the actor, but the finale comes when an imitation rat is thrown at a customer.
At Edge of Hell, which sees 100,000 visitors across four venues operated by Full Moon Productions, co-owner Amber Arnett-Bequeaith said customers drive for miles to see Rat Man year after year, but only two actors have played the parts, and they are cousins. Though the character remains popular, one thing the haunt will have to decide is whether to continue or change when the current actor “gives up the ghost,” so to speak.
“He has four daughters and no sons,” Arnett-Bequeath said. “We may go to Ratwoman.”
Armstrong, of Netherworld, said his venues evolve and change every year, but they do not rely on the movies to guide his themes. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t look to the roles that the actor’s play to give customers a sense of the familiar.
Netherworld relies on what Armstrong calls “icon characters” to help drive story lines and do media.
“Having that connection to the familiar gives people a way in,” Armstrong said.
But in the horror business, the undead never truly die. Despite popular opinion against vampires, they have a place at Netherworld, Armstrong said.
“A lot of people in our industry like to hate on Twilight, but when I look in our parking lot and I see thousands of 16-year-old girls, I’m grateful,” said Ben Armstrong, a partner in Georgia’s Netherworld. “Twilight is kind of like a gateway drug.”
He said that Netherworld, which sees approximately 75,000 visitors over its 34-day season, created a vampire king with brides.
Vampires, out of style? No way, Armstrong said.
“You haven’t seen our vampires. The vampires we have are like twisted, bald with gnarly fangs. Kind of like a Nosferatu.” –