Whether a Halloween attraction is designed as a demon’s den, a spooky mansion, or an eerie asylum, human actors have long been featured to boost the scare factor. But now that high definition video technology has become more affordable, attractions are adding virtual cast members to intensify layers of fright at annual scream-fests.
Each October, Nightmare New England attracts 50,000 visitors and transforms Mel’s Funway family entertainment center in Litchfield, N.H., into a ghoulish gala of five haunted houses and trails. This year, the attraction installed a permanent haunted mansion façade on the driving range and were able to use video technology to make the house appear haunted. In its windows, patrons saw images such as zombies trying to claw their way out, courtesy of computer generated technology, said Nightmare New England Director Michael Krausert.
“We use a lot of CGI effects and video effects within all the attractions but also within the façade itself,” Krausert said. “We use a lot of DMX lighting systems on the facade to make it look like lights are turning on and off in the house.”
“CGI is growing at a really rapid pace through the haunted attraction industry,” Krausert added. “Each year there is so much more that you can use and now that we have tapped into it this year, we are excited about this stuff and the options for next year.”
Dr. Mortis, a Grass Valley, California presenter, converted the Nevada County Fairground to a ‘”fearground” this season with three horror houses that incorporate another level of high definition video. The realistic recordings are made more terrifying by adding “fourth dimension” elements such as blasts or air, banging or shaking.
This year, between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors to Terror at the Feargrounds peeked through a metal door portal into a grim hospital hallway that is actually a video image on a flat screen television positioned just inside the door, Dr. Mortis owner Chris Navo said. As they watched, a demented “patient” would sneak up on a nurse and slam her head against the window, “shattering” the glass. As her head hit the glass, patrons are hit with a blast of air that made the violence feel real.
The physical sensation “bridges the gap from two dimensions to three dimensions,” Navo said. ”It immerses someone into the event and that is what technology does. And now it has gotten to the point where cost has been brought down so that more people can use it.”
At Six Flags-Hurricane Harbor in Gurnee, Ill., the theme park’s Fright Fest used high definition video to great effect in its Haunted City of the Dead, said Entertainment Manager Kristopher Jones. When guests “witnessed” a gruesome zombie shooting through a “window,” they felt the wet spray of “blood” on their faces. When a crazy inmate tries to escape through a window, an actuator, or motor, caused the window to rattle.
The scary videos complement the park’s other attractions and “are really popular,” Jones said.
However, haunt owners should beware: videos sometimes can interfere with the monster agenda, warned Chris Stafford, co-owner of 13th Floor Haunted Houses in Denver, San Antonio and Phoenix.
“You have to be really careful with the CGI effects,” said Stafford, who estimated crowds at each of his attractions to be in the tens of thousands. “A lot of them run a video sequence and wait for a payoff, so to speak, wait for that scare at the end. The problem we found with them is that I don’t want anyone stopping and looking at them on our busy nights. It can be a through-put traffic jam.”
“If you get a group that decides to stop and watch something for 10 seconds, it can throw your whole flow off on busy nights. On slow nights, they can be really fun and something for people to look at. We have used them and we have also removed them in certain circumstances.”
But Paul Boyd, owner of Chambers of Fear in Surprise, Ariz., said he tried one 45-inch video screen for the first time this season, and his high definition zombies provided just the right amount of goose bumps.
“This is the first year we’ve run it and people love it,” said Boyd, who hosted about 10,000 visitors this season. “It’s been so effective that it’s definitely something we’re going to add several more of next year. It’s a great simple scare and the technology is getting so affordable it allows us to do that.”
Haunted attractions try to up the ante every year to keep thrill-seekers coming back and adding different types of technology is key, owners said. This season Chambers of Fear also used lasers to create a Swamp Room and a Vortex Tunnel. At 13th Floor, Microsoft’s Kinect technology powered a 14-foot demon and his guard dogs. Nightmare New England created a multi-sense horror show in a bathroom that attacked all senses: an exploding commode that sprayed “urine” and emitted offensive smells. By contrast, Six Flags in Gurnee deprived patrons of their sense of sight by plunging them into the “Total Darkness” attraction and using sound and touch to raise the fear level.
“I do believe that to take you out of your reality and put you in our reality, it has to be a little of everything,” said Mike Accomando, co-owner of Mel’s Funway Park and Nightmare New England.
Boyd of Chambers of Fear agreed and said that new technologies may not replace human “monsters,” but they are vital to the haunt industry. “Technology boosts the ‘wow’ factor, and used along with a great cast and crew, it just takes your attraction to that next level,” he said. –