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The art of executing a proper haunted house

Designing a nightmare

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Playful little pigs frolick near the 2016 Haunted Mines attraction. - ROBIN SCHNEIDER
  • Robin Schneider
  • Playful little pigs frolick near the 2016 Haunted Mines attraction.
It starts innocently enough, with a few Halloween decorations in the front yard. Each year, their number grows — there’s always something new and spooky on the market. Soon, they don’t all fit. So the homeowners open up their garage and form a path for guests. At some point, they earn a reputation for the creepiest house on the block. The decorations spill out into the driveway and into the backyard. Then that reputation changes: They have the best haunted house in the neighborhood.

“They get so popular, that someone — either their spouse or the city — tells them they can’t hold it here anymore,” says Leonard Pickel. “It’s causing traffic, or it’s messing up the house.”

At this point, Pickel says the homeowners get a choice: “stop cold turkey, or go pro.”

Pickel, who currently lives in Florida, has been designing commercial haunted attractions since 1976. While studying for his bachelor’s in architecture at Texas A&M University, he ran a haunted house as a fundraiser for his dormitory. It turned a profit, so he did it again the next year and the year after. During a later apprenticeship in Dallas, Texas, he chaired the March of Dimes haunted house for four years. Ultimately, he niched himself into designing haunted attractions and has been consulting ever since, currently running the Hauntrepreneurs design firm. He’s also the owner and creator of HAuNTcon, a national trade show and conference for the haunted attraction industry.

“[People say] ‘It’s just a haunted house? How hard can it be?’” he says. Look no further than filmmaker Ron Howard’s ill-fated Chamber of Chills haunted houses, a Halloween 1996 partnership between Howard’s production company, Imagine Entertainment, Inc.; MCA Inc., which owns Universal Pictures and its brands; and mall rat standby Spencer Gifts Inc.
Set in the parking center for a Universal-owned mall, the Chamber of Chills was a guided horror tour that spat patrons out into a Spencer’s stocked with Universal Pictures horror merch. Pickel calls the haunt a general failure for a few reasons. Howard expected patrons to readily context-shift between mall shopping and a “date night” attraction in order to draw an audience. Pairing patrons with a guide slowed groups down, increasing wait times and, by introducing a friendly presence, making the attraction less scary.

“And to be honest, the room designs were poor,” he adds.

Putting together a successful haunted attraction proves neither cheap nor easy.

“A lot of haunted houses are built that never open,” says Pickel. “Once they get close and the building department shows up and says ‘Where’s your permit? Where’s your flame certificate that says these are [Class] A flame spread rated walls?’ Then, not only is the city mad at them for building the [haunt] without telling them, they’re over budget already, so there’s nothing they can do to add a sprinkler system or do anything the city would require, and they never even open.”

Pickel likes to price out a haunted house by square footage, covering the cost of building, decorating, lighting and staffing. He wouldn’t plan to spend less than $10 per square foot, with the best in the world typically going up to $50. He estimates that successful haunts also spend $2 or $3 per guest on advertising.
A volunteer hangs body bags at CFF. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • A volunteer hangs body bags at CFF.
Haunted Mines, the all-volunteer nonprofit that runs the Colorado Fear Fest and the Haunted Mines attractions, made around $700,000 in profits between 2014 and 2016. Half of that went to select charities and half to the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, which hosted the organization’s signature Haunted Mines attraction through 2016.

Haunted Mines as an organization has been around 10 years, and though they’re in the middle of demolishing their WMM&I haunt, director Stacy Packer says they’re still hosting Colorado Fear Fest. It’s a smaller pop-up haunt they bought last year from a company in Arvada. Since then, they’ve fully redesigned the CFF haunt. Now, it’s composed of two tents, around 5,000 total square feet. They planned to set up in the parking lot of the Chapel Hills Mall this year, but, lacking a sprinkler system, CFF couldn’t operate in a tent. So Packer and crew have since rebuilt the haunt inside the mall.

But wherever it’s built, she and Pickel agree that a good haunt starts with a good theme or narrative.

“To me, a haunted house is a movie or a live play where you walk from scene to scene,” Pickel says. “It starts with a storyline.” Most obviously, the setting of the story dictates a lot about the aesthetics. But the nature of the evil at the heart of the haunt also defines what guests will see. For instance, a crumbling Victorian manor that plays host to a sadistic mad scientist will host different horrors than one taken over by a rogue AI. Every room, every decoration and every character should serve to convey that story.

“This year, we came up with ‘Fear Unearthed,’ which is something we had always used back in the day with the [Haunted Mines],” Packer says. The haunt starts in a town near a mine, in which miners have dug too deep and discovered some unknown wicked influence that has bled back into the town, driving the residents mad.
Each of CFF’s tents tells a different part of that story. The first shows guests the mining town and its inhabitants. The farther in they go, the more unhinged and infected the residents are.

“When you leave the first tent, you go into the void, the blackness, and now you’ve got to push through it, and you’ve got to get out,” Packer says. “In that second tent, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Once the theme’s set, the next step is designing the floor plan — the rooms containing the scares and the path that guests will take. First and foremost in haunt design is safety. Haunts are typically dark, enclosed spaces, and by design, they seem difficult to escape. But in reality, proper haunts have many hidden emergency exits. This way, nobody has to navigate the maze of the haunt to get out in case of an injury or fire.
Details like bottles and taxidermy help set the scene. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Details like bottles and taxidermy help set the scene.
Beyond fire extinguishers, lighted exit signs and fire suppression sprinklers, Pickel says everything in a haunted attraction has to have a class A flame spread rating, the strictest classification. Fires in haunts are rare, he says — Packer adds that neither Haunted Mines nor CFF have had one.

Patron injuries like falls are much more common in a haunt. At CFF, senior haunt actors have constant radio contact with haunt control, where one of Packer’s most trusted volunteers stays from before the first guest enters to after the last one leaves, every night. Haunt control is the nerve center where the hundreds of yards of wires and cables that control the lights, sounds and other technical elements of the haunt connect. From there, haunt control can dispatch actors or members of the security team, as well as activate emergency lighting or evacuation sirens.

So, safety wise, properly 
organized haunted houses aren’t so scary at all.

What is scary for many people is claustrophobia, which Pickel tends to exploit subtly in his designs.
“The effect that the architecture has on the people going through it is more profound in a haunted house than in any other architecture,” he says. “In architecture, they talk about the golden ratio of what the room should be like. When you break those rules, when you make it tall and skinny or short and wide, it makes people uncomfortable.”

Tent haunts like CFF often don’t have ceilings, instead opening up to the dark, open space in the tent above. That makes CFF’s narrow corridors all the more unsettling.

Isolation also amps up the scare factor in a haunted house. Just like guests shouldn’t have a friend in the haunt, they shouldn’t see other guests. That’s a constant challenge in a haunt, keeping groups of guests spaced properly. To help, Pickel designs haunts with short sight lines — guests can’t see very far in any direction, so groups can be closer together without knowing it. And they can’t see what’s coming as easily.

Keeping proper spacing requires help from haunt control and the actors. Many haunts have extensive camera systems so haunt control can see who’s where and keep everyone spaced out, having actors slow groups down or speed them up.
Decorations in a haunt should be secured so they don’t turn into a trip hazard. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Decorations in a haunt should be secured so they don’t turn into a trip hazard.

CFF doesn’t have cameras, as Packer finds that “by the time you send someone over [to address something on] those cameras, [the guests are] already gone.”

That said, Pickel avoids designing haunts with skids — elements that slow patrons down. Rather, he’s coined the industry term “scare forward,” designing rooms and scares that urge guests to keep moving through the haunt.
“It’s almost impossible to stop [guests], and once you stop ’em, it’s almost impossible to start them again,” he says. So instead of putting the terror right in front of guests, he puts it above, beside or behind them.

Consider that your warning.

For any given room in a haunt, Packer tends to let members of her team work out the designs. As an example, she cites the “Pinocchio” room from 2016’s fairy tale-themed Haunted Mines haunt. Co-director Ken Quigley and his wife, Kathy, led the design on that one.

Ken recalls a scene from the Disney movie in which Pinocchio has been captured and caged. That gave the room a core scare — scary Pinocchio straining at and, if necessary, escaping a cage. The team made bars from extra-thick bungee cord, so the actor could interact with guests more dynamically. 
Between the two CFF tents, guests were set to get a brief breath of fresh air. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Between the two CFF tents, guests were set to get a brief breath of fresh air.

Pickel says that memorable rooms are designed around plans for the actor. But one actor in a cage does not a memorable scare make. In this case, the rest of the room serves to direct people to be in the prime place for the scare and to hide the monster.

The Pinocchio room accomplished this through misdirection. The actor carried a clicker that toggled the lights and would cut the light to the chandeliers once guests entered and activate different spotlights to draw the audience’s attention.

“We knew there was one area of the room that lent itself very well to a stage,” says Ken, “and since we were doing Pinocchio... what better than marionettes?” Well, maybe Geppetto roasting on a spit — another distraction.

When guests focused elsewhere, the Pinocchio actor would suddenly light the cage and try to escape, catching guests off guard. As guests exited, they passed by a strobe light and a wall that read “I’m a real boy.”

It’s little details like that, Pickel says, that can elevate a haunt.
“When you talk about the most famous haunts in the country, they’re all very highly detailed,” he says. “That’s because you’re trying to suspend their disbelief... The more realistic the set, the more lifelike the set, the more likely you’re going to get a suspension of disbelief.”

At the highest-end haunts, like at Universal Studios, Pickel says guests can even pull a newspaper from a trash can and read a story from within the world of the haunt. That said, Pickel likes playing with immersion in unexpected ways.

“One of my favorite things is, about three or four feet from the exit of the haunted house, to put an air cannon,” he says. People see it while waiting to get in, but once they’re out, they drop their defenses and are vulnerable to a final scare.

Costuming and makeup also help reinforce 
suspension of disbelief. Naturally, the characters should look plausible within the world of the haunt. But more than that, Pickel feels like costuming serves the actors more than the guests by helping them get into character. Good acting sells scares more surely than any lights, sounds or animatronics can.

“I’m a very vocal haunter,” says Joshua Madrid, a senior actor for Haunted Mines. “I like to have dialogue with the customers.” He played the Mad Hatter in the 2016 Haunted Mines, the door greeter character who started creeping guests out before they entered the haunt. His character developed in such a way that he became one of the most talked-about parts of the haunt, Packer says, and she reassigned Madrid’s Hatter to roam the haunt freely.
Every room has to tell part of the story. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Every room has to tell part of the story.
“I kinda went a little nuts last year,” he says. “Each week, I’d add a little more to my costume, add a couple new lines, add a nursery rhyme I’d put a dark twist on.”

Pickel says there’s a symbiotic relationship between the people who design and run haunted attractions and the guests. When an actor pops out of a casket and scares someone, both parties get an adrenaline rush. And for a designer, the echoing screams coming from the haunt is the sound of pure satisfaction.

“The people who get into this are passionate about scaring people,” says Pickel. “They’re artists. ... It’s a disease, and once you catch it, it’s terminal. There is no cure.”

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