Large-scale, professional Halloween haunts have become the rage – part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Knott’s Berry Farm blazed the trail for the industry to follow in 1973, when it hosted a special, hard ticket Halloween event – Halloween Haunt – which was an immediate success. Now, companies such as Universal, Busch Gardens and even the Walt Disney Company are in on the holiday, bringing in record crowds – and along with the crowds, huge amounts of money.

Yet, something remains to be said about the appeal and draw of stand-alone haunted attractions. Perhaps it’s the unknown element of not knowing exactly what lies ahead in the darkness, as opposed to the relative “safety” of corporate haunts. Or maybe it’s the cutting-edge elements of fear, special effects or graphic illusions that can sometimes be pulled off better in stand-alone attractions rather than in theme park settings. Whatever it is, the spirit of Halloween is alive and well, and fans find themselves with more to choose from and Knotts Scary Farmenjoy these days than ever before.

Theme Park Adventure has covered haunted attractions and seasonal theme park events since 1994 professionally. In short, we’ve seen a lot of haunted houses in our time. We visit certain favorites each year and branch out to new venues as well, looking for that new thrill – the latest hook. During the Halloween season, we set out to find something that surprises us and takes us to the next level of geeky fan ecstasy; and we’re rarely let down.

While haunts come in all shapes and sizes, there are certain recipes haunters follow that either spell success or disaster, regardless of theme and regardless of size. What I’d like to do now, is outline the five MUSTS I believe any haunted attraction should have to be successful. And while we go over the musts, that means we’ll inevitably cover the no-no things, too. Knowing me, I’ll even break down the five points into sub-points as well… so who knows how many freakin’ rules we’ll touch on by the end of this article. With me? Here they are, really in no particular order…

Haunted Attraction Must-Haves #1 – A Strong Back Story or Theme

There are two types of haunts out there; ones with a coherent (sometimes very detailed) story line, and those without. Haunts with a story or theme to build on require some brain work andFright Fest at Six Flags Great America definitely creativity up and beyond hitting up your local Halloween superstore with a blank check. Haunts that are all over the board when it comes to theme are referred to as “haunt stew”, and I will comment on those types in a moment.

While we all understand that there is a certain “theme park crowd mentality” that applies to haunted attractions, don’t simply write off guests’ intelligence; I have found that people who are really into haunted attractions are pretty good at “getting it” – and in turn, love rich story lines; they look beyond the immediate “boo” and want there to be more. Consider the effort Disney enthusiasts have made for decades, demanding a back story to The Haunted Mansion. The same thing applies to home and professional stand-alone haunts. Good stand-alone haunts give fans something to chew on and aren’t afraid to work out a story for their attraction.

On the flip-side, many haunts do go for the “haunt stew” mix and throw everything including the bloodied kitchen sink into their attraction and go for it, usually with gore and loud music to match. While not at all my favorite type of haunt, these can be and are very successful; it is Halloween after all, and people want haunted houses. In the short term, haunt stew will work – but in the end, most serious haunters want more than random scenes and pointless gore.

Haunted Attraction Must-Haves #2 – Enthusiastic, Adult Talent

This is a big one for me, because nothing about a 15 year-old going through puberty with a cracking voice is scary (unless he’s trying to call your daughter at midnight). People may disagree with me on this, but I’ve been to enough haunts to know that unless the story or theme specifically calls on a child or children as key roles… kids as a rule of thumb, are not frightening. They’re not intimidating, they’re not threatening, and they’re usually smaller than many of the guests.[quote-float]…. nothing about a 15 year-old going through puberty with a cracking voice is scary (unless he’s trying to call your daughter at midnight)[/quote-float]

I totally get why people opt for minors in their mazes. They’re great volunteers, often schools will issue students credit or “service hours” for participating in community haunts. And let’s face it – you either make kids happy with a few $5 pizzas each night from Little Caesar’s or have to shell out pay for adults. The knee-jerk reaction is going to be high school kids (or younger) and a ton of pizza and Coke. However, I reiterate: CHILDREN AREN’T SCARY IN HAUNTED HOUSES. Especially when guests have been waiting for an hour in line and have paid $15 to experience your event.

Adult talent – I’d say from mature late teens on up – absolutely makes or breaks any haunted attraction. That goes hand-in-hand with my other point within this section; the talent must be enthusiastic and energetic. Nothing destroys a haunt faster than crappy talent. You can have the most amazing sets and theme in the World. The moment paying guests run into a monster that just stands there awkwardly or doesn’t know what he or she is doing – it’s over; the experience is done. In that moment of suspended disbelief, we’re suddenly snapped out of it and reminded that a haunt isn’t populated by monsters, but rather, crappy talent.

Haunted Attraction Must-Haves #3 – An Appropriate Soundtrack

This one is so simple, yet people blow it all the time. A haunt must have a strong, complimentary soundtrack. And that doesn’t mean it has to have a sweeping, symphonic score (although in some cases, that may be awesome).

Years ago, when the Queen Mary began its annual Halloween event, I was absolutely blown away by the soundtrack, but not in a good way. Deep inside the dark hull of the massive ship, as we made our way down damp and truly creepy corridors, the ambiance was destroyed by heavy metal being blasted at ear-splitting decibels. And this repeated itself through the other mazes at the Queen Mary as well that year. Whole experience: ruined. Imagine returning to that same location, descending into the rusted bowels of the ship with loud, creaking groans from the hull echoing through the darkness. It would be terrifying and appropriate.[quote-float]Too many haunters take the easy way out and literally destroy the flavor and theme of their haunt [/quote-float]Too many haunters take the easy way out and literally destroy the flavor and theme of their haunt blasting music from bands like Rob Zombie. News flash – that’s lame and lazy. Haunters should put some effort into enhancing your experience with an appropriate soundtrack or music. It may be a bit more challenging, but believe me – the payoff is huge in the long run.

Occasionally, we visit haunted attractions that have no soundtrack. And no amount of “It’s more frightening to be alone in quiet darkness” spin is going to convince me that silence is golden. No way. A haunted attraction is a multi-sensory experience, which means guess what? Your ears want to participate, too!

Here’s a simple test if you don’t believe me. Pull up Jaws or Halloween online or throw the DVD in the player and fire it up. Now, watch some key scenes with the volume turned down. Yawn. Did you manage to stay awake? If so, watch the scenes again with the volume up. Hear how much that music adds to the character of those films? In many ways, the Halloween theme is synonymous subconsciously with Michael Myers; the Jaws theme is the menacing shark. A soundtrack is the flavor of  a haunted attraction, and is absolutely critical when it comes to creating an immersive, amazing experience.

And that’s a summary of what I believe are three key elements to a successful haunted attraction. These apply to small home haunts or large professional ventures alike. Above all, have fun, because that is what haunting is all about – having a wild time spooking it up and entertaining people who are looking to be scared to death by you and your crew.
Happy haunting, everyone!

Photo Credits: Image 1: robnas, Image 2: yenna

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One Response

  1. Joel

    Nice article Rick. I’m itching to check out the local theme park haunt Scarowinds now. I want to look for all of these elements and see how the park grades out. And I’ve got two daughters so the 15-year old boy zing hit home! 🙂

    Thanks for your expert insight.


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