This article was originally published October 23, 2009.
It’s the weekend before Halloween, so it might be too late to put together a haunted house of your own this year.
But if you’re like us, you’ll probably be attending at least one haunted house. And afterward, you’ll ask yourself and your friends: was it any good?
In other words, it’s never to late to ask: what makes a perfect haunted house?
Give it a Theme
The single biggest mistake that most haunted houses make is merely being a mish-mash of unrelated rooms and monsters. But human beings experience and make sense of the world by looking for patterns and designs. Your haunted house will make more sense, and have much of an impact, if you hang everything on some kind of theme.
In short, a haunted house is — or should be — more than the sum total of its disembodied parts.
And for the record? “Haunted Mansion” is just about the most boring, over-used theme imaginable — followed closely by “Insane Insane Asylum”, “Mad Scientists Lab,” and “Haunted Graveyard.”
Much better? “Attack of the Giant Spiders,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Haunted House,” or “Children of the Cornfield Maze.” And what haunted house enthusiast wouldn’t want to dare “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb,” about adventurers who get stuck in an Egyptian pyramid?
Think of it as a Story
It’s not enough for a haunted house to have a theme. A haunted house should also have a structure: a “beginning,” a “middle,” and a satisfying “end.”
In other words, a fantastic haunted house tells a story with a set-up, which introduces the theme; rising tension as the visitors probe deeper and deeper into your set-up and confront increasingly impressive scenarios; and some sort of satisfying conclusion that sort of wraps it all up and maybe leaves people with something to think about.
For example, if you’re “theme” is “The Walk of the Executed,” you’ll probably be telling the story of someone — i.e. your visitor — who is condemned to die. The first part of the haunted house might include a ghostly judge in a courtroom who makes the sentence from his or her worm-infested bench. Next up, the visitor is sent to “prison” — where other condemned and howling prisoners wait to die. After that, there’s certainly room for an unorthodox “last meal” and a place where the evil priest can ask for “last words.” The culmination, of course, is the execution itself, where the visitor is to be put to death — until, perhaps, a last-second reprieve.
(Incidentally? There’s a reason why fireworks shows save their best explosions for last. Your last room should be the most spectacular too.)
Anyway, having your haunted house tell an actual story involves the visitor in two ways: first, by tying the individual rooms together, they’ll make more sense and have more impact. But second, since (unlike a movie) a haunted house is a “live” walk-through event, your visitors can literally be a character in the action.
The more you involve them in the story, the bigger the impact.
More is More (But Less is More Too)
It’s a haunted house — hey, blood and bodies are de rigueur! But it’s important to have “quieter” moments even in haunted houses — and not just in the hallways between the rooms.
On first glance, this might seem a little like wasted space, but it’s not. Every good storyteller knows that, while the overall structure means gradually rising tension, there are moments when the tension falls again. Why? If everything is the same level of intensity, soon everything starts to feel indistinguishable – and boring.
In short, varying the intensity will keep your guests off-guard and ironically end up making them more scared.
Play With Expectations
Anyone older than the age of six has already been to about 50,000 haunted houses in their life — and we’ve seen 50,000 more monster movies. So people come to each new haunted house with certain … expectations. But this is not a bad thing! In fact, it’s a perfect opportunity to screw with your visitors’ minds.
Example: as they enter a room, the coffin slowly begins to open. Naturally, everyone’s attention will be focused there, expecting the rising of a vampire.
Which means, of course, that this is the perfect moment to hit them with a giant spider from above!
It’s More Important to be Fun Than it is to be Scary
Who exactly is a haunted house ultimately made for? Hint: it’s not the creators.
Yes, it’s the visitors. After all, they’re the ones paying to get in, right? And if nothing else, you want good word-of-mouth. Always remember this.
Everyone comes to a haunted house to be scared, but no one comes to be splashed with water or hit in the face or lose their balance or get poked by a loose nail.
It’s also possible for a haunted house to be too scary, or at least too unpleasant. The gore can be a little too realistic, and the monsters can be too in-your-face.
If it’s a choice between between “cool” or “scary,” we say go with cool every time.
Pictures are from Spider Rider’s Halloween.