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By Jon Love and Daniel McCullough from House of Torment
Back end procedures tend to vary from haunt to haunt depending on size, location, and attraction type. Operations for a 10,000 person/year single attraction haunt differ than that of a 70,000 person/year multi attraction scare park. Despite the differences between events one thing is universally certain: smooth behind the scenes operations are a critical part of any successful haunted attraction. For our business, the House of Torment in Austin Texas (a two attraction haunted house serving 40,000 + patrons/year) we created a centralized command center that is the beating operational heart of our event. From it we activate all of our props, visually monitor and record every room in our haunted house via infrared cameras, control sound levels, operate lighting and fog controllers, maintain air supply, and coordinate communication with our entire 100+ person/night staff. We call it the “Control Room” and we are going take you through our theory behind its use and the benefits it has brought our business.
The Idea Behind it all
From the start we wanted to have the best timing possible with our props. We wanted customers, even if they spotted a prop, to be stunned when it activated when they least expected it. Year one we researched other haunts, builders, and electronics manufacturers and discovered that by combining the use of infrared video security technology, custom switch boards, and some minor wiring techniques we could run prop triggers and video feeds to a central station with monitors and activators. We could then sit back, watch the show, and at the perfect time flip a switch giving customers a scare they’d remember.
Early on after building out our first camera station and prop trigger board we decided to run our audio controllers back to the same area to keep them out of the fog filled haunted house. The room we were using was also somewhat removed from the attraction so it ended up being a good place to store our compressors as well. That first year our control room was equipped with a 4 camera monitor unit with VCR, a small compressor (compared to the ones we have now), a few CD players and a handful of radios. It was a modest version of our present command center that has since been through tens of thousands of dollars of upgrades, expansions, and improvements. We now use digital video recorders, dozens of commercial grade night vision cameras, MP3 players, DMX lighting and DMX fog controllers, better communication units, and much larger compressors.
What was supposed to be a timing technique quickly turned into operational gold for us becoming a core element of our business and over the years the control room has in a way become our brainchild. Finding ways to broaden its capability and increase its function have become staple parts of our off season as each year we continue to face growing demand, and improving haunt technologies. So far, we have identified 4 major categories of benefits the control room provides our business (they are list below in no particular order). In the future however there will undoubtedly be more, but for now these are the main reasons we use a control room to operate our haunt.
Safety, Liability, & Security
One of the main features of our control room, the camera system, allows us to have eyes and ears everywhere in the haunted house which increases haunt safety and security while reducing liability.
During the course of a season inevitably some incidents will occur as people walk through or work in our attraction. It’s a dark, loud, chaotic environment and while we take every safety precaution known to man to ensure our customer’s and actor’s safety sometimes things happen. Clothing may get torn, personal items may get lost, sets may get trashed, or even worse, every haunted house owner’s nightmare, someone may get hurt.
Our camera system not only allows us to monitor activity inside the haunted house in real time, it records the footage on to hard drives. Whenever we have an incident we never end up in a “he said she said” situation. We simply pull the footage from the drives and watch to determine what really happened, and where the fault, if any, lies. To no surprise we have found that over 99% of incidents occur when people, whether it’s a customer or an actor, don’t follow the rules and guidelines of the haunted house.
In addition, because we can see everything in real time, we are able to track potential “problem” customers we think may be aggressive towards our actors or sets. They may have had a bit too much to drink or they may seem a little too hostile or afraid. Whatever the case may be when we identify a potential “problem” customer we have a security officer monitor their trip through the haunted house in our control room and at the first sign of trouble, escort them out.
Timing & Prop Activation
Because we can see everything in our haunt during operation we don’t time our props, rather we time our customers. Our control room operators are experts at timing groups and using a group’s personality to understand what will be the best time and way to activate props and effects. Sometimes that means blasting a group twice with an air shot, or waiting until the big guy in the front has passed the Skele-rector, or even letting some one think “It’s not going to move,” and then surprising them out of their shirt (it has happened). Each group acts its own unique way and monitoring them on camera lets us learn something about them and then tailor their experience accordingly. Our props are essentially extensions of our control room operators and whether the effect is the misdirection for the actor or the actor is the misdirection for the effect, having props manually timed and activated adds another layer of depth to our event.
It is also beneficial to manually activate props from our control room so there are never step pads or sensors for customers to find. Sometimes with “in haunt” triggers customers will stand in one place and continually activate an animation over and over again killing throughput, bogging down operation, and draining air supply. Customers may also get too close or end up somewhere they shouldn’t be making a prop activation potentially hazardous. Putting the power of activation in the hands of a trained professional prevents those problems from arising keeping the show safe and moving along.
Centralization of Systems
Our control room is much more than a camera and prop activation station. While visually monitoring our event and manually activating our props provides a plethora of advantages, having all of our core functions in one place is key. We monitor and control lighting, fog, communication, audio, and air supply all from one location. Coupled with our camera system we are able to instantly adjust almost any element of the attraction with the press of a few buttons. We are able to know what systems are up, at what intervals they are running, at what levels they are operating, and what if any need adjusting. We always have a good idea if our customers are getting the experience they paid for because we can simultaneously monitor all the critical functions of our attraction. In the event something needs tweaking it is very simple to diagnose what is going on when everything is right in front of you, coordinate with the appropriate staff member, and address the issue. We also store our tools alongside a variety of spare parts in our control room to have quick access to anything we may need in an emergency maintenance situation. Overall, centralizing the control of our haunted house is the fundamental theory we have used to develop and run our back end operation. It’s the basis on which the control room is built.
Refinement & Training
One of the biggest benefits the control room has offered us, the ability to see what works and what doesn’t, has made for some of our most exciting and humbling experiences. Because we are able to constantly watch our props, effects, actors, and customers we can see when our ideas work better than we ever expected and when they fail to even be noticed. What ever the case may be the control room has enabled us to continually refine our event. We watch to see if scares provide the impact we want, to pin point areas that create flow problems, and to monitor our actors to make sure they are doing a good job. When something doesn’t work we change it until we get it right and in doing so grasp a better understanding of what will invoke the best reactions out of our customers.
In addition, similar to the way football teams that watch film of competitors to understand what they’ll be facing in an upcoming game, we show our actors videos of customers. We show them what works, what doesn’t, analyze customer types and study the footage together with our team. It’s great to be able to show our staff how making slight changes can create huge differences or how something on one side of the haunt affects something on the other side of the haunt. Overall, monitoring and recording haunt footage night after night has made a huge impact on the quality of the event we produce.
In conclusion our theory of having a centralized area to control the critical systems of our haunt has worked out to our advantage and fit our model well. It has helped us produce a product that we haven’t seen replicated in our market. It has given our business significant advantages and provided us with an operational infrastructure allowing us to smoothly sustain exponential growth while forever bettering ourselves and our attraction. It has provided us with a priceless wealth of knowledge about our customers and how to be really good at what we do. We understand the control room won’t fit everyone’s model and recognize that each event has its own way of running back end operations. No way is right, no way is wrong. Our way works for us and we hope that you may be able to take something from that. Thanks for reading and good luck this season! For more information about the House of Torment please visit www.houseoftorment.com
|Posted by Larry 6.54 AM Read Comments (
by Larry Kirchner
Escape rooms are pretty hot right now and making lots of money for some. Over the past year, I've learned a lot about escape rooms from building four of my own plus several for different clients. I've also learned so much from my conversations with friends who also operate escape rooms of their own, and of course I've learned from the good old fashion way of making mistakes and learning from them. I feel the best way to learn anything is from digging in and taking your lumps. The good news is...this industry shares a lot of information. In this article, I will now share with you and hopefully save you some of the same growing pains. Here are ten things I learned within the first six months of building escape rooms for clients as well as operating my own.
1) Marketing: I learned quickly that escape rooms should be marketed only thru social media, not radio, television or any other type of traditional media. If you're not a wizard at social media or digital media then hire someone. I had to break down and hire a company to represent my escape rooms, and it's made a huge difference. I think almost all failing escape rooms gravitate to Groupon. Groupon is making a huge push to sign up as many escape rooms as possible. The problem with Groupon is they make you cut your profits with a discount, and then they cut your profits again by giving them a huge percentage. You would be much better off hiring a company to handle the marketing for you and focus on Google, Facebook and Instagram, and direct market to companies for team building events, specifically the HR Departments of businesses.
2) Operations: I learned really fast that it's not a great idea to be open daily. However, it's also not a great idea to be open only at night. Corporate parties want day time hours not night. I think it's best to keep limited hours on Wed-Thurs with a focus on being open early. You'll need at least 15 minutes between games to reset. You must also remember games can be damaged by customers, so stay on top of repairs at all times.
3) Buy Puzzle Books: When I first created my escape rooms, I relied heavily on puzzle companies. That was a mistake. When you buy one from this company and one from that company you end up with so many different things created in different ways that it's hard to maintain. On Amazon, you can find dozens of puzzle books. Inside each book are puzzles that could inspire you to create non-electronic puzzles to open a lock or give a clue. I wish I had bought these books prior to creating my first escape room. I don't think every puzzle should be electronic. In fact, some of the best puzzles are ideas derived from puzzle books whereby customers readily use their brain to complete a puzzle. (BTW much cheaper.)
4) Visit Escape Rooms: Regretfully, I did not. However, I've found that many escape rooms offer very similar things, while at the same time creating their own unique ways of reinventing those common puzzles. Visiting other escape rooms and understanding what everyone is doing can help your business. It's something I personally need to do, but just haven't had the time. However, every successful escape room owner I've talked to has done this and told me the great value in it.
5) Don't Create the Get-Rich-Quick Games: There are SO many escape rooms in operation with SO many more planning to open. Several were created by gamers, who have great puzzle ideas but who set them up too affordably. Many escape rooms are set-up in small spaces, many times on the second floor, and the mass majority are created for only $10-$20k. Ultimately escape rooms will come to the same conclusion the haunt industry came to many years ago... With too many haunts in operation, so many more were failures than were successes. Very confidently, I'm going to predict more than half of all escape rooms will go out of business within the next 18 months. Even ones operated on the smallest of budgets still have bills to pay and owners who need to support themselves. I also believe many of the franchise escape rooms will be some of the first to go, because the owners have to pay a percentage of their profits to the franchise. The Escape Room industry is being expanded much too fast; this will put a massive squeeze on the industry as a whole, but even moreso on the smaller ones. You will continue to see more and more open, diluting the industry to a breaking point. The quality levels are just so all over the board, and in some markets, you're starting to hear more negative than positive from customers. The bar will be set higher by those who think big. In the end, the industry will see several drop out, but the best WILL survive. That's my opinion, based on 30 years in a similar industry, the haunt industry. If you're thinking about opening one, then do it bigger, better and more spectacular than anyone else in your market.
6) Hire some help: When you're planning your first escape room, reach out to some escape rooms designers. There's no harm in getting some prices. I've learned there are experienced puzzle and room designers who will layout your entire room for as little as $2,500. Why try and learn on the job? If you're someone with theming experience, then what can it hurt to hire someone to help you with a great flow chart of puzzles?
7) Equipment to do the job: We've already built several escape rooms for clients, and one thing I learned quick is you need certain types of equipment/resources. If you really want to go above in the build-out of your room, you might need a CNC machine, 3D printer, and of course a really good tech person. Tech for a haunted house is totally different than tech for an escape room. If you don't own a CNC machine then find a local company who does. A 3D printer is something anyone can buy; the trick is...Do you know how to use it? You can probably find people on the web (on sites like 'meetup') who can operate your 3D printer or CNC if you choose to purchase one.
8) Time to Go BIG: Many escape rooms are what I would call generation 1. These have little to no theming, lots of locks or math puzzles, and primarily seak-n-finds (aka simply finding hidden things around the room). If you look around your market today, there might be 10-20 of these available, so something's gotta give. I made a comment during my seminar last year that many low-budget escape games will inevitably find it hard to complete by the new incoming high-budget escape rooms. Look at the Halloween Retail industry...Almost every lower budget "ma and pa" retail store got sent packing when the big box stores decided to sell the same items. This is reality, and the first to go will be the generation 1 escapes. The newer escape games opening will be way more advanced and exciting. The purpose of my comment wasn't to insult but to forewarn those escapes. Upgrade before it's too late. Now one year later, there's even less time to upgrade and change. I want to help anyone in business who reads this magazine... there are big players getting into this industry and right now you’re about to be overrun with competition. Think big now and go for it!!! I have always found in the haunt industry if you set the bar so high, others will think twice before going into competition with you! Just a thought!
9) Party Rooms: If you plan to build an escape room you MUST build party rooms. Number one customers are cooperate groups! When I first opened my escape rooms, I booked very few corporate groups, but almost immediately after opening the party rooms, I had more than I could deal with. Furthermore, you can upcharge for the private use of the room. My only suggestion is that you create a very unique party room atmosphere, not something with four walls and paint. My main party room is well themed and includes pinball, shuffleboard, televisions, couches, a fireplace and board games.
10) Website: First, you need a website where people can book your games. I learned escape rooms and haunted house websites are two very different things. Our first escape room site was dark; we didn't do well. Then I totally changed the website and made things bright, more inviting. Additionally, you'll need a Facebook and Instagram page, but again steer clear of doing anything dark. Even though customers REALLY like the haunted themes, still keep your sites colorful and bright. Don't make it seem too scary.
We also created another how-to DVD, this one is called 'How to Create Escape Rooms' and you can purchase a copy at www.HauntedHouseSupplies.com
|Posted by Larry 3.24 AM Read Comments (
|Posted by Larry 8.06 PM Read Comments (
From the team behind Haunted Overload
Lighting a scene to provide the most visual impact has always been very important to us at Haunted Overload. Lighting should always enhance a scene not detract from it. A mediocre scene can be brought to life with good lighting, just a fantastic scene can be ruined by the wrong choice or bad lighting job.
Fantastic effects can be achieved with a relatively low budget. Coming from a home haunt background just starting out we did not have the funds to purchase expensive lights and effects. We made do with cheap colored spotlights that stuck in the ground. We found that with just standard red, blue, green and orange spotlights we could achieve great effects by the proper placement and combination of colors in a scene. Using black wrap and gaffing tape we are able to feather the lighting effects or dim them down at will by bending and shaping the wrap over the light to suit our needs. These simple techniques are in use at the haunt to this day.
Mainly lighting from the ground up illuminating the natural environment, trees and structures provides dramatic shadows and highlights to each area.
Since our attraction is outdoors, we prefer big bold powerful lighting effects that cover a wide area. Our 500 W halogen work lights are slowly being replaced with LED versions covered with gels to change the color.
A good rule of thumb is to use warm and cool colors in each scene. For example if you are lighting something in the foreground with warm tones such as red or orange, a cool color in the background like blue or green tones will really make it pop and vice versa.
Rules are made to be broken and experimentation is always a good thing.
This year, I wanted to try to light one particular scene in the outside queue line with only natural light from candles or flames.
This may not be possible at every haunt location but if your fire marshal allows it in certain areas this could work great. I wanted it to look 100% authentic so we lit real jackolanterns with candles in jars and the outside perimeter of the scene with tiki torches. With a lot of fog pumped in, it made the scene look incredible with all the flickering natural light.
Another successful experiment was achieved by using a powerful LED blacklight. We knew we needed something spectacular for the main queue line so we built a massive four-story skull structure. But the lighting had to look incredible. So my idea was to mix glow-in-the-dark paint with invisible fluorescent paint and spray the entire sculpture with a Wagner power painter. We painted the whole thing black first to provide a deep rich base for the fluorescent glowing mixture on top.
The black light was turned on while the paint was being applied so we could judge the effect and intensity of the glowing areas.
Even though the photo is fantastic, it's hard reproduce the intensity when printed and to describe the finished results seen in person. The combination of tones and shadows produces an almost 3-D effect without the glasses. That entire section of queue line and skull structures can be lit with one 40° UV light by Elektra Lite with lighted pumpkins for accents. Impressive light output delivers incredible fluorescence at distances of more than 75 feet. Red LED lights in the eyes of the skulls on either side help make it pop.
I wanted to improve on this technique the following year and experiment with different colors. The same approach was applied to a 50 foot dragon bridge sculpture. Additional black lights from Fright Props were added to light up the entire length of the sculpture. Care was taken to cover them from the elements as well as position the lights high to avoid shadows from patrons entering the bridge.
This is one of my favorite lighting effects because patrons are really blown away when they are viewing such a large glowing object from far away that gains in glowing intensity as they move closer.
Subscribe to Hauntworld Magazine www.HauntedHouseMagazine.com and buy our line of haunted house how to dvd's at www.hauntedhousesupplies.com
|Posted by Larry 7.59 PM Read Comments (
by Ben Armstrong
Flying rigs in Haunted Attractions can be very impressive and something to consider adding to your event. However, there are large risks when adding aerial stunts (or any time you have an employee raised above the ground). Let’s discuss the various ways you accomplish such an effect.
- Air Powered Lifters and Droppers - In most cases, these are considered the safest as they usually start on the ground and lift an actor into the air. This is good because the actor doesn’t need to strap into the device up high on a platform somewhere in the dark. Also, these usually move somewhat slowly which is also a bonus. There are a few companies that make these, but generally they are not cheap, as they require massive cylinders to safely lift a person’s weight and a large amount of steel to support the rig and the actor. The downside is that the faster they get the more dangerous they become, and the amount of energy required to lift a person can be problematic if an employee gets a costume or hand caught in the works. As always, the method used to safely secure the actor to the rig is critical. These rigs are prone to the same sort of wear and tear as normal animations, so it’s very important to have an inspection system in place when using these devices.
- Bungees – These can be very effective ways to get fast scares. With this sort of stunt, it is essential to have professional equipment meant to take the weight of a person for both the bungee system and the harness. Also critical is the method of attaching the bungee to the overhead structure and the overhead structure itself. This is not recommended unless the equipment & rigging are supplied and installed by a professional. There are bungee systems that can be purchased as stand-alone units. These are very good. The downside is the potential for coming into contact with a patron is high. Careful positioning and training on this stunt are required to make it safe enough to use. Another issue is the athletic ability needed to perform this on a continuous basis. Bungees can be used all night by actors trained to use the bungee as the propulsion for the stunt, but even then, a high level of athleticism is required. Another factor is how the harness fits and the potential for rubbing or bruising. This is a factor in any stunt when the weight of the actor is held by a harness.
- Tracks – Tracks are stunts whereby an actor wearing a harness is secured to a trolley on a track and flies out over the patrons. This can be quite effective but has its own unique set of problems. As always, the appropriate rigging of the equipment and track installation is essential. A new factor to consider is how difficult it is for the actor to get into position to attach to the track. The factors of darkness, height and attaching the back of the harness to the rig are all very serious. A mistake along the way could lead to an accident. Another issue is the possibility of kicking a guest as you pass overhead or being grabbed or punched while being held in the harness. If the track is set at the appropriate height and the actor is carefully secured in place this can be a very safe & effective stunt, but an extraordinary amount of planning and safety considerations must always be in place. Downsides are the hazards in attaching to the effect, the proper wearing of the harness to prevent rubbing, and the potential for the guests grabbing at the actor.
- Zip Lines – Most of the factors involved in a track stunt come into play with zip lines but in an even more expanded way. Zip lines are more for show than for a scare, as the actor is often seen during most of the flight. All of the same issues of harness safety, professional installation and successfully getting onto the platform exist as before, but with this stunt the platform is usually higher, and therefore the actor will have even greater inability to stop once they commit to the zip. No chance of impact with guests or other objects should exist, but even more care should be taken when mounting this stunt. To purchase & install the correct cables and trolleys for this sort of flight is quite expensive, and this should be considered one of the most advanced stunts you might undertake despite its seeming simplicity.
As you can see flying stunts are not easy or cheap to do safely. Here is a checklist for what you should look at for every stunt you install in your attraction:
- Anchor Points: The structure must be strongly secured, so I always recommend hiring a professional rigger.
- Mounting: Ladders and platforms need good traction and handrails. Rails and safety clip on cables to protect the actor before they are clipped in are also required.
- Harnesses: Get professional harnesses recommended by the rigger you hire. Make sure they are correctly adjusted to prevent chaffing or bruising. In stunts like air powered lifters where only a belt is needed, make sure it is a belt designed to do what it is doing and one that is properly attached. Harnesses must be periodically replaced. They may only be usable on certain sizes of actors.
- Bungees & Cables: They need to be rated for the use desired and properly installed. They must be replaced, sometimes every season or sooner if they get damaged.
- Casting & Training: Your flying actors needs to be athletic, safety-conscious and smart. They must make sure everything is correct with the stunt to always take safety seriously. They must be very aware of their surroundings and what the guests are doing, especially if any possible contact could occur while performing the stunt. They need to be tough, but not oblivious to pain. If they pull a muscle or are dehydrating or are being hurt by the harness, they need to know when to stop.
- Carabiners, Trolleys & Other Rigging Gear: Professionally recommended and installed gear that is often inspected and used for what it was designed for is the only way to go.
- Cover the Mechanisms: Especially with air powered lifts, tracks and zip lines, make sure to design things in such a way as to keep your actors’ and guests’ hands off of the tracks and out of the linkages. A finger caught in a trolley will not make for a happy radio call.
- General Safety & Care: Your stunt actors may need extra breaks, and they need to checked on by staff frequently. It is very easy to dehydrate on stunts and often hard to access water while attached. They need to be able to release themselves in the event of an emergency, for example if the haunt needs to be evacuated.
So, there you have it…Stunts can be amazing, extremely effective at scaring your guests, and have a huge WOW factor, but they require an unending dedication to safety, doing things the correct way, training, and a serious dollar investment. If you are mindful, willing & committed to these issues then flying rig stunts might be for you. Good luck!
|Posted by Larry 6.37 AM Read Comments (