Building Layers of Terror How to Build a Scary Haunted House

Fri, September 25, 2020
Building Layers of Terror!  Taking the Devil out of the Details
by Ben Armstrong 

At last you have a rock solid Haunted House. The basics are strong, the cast is tight, and the screams flow like wine. But a nagging doubt hangs in your mind, the fear that your show is exactly like a thousand others out there, full of the same props and masks, the same scares, the same storylines. You want to get to the next level , you want detail! But deep detail has a cost few can afford to pay:

1) TIME: If you have the skills to do the work you can have all the detail you want but the cost in time can be astronomical. If you don't have the skills or the time there is always:

2) MONEY: You can pay people to do the work but this can be an even greater expense.

So the question is how can you get the detail you crave without expending too much time and money? Well there is no one cure all for this question, the only sure way to keep growing is to come back full force every season and to give them the very best show you can create. But I can think of a simple concept can help make the details come together just a little easier. Layering. Not just in set dressing, but rather in ALL things. What do I mean?

Let's take costuming. The basic haunted house outfit, the mask and black reaper robe can (with little cost in time or money) be improved greatly with a few layers of simple detail. Shredded fabric attached to the costume, bits of camo netting, old belts with props attached can make all the difference. Add chunks of foam on the inside to warp the form of the actor to make them more inhuman, paint match the gloves to the hands and glue on fake fingernails and hair. Looking for inspiration? Go to the toy store and buy some Spawn figurines. Look at the colors, look at the blood splats, look at the weapons. Attach tatters of fabric around a reapers scythe, dull down the paint to a realistic level, add spatters of brown paint (Blood.rust?) and what do you have? Big improvements. Store bought masks can get so much better with a few simple layers of paint, things like moss or hair glued on in places, and minor painting corrections. Nothing beats the work of a good artist, but if you take the time to discover good "art" and really examine it, you can build up the layers to quickly and painlessly clone it.

On the matter of set dressing volumes could be written about layering. True artists and carpenters can create wonderful and imaginative things, but if you lack their skills or the money to hire them, big improvements can still be made with found items. We all know some of the best props come from dumpster diving, and sometimes the realism of many layers of carefully arranged junk can create truly amazing sets. Layers of wallpaper, paintings, old doors and cobwebs can produce wonderful effects at little cost. Industrial sets can look real with old wires, plastic pallets, pipes and clever found items screwed to the walls. Miracles can be worked with camo netting, jute mesh and burlap (soaked with fire retardant of course!) Sometimes the simple layering on of more things can make up for smaller budgets or lack of high powered set dressing talent.

What about your storyline? The first layer is your name, the second is your tagline, the third your press release. Go deeper. Lay in a vast story for your website, bring in lots of layers that will give the scenes and events in your attraction meaning. Most people will never care, but some will really get into it. If the actors know the names and back stories of the characters they portray, they will often use and embellish this information in a way that will enhance your deep themeing. Dig deep into local legends, classic themes, and urban legends. Create video versions of your storyline, audio tracks in your house to support it, and fake photos of the characters to hang on your walls.

Layering of lighting and shadow can also create sensational effects. Using a variety of lighting sources (beacons, strobes, black lights, old lamps, flicker bulbs, theatrical gelled lighting fixtures etc.) mixed in each scene really ups the production value in an often inexpensive way. The use of shadow is very effective as well, you can get great effects casting shadows through latticework, camo netting, and window frames. Fog really helps with lighting effects, especially in creating light tunnels and faux moonlight. And as we know, patrons love total darkness on occasion.

Layering as a concept can easily be applied to the experience of your show in general. The more layers guests experience, the happier they will be. I refer to all the elements: marketing, storyline, set dressing, lighting, sound, fog, animation, effects, scene design, general layout and actors. Adding layers of stuff to your walls is important in a quest to grow, but these other things cannot be overlooked. Adding layers of complexity to the costuming, make-up and performances of your actors will also get a huge reaction. In a high throughput haunted house guests must be saturated with layers of sensation, a veritable buffet of experiences in the hope that some will stick with them forever.

Layering is a concept, a mental exercise you can apply to every aspect of your haunted business. It's not just "bigger" is better, it's "denser " is better if that makes any sense. That said, there is always the potential of junking up things by adding too much to the soup, but as in all things, your feel for your customers tastes in this area will determine success or failure.

To sum up, once the basics are covered, thicken the layers of content in all areas of your haunted house. This build up of ideas, props, effects and flat out production value will enhance your show in ways that will make the very best of your time and money. Oh, and by the way, don't forget to spend all your time and money too!

Yours Ghouly

Ben "Dr. Speculo" Armstrong

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