Creating Haunted House Room Scenes Design Tips
By Josh Wells
Theming has become an increasingly important factor when designing a haunt. Developing a theme not only separates your haunt from others in your market, making you a unique one of a kind event; it also intertwines scenes together making your haunt a more believable and overall more frightening experience for your customers. At The Dent Schoolhouse we have successfully incorporated several common haunt scenes by carefully modifying them to blend accordingly to traditional rooms you would expect to find in a1950’s era school. In doing this, we were able to incorporate the typical clown scene by creating a PTA carnival filled with game, prize and food booths, and the ‘scientist’s lab’ by turning it into chemistry and anatomy classrooms. This method also allowed for the creation of a full size auto garage by attacking it from the angle of a shop class. The difference between a scientist’s lab and anatomy class or an auto garage and high school shop class lies in the details, both big and small! Giving careful consideration to detail and having an understanding of what you want to create allows almost any scene to fit a theme.
To create our auto shop class, the process began by researching 1950’s era high school auto shops, digging through old photographs in books and browsing the web for all the images that I could find that gave me a better idea of what the spaces may have looked like. In particular, I was looking for their structural layouts, not just the general layout of the room, but types of doors, windows, wall compositions, even light fixtures and mechanical systems, but most importantly, the properties that filled the space. Notes were taken on the type of equipment and tools that were used, the supplies and parts placed throughout the room, and the types of furniture found in the area. When creating period sets paying close attention to the items that fill a room is very important because not only are the textbooks placed on the car hood and lockers sitting in the corner going to tell the customer that this is a shop class, they’re going to give a general idea of when this room was functional. Once I have a well rounded understanding of the scene, it’s time to move into the space to begin laying out the room.
This is where we tend to differ in the design process. Very rarely do we come into a torn out section of our haunt with blueprints in hand ready to start the build process. What has worked best for us is to design the layout while present in the space. We take scraps of 2x4 and other material and lay them on the floor to represent wall placement, as well as the placement of any large props that we have found to be a necessity in the room. This allows us to gain a better perspective of the space we are creating more so than pen on paper, and is simple to reconfigure the scene layout until we find what we are aiming for. We can then draft the layout on paper once we have a design that we’re satisfied with. When creating a layout, it’s very important to create one that is appropriate to your theme. For example, with our school house theme one would expect to find rectangular rooms, generally symmetrical spaces, and very traditional architectural layouts, as opposed to walls build on harsh angles or hallways that wind from side to side. Creating appropriate infrastructure for a room (walls, doors, ceilings, etc) is an essential step in making a room fit to a theme. This is also the point of the design process where we will make the decision on what scenic elements will need to be constructed in house, and what properties will have to be acquired.
For the scenes we build there are two types of props that we need: set props, and decorative props. Set props are the larger items such as the welding table, oil drums, and car that were needed for our shop class. The decorative props, all the little knick-knacks that sit on shelves, etc, consisted of oil cans, car parts, textbooks, and so forth. I am a firm believer in loading rooms to the max with decorative props, and that while every item might not be noticed by the customer, their absence would be. It is also important to think about decorating the walls in the scene, not just with textures and distressing techniques, but with signs, posters, or whatever may fit the space. For our auto class, safety posters and license plates were used to fill up much of the wall space.
With a general understanding of the properties needed for the scene, the searching process can begin to find all those knick-knacks. This can often be a slow process that requires visiting many places to find that perfect item for your scene, so have patience! When searching for props there are four main areas that we tend to look to find what we are looking for, those being:
- Antique stores/shows
- Thrift stores
- Yard sales
I am sure that everyone is familiar with the items that can be found at yard sales and thrift stores. Sometimes it can be difficult to find vintage items, but every now and then you can luck out and find what you’re looking for at a great bargain. Craigslist has been a blessing to haunters like us, we’ve had great success in finding desks, lockers, playground equipment, you name it, and chances are it’s probably listed there. For those larger set props, Craigslist generally tends to be the “go to” place. However, the places that we’ve had the most success in finding vintage items to fill our sets have been the local antique malls and shows. Some items in these places can be outrageously priced, but surprisingly, many items can be found at reasonable prices, and you’ll never know just what you may find! Also, in our market, are several antique shows held monthly throughout the spring and summer months, which are a gathering of hundreds of dealers with booths filled with anything and everything antique. This is a great opportunity to haggle prices with dealers and items are generally priced lower than at the antique malls to begin with. I highly suggest looking for shows like these in your area, because they are gold mines when it comes to haunted house props.
Once having acquired all the props your budget can handle, my favorite part of the process can begin, incorporating them into the set. This is where your theme will really become apparent throughout the space. When dressing a set, you should always ask yourself why items are located where they are, who would have placed them there, and does it further your story, much the way a playwright creates a script. With the correct properties a scene becomes believable through its authenticity. All those latex monsters and big animatronics are awe inspiring and essential to a haunted house, but it’s the little items, the ‘real’ pieces that create an authentic setting that will completely engulf your customers in the story unfolding around them. Remember, the more involved your customers are in your haunt, the more frightened they will be. A consistent theme throughout will heighten that involvement!
Josh Wells is the co-owner of The Dent Schoolhouse in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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