Scaring with Stilts - Learn Secrets to Haunted House Actors using Stilts to Scare

Sun, November 29, 2020
  I have been performing on stilts and making stilt costumes for about 15 years. I think stilts add a wow factor to costumes and a show.  There is an implied level of skill and a circus like level of performance that not all shows have. They also make a great impact and provide an excellent photo-op in an age when every person coming to your show has a camera inside their cell phone.  I hope to answer the questions potential stilt users might have as well a give a few tips to haunts and actors that already use stilts in their show. I have between six and nine actors on stilts each night at SCREAMS Halloween Park in Waxahachie, TX where I am Artistic Director.     
Why stilts?

     Stilts offer the opportunity for an actor to get larger than life scares and they can have the same impact and wow factor as a large animatronic. Stilts are a portable stage and allow an actor to see and be seen from long distances. They add a touch of class to an attraction by showcasing a talent as well as the simple intimidation of size. Stilts can be used in off-season promotions like parades and other media events. They can be one more tool in your toolbox that will make your show more memorable to your guests. Stilts also add an inhuman element because guests know that people do not get that tall. Big often equals scary.
I think I have unsuitable terrain-

 That is almost impossible, loose sand is difficult but I could work a night in it and have. Gravel is fine for drywall stilts and peg stilts but will slide out from under the curved feet of jumping stilts. Very long grass (12” plus) can tangle drywall stilts but pegs have a lot less trouble. If your whole attraction is on a hill, then perhaps they are not for your show. Mud is also a concern; I don’t let my walkers go up when it is muddy out unless they are inside. Many wooden surfaces get very slick when they are wet as well. If on a particular night there is a concern, then have them go up and tread lightly preshow to see how the ground feels.  I always let them make the call on questionable nights as they know their bodies and abilities better than I.
Who do I put on stilts?

   Many haunt owners want to put a big actor on stilts in order to get the biggest possible monster. My advice is to put a medium sized actor on stilts to make them bigger. The big actor already has an intimidation factor. Why not double up and keep that 6’5” actor and make a 5’10” actor an 8’ creature!


  Training is not as difficult as you think; almost anyone can become proficient on stilts in about 45 min. Many people can walk around alone after about five minutes.
A haunt environment is a great place to learn as there are often long hallways that are 4’ apart and an actor can walk back and forth using the walls for balance until they feel able to go it alone.
Practice in the terrain you are going to be working, take note of cords, hills, dips, depressions, curbs, and any change in terrain that would make you misstep. Depending on the height of the stilts you are on you may also need to take note of braces running on top of the walls. I recommend an hour long session to start then a two hour session, then wear the stilts for full haunt shift length. Actors should be able to work in their stilts for the full night.  I recommend starting your stilt training about three weeks from opening so they have time to practice. I also recommend training several people as some will find out it is not for them and some will love it. Practice is the best teacher.
Types of stilts

Different stilts will get you different results; the different types of stilts can change the look, movement, and versatility of the costume and character you are creating.
   Drywall stilts- the best of them are Marshalltown Skywalker 2s, followed by Sur-stilts. These are great for characters that you want to seem heavy or plodding. Very sure footed and great for less experienced walkers. They are easy to stand still on and easy to walk in. They are heavier than most other stilt options, but they make up for that in stability. They are also the easiest to obtain.
     Jumping stilts-
These have a very bouncy movement. With good upper body work they can mimic the lope of a werewolf or easily could be the energetic bounce of a clown. Walking a little more gingerly could be the careful foot placement of an alien queen type creature. They are not as stable as drywall stilts but are capable of more dynamic movement. In order to stand still you need a third point of contact, either a wall or a staff or something similar. Look for the Poweriser brand name as the rest are patent violators and the quality is questionable they will be cheaper sure but might not be worth it.
Peg stilts- Peg stilts are the classic stilt, a set of long slender poles that the stilt-walker balances on. I use these often as they provide great movement and agility but are very hard to stand still on.  A third point of contact is necessary to be still.  Because they have smaller feet, they are easier to walk in and weigh less than drywall stilts. These are for more experienced walkers due to the balance required but the pay off is in their durability. There are no moving parts so a pair of peg stilts will last forever aside from the occasional changing out of the rubber feet. It will be hard to find aluminum peg stilts online but it is possible.  You should plan to pay around $400 a pair. You can make them yourself for about $100. Cheaper if you can weld aluminum and don’t need to hire that out.
Quadruped rig- a quadruped rig is arm stilts that can support your weight. The movement in them is very animalistic and when used properly can really creep out guests. Running at high speed and standing up to use your lengthened arms are powerful visuals that will stick in the guest’s minds. A slow creep toward them is effective as well as a dash and a swipe with the arm. You will need to make the arm stilts yourself as none are commercially available. This is info not a how to so if you want plans then contact me but using these is fairly advanced.
How high of stilts should they walk on?

  I have tried stilts of many different heights in the haunt environment. I have found that a stilt height between 18 and 30 inches is ideal. If you go much taller than 30” then the proportions of the character are off and you have really tiny arms and really long legs, like a T-Rex unless you have the mouth full of teeth that a T-Rex has then its not that scary. At the taller heights you also run the risk of what I call Godzilla syndrome. That is when a creature is so tall no one is afraid of it because odds are it won’t even notice you. No one thinks of Godzilla as scary.  Combine that with difficulty ducking under doorways and getting around in general and its best to avoid heights over 30”.
Things you might not think of

 Place to get ready-It is very difficult to put on stilts on the ground then get up, so out of guests site there should be a platform for the stilt walker to get ready. A picnic table will often do but sometimes a little more height is required. One easy fix is a table made from two 55gallon drums and a few wide 2” thick boards. Keep a tool box here so bolts can be tightened and checked (by the stilt walker).  An adjustable crescent wrench, two or so Allen wrench sets, screwdrivers, zip ties and duct tape for securing straps that can work loose should all be included.
Place to sit between groups- I try to work in a place for the actor to rest in between groups in the set. It could be a 55gallon drum, or a throne, or anything that is the right height. The performer could start there or get into position when he hears a sound cue. If the performer is working outside or in the queue line then they can rest when on break and shouldn’t sit in front of customers.
A high shelf in their area- Keeping a water bottle handy is a good idea for all actors so a safe storage place at a height they can reach is great.
Stilt scare tactics!

    Static scare- It is really easy to get a great scare on stilts by doing the statue bit. Because you are taller than a normal person, the guest’s brain writes you off as not being real. So when you move make a quick movement it really catches them off guard.
    Big step scare- Because of the longer legs a stilt performer can cover a lot of ground in one step, up to ten feet or so. To pull this off you just need line of site of your target.  They will see you too but not know if or when you will attack. When they are in range, wait for their attention to divert for a moment then cover the distance in one step and surprise them with the speed as soon as they turn back you’re already in their face. This works best when attacking from the side as their head will always look in the direction they are traveling giving you the momentary distraction you need.
    Hallway fill- allow some or all of the group to pass your spot, step out and fill the hall behind them by standing in the center and yelling threats at them.  It fills the hall and makes them rush forward. Be careful not to split groups up and hurt the timing of other actors. This works really well in a spot where you are back lit.
     Above the head hallway bang- The same as the hallway fill but there are slap boards in place at the top of the wall panels so a loud noise is made each time the actor bangs the wall. If you were creative it would be easy to have a spark-wand set up on the halls roof as well.
     Falling environment scare- If your costume is a camouflage suit or you are playing static then I have had great success in pretending to fall on people as they walk by, works especially well if you are in a ghilie suit or something similar.
     Attack of the little people- If the stilt walker is delivering lines or captures the group’s attention for a moment then a normal sized actor rushes the group who was hidden inside of the stilt walkers costume or between their legs. This works really well if the stilt walker wears robes or something curtain like. They will also hold the guest’s attention better if they are in make up as opposed to a mask.
    Looming from above/The Crush- This works on someone who is already scared.  Getting close to them, the actor leans over them with their torso and slowly lowers over them making noise the whole time forcing the guests to crouch lower and lower. No touching is needed; the actor’s presence alone will crush down on the guests. Don’t hold them there to long or they will get used to you and no longer be afraid.
Stilt walking and stilt performing

   The difference between stilt walking and stilt performing is simple. A bad actor on stilts will still be a bad actor, but they might be a cooler looking bad actor. A great actor on stilts is still a great actor. They will lose a bit of mobility, but they gain being seen from further away. So for outdoors as a midway actor, a stilt-walker is a no brainer since if they are seen by more people then they entertain more people. Talking characters benefit as much from stilts as physicality driven non-speaking characters. The non speaking characters get a physical boost from being larger and more intimidating; the speaking characters get the benefit of being on a portable stage. Their voice can carry over the crowd instead of fighting through it. More attention is paid to you because you are raised above the crowd.  You don’t have to fight for their attention in order to entertain them.
 Masks vs. Make up

    A classic debate for sure, but it always boils down to time, skill and necessity of the character. Good vision is important to a stilt-walker. The ability to see the ground ten feet in front of them is super important, but it is important to all haunt actors. We ask them to move around confidently in low light situations, often in conditions meant to disorient the customers. I base the make up vs. mask question on what character is being played. It makes no sense to try to make up a scarecrow when a mask will look as good or better and more like a scarecrow. If the character is from an asylum, then make up works better since inmates are people. I might throw a Lecter style mask or a Jackal style head cage on them, but the make up and the actors face will carry the weight of the role. Make sure the stilt performer practices in their costume and mask if they are wearing one.
Stilt costumes- It is not necessary to become overly elaborate with stilt costumes. Details are great but a full size stilt monster is a lot to take in visually so you have some leeway that you don’t have with costumes that can be scanned in a glance.
   Stilt costumes can be as simple as a mask, shirt, gloves, belt, and long pants. A trick I use a lot is to buy two pair of the pants you want to use and extend the length and width of one pair with the other. I also like to add something to the foot plate of the stilt that helps blend in the costume, for a scarecrow I use raffia (often in Hula skirt form- those are awesome) for a werewolf I will fur wrap the stilt, and so on. Often its just fabric that matches the stilt pants, but it helps cover that last bit of stilt regardless of where the pants ride on the performer. Fire treat fabrics like you would for any costume, especially if its raffia. Camouflaged costumes are as simple as a camo-net poncho and some vines intertwined, you could go the ghilie suit route also, wrap the stilts in camo net.
  A little creativity goes a long way and will keep the costs down. If your show makes its own masks, then you can make your own feet for a stilt costume. Feet are a bonus and help complete the look, but you don’t need to buy a costume from a vendor for a stilt-walker unless all of your costumes come from a vendor. I’m not saying you shouldn’t (there are a lot of cool costumes out there) but you don’t have to .
Props- Some of the characters that I play on stilts have a shoulder bag that I can keep props in.  Keep in mind it is hard to retrieve a prop that has dropped to the ground.
    I have used a shaker stick (a stick that makes noise when you shake it). I also had a season of fun with a stilt clown that used a Chinese yo-yo. What ever props you give a ground actor you can give to a stiltwalker.
Common stilt mistakes
   Godzilla syndrome- I mentioned this earlier but its worth mentioning twice: taller is not scarier. The human brain is very good at quickly judging proportions and determining if something is dangerous or not. Big is scary, 8ft tall is Scary 10ft tall and above is a circus act or belongs at Toho studios. At those heights your arms are too short and arm extensions are an inconvenience and dangerous in the event of a fall.
   Forgetting where your crotch is-
You may think that the average haunted house actor’s crotch may never leave their mind, but on rare occasions it does. In most stilt situations your crotch is at the customer’s head level, which is where most punches are thrown so always keep that in mind. On the other end of your crotch’s spectrum is that if you walk into someone during the course of a scare you may very well be putting your crotch in their face which is not the kind of discomfort most haunts shoot for.
   Complacency in your steps-
Never get too comfortable on stilts. Yes there is a confidence with experience but one should always remember safety first and err on the side of caution. If you are working a hayride, be aware of the wagon and how wide the wheel wells are.
    Up hill is easy downhill is hard-
The first time you walk up a hill its easy to lean forward to get the balance you need, but down hill is much more nerve wracking as it feels wrong to lean back while going down a hill. You will get used to it but try to avoid downhill when chasing customers or as part of your scaring route.
     Having a staff-
Nothing screams inexperienced stilt-walker like one who is carrying a staff. If your performer needs a staff then get them on the ground and off of stilts. If they were to fall, the staff will do a great job of injuring bystanders it also throws off the balance as much as it helps. Its easy for a tween to kick out the staff when your weight is on it and cause you to fall, its an easy target farther  from your body than your legs. Or they can grab it and pull you over “But if they do that I will let it go” you say? Great, then the person who just attacked you has an 8ft pole, and that’s never good. A stick as a prop that is occasionally used is fine, but it should be evident that you don’t need it for balance. The use of a cane implies frailty which works against you being scary.
In summary
Miyamoto Musashi said
 “To die with a sword still in its sheath is most regrettable”
Many samurai used only the katana in a duel or battle and would die never having drawn their second sword (the wakizashi). To me, it means use everything you can to get the job done. Stilts are a valuable tool that often goes unused in the haunt world.
If you approach it right, stilt-walkers become a subculture in your haunt. They gain the pride of belonging to a select few with a perceived skill set, much like sliders do. When an actor feels like they belong, they keep coming back.
    Stilts add wow factor, add to the skills of an actor, people love to take pictures of them, and increase the morale of those who wear them. They are one of the “go to” tools in my tool box when a room is not working or I need to stand out at an event.

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