Page last updated on 9/17/2004 04:56

Ten Key Elements to Haunted House Excellence

For some of us, there is a warm sense of supernatural security in being the spider at the center of the web for the workings of a haunted house. It provides the best of both worlds: The feeling of relative power over others blended with the delight of entertaining them. Unfortunately, my varied interests have too often pushed this delightful activity down the priority list. Here, I'll pass on a few observations and share my design techniques.

  1. Make the people feel they are immersed in the scene. Bring them close or else surround them a bit.
  2. Give them a sense of isolation. Immersing them in the scene and distracting them from the presence of any companions.
  3. Disorient them with unfamiliar surroundings. Cover up and distort as much of what they are seeing as possible. A common item will evoke a common reaction.

    At this point, their imaginations are working overtime, so if you provide:

  4. A perceived threat, they'll jump out of their shoes, and that threat can be unbelievably subtle. Our own natural sense of self-preservation will fill in the blanks. It's better to be too cautious and safe, than dinner for a lion (or *any* monster.) Everything else is window dressing.
  5. It's better to be too vague than reveal so much that the visitor sees the flaws. In that eventuality, they will immediately focus on that flaw as a psychological safety net (even though they're *consciously* looking to be a little scared), and the impact of the scene is ruined.

    To achieve points four and five, we turn to the construction of our stage area. Paint with light. Starting with darkness is an immediate benefit, because our natural fear of the dark and what it may contain. Then light the scene with just the light to draw the eye to, and illuminate the features of, the prop.

    The most effective approach to choosing props is to use elements that:

  6. Evoke a primitive fear of supernatural as well as natural dangers. The classic elements our culture has instilled in us about what is fearful for Halloween have become rather stylized, but it's not hard to get back to the archtypes. Think Gothic-Medieval. Get back to the *real deal*. And not just ghost, witches, and gargoyles. Our modern culture is a bit too worldly to assume they're all evil. We've seen too many movies. For many of us, these creatures are practically an extension of everyday life in that they aren't viewed as *intrinsically* evil. At Gyro's World of Terror, the themes for almost every room was based on some popular horror movie. While many of these are quite effective, my personal preference is for something more Gothic and archtypal, as I feel it creates more uncertainty and gets back to the deeper-rooted human fears.

  7. The prop or effect must seem somehow intrinsically evil, or threatening, or at least support a scary environments and be evocative of archtypal scary stuff. Where your skills fall a bit short, often darkness will gloss over the flaws.

    A couple more important point to finish our list:

  8. Involve the other senses. Prepare a soundtrack. If you don't get too many visitors messing things up, maybe give them something icky-feeling to touch. My father went to a Halloween party as a kid and was met at the door by some cowled figure that led him through the house with an icy hand made from a rubber glove that had been in an ice bucket or had ice in it. Our soundtrack was planned to run the length of the scene and had a 30-second intro before the stage curtain was drawn. It was fairly simple to take advantage of having two separate channels in a cassette recorder to "mix" our sounds. With computer audio software nowadays, the possibilities are even less limited.
  9. Consider your audience. A five year old is going to be traumatized for life if you whang 'em with The Works. If the public at large is arriving in droves, it's customary to let them know if it's an intense experience. With our little show, the first year made a lot of people remember. The second year had people lined up down the block (so I was told -- I never had a free moment to go look.) After the second year, I was accosted by ten-year-old kids I didn't recognize, in July, wanting to know if we were having the haunted house again this year. So be prepared for your success to snowball if you get serious about doing a good show.

    Think about your level of safety for you and the public. A commercial haunted house, as a public venue, is a little more involved because you have to deal with public safety issues. The fire marshal, in any publicly-accessible building, is going to expect to see (at least in California):

    You might want to make sure nothing in the public reach is *breakable*, either, for your own peace of mind. In our home-brew haunted house, the public was never expected to step through the front door, although this did happen occassionally due to ignorance or inebriation. Once, a repair had to be made to a six-inch-high picket fence we built to outline a "grave". Another time, the outer curtain was torn down by several teenage girls who also bowled over John in the process of running away screaming. (Ah! Those are the moments... ;-)

  10. Consider your sense of timing. Is it simple or do you need to script it? Scaring one or two people that you can actually see and hear is an art of reading body language and picking up on their conversation. This is where the phrase "wait for it..." often gets muttered under my breath. The audience will view the scene and immediately employ their sense of self-preservation to determine if it is an immediate threat. If nothing is supposed to burst in from offstage to liven an otherwise dull moment, stay your hand, hold that pose, continue to look like a dummy on a track, keep your visible ghoul from attacking, or whatever your scene is doing. The visitors often will discuss whether they're looking at a real person, or perhaps merely take a closer look at this... thing. At one point, they will be absorbed in looking at what they believe is no danger, and they will lower their psychological defenses to observe it in more detail. Boo! Strike now, before they get tired of the prop / person / effect and allow their attention to wander. There is no better time.

Another excellent series of insights on the subject of what makes good horror can be found in one of Jenny's rants.

My Haunted Houses

The first time my friend John and I got "serious" about Halloween, we had a pretty simple layout. We built a six-foot guillotine some of that fencing wood with the channel (probably redwood), and with a quarter-inch plywood blade (painted silver, with some blood-spatter.) There was facing pieces at the bottom with the requisite hole, but we placed an angled stop to prevent the blade from reaching it (it was hazardous enough.) We took a foam wig / hat stand head, gave it a black wig, and mucked-up its face something awful. We used the full scuttling spider I describe below. A little mood music, a scream, and we'd drop the blade and hoist that head in front of the audience. It was surprisingly effective, in spite of some of the technical problems. (I had to get rid of that head. Every time I went to bed I knew it was lolling on the shelf above my fireplace, half-hidden amongst the dark, bare wood of the old Victorian beach cottage. Eegh!)

Energized by the feedback from that Halloween, we proceeded to spend the last few months before the next Halloween planning something a lot more involved. The space was not very large, but the layout was nearly optimal. The porch was a sharp left turn down a 20-foot by 8-foot walkway between the houses. The porch itself was a tunnel 3-feet wide but 6-feet deep into the house structure. We added further separation by placing a curtain at both ends of the porch and regulating the visitors. Thus, we could have an intro on the soundtrack, pull back the curtain, and carry through the scene. The entryway through the front door in which we built our scene was a 6-foot by 6-foot space with doors off of each side. Now let's take a look at some details of that show:

For one Halloween season, I worked as a volunteer for the non-profit World of Terror and had the time of my life. The place was an unused shopping mall of which we were given about three-quarters of to convert into a haunted house. When completed, there were some 50 rooms contained in a three-quarters of a mile walk-through for the public. The space given me was a 40x80 foot area partly under the typical mall balcony. I contrived to convert this covered section into a catacombs which emerged into the much more open area that I made into a graveyard. Most of the materials were donated by local companies, particularly plywood, 2x4s, and paint, which we needed in quantity. Here's some pics detailing the catacombs and graveyard:

I greatly regret not having the opportunity to complete a full before-and-after walk-through of the haunted house. I can only beg the excuse familiar to anyone who has done a show: "It got real hectic there just before we opened." Here's Lynnette in her Hellraiser room, who kindly demonstrated her parallel swing for the wall-walker creature which was to burst through set of double doors. There was a great deal of creative energy all around, as everything around us had to be imagined and brought to being. I'd do it again if I ever find the time -- I spent some five hours-a-day (ten hours-a-day on weekends) for four months on that show.

Props and Construction

Practical use of what's available -- shelves and materials

Black fabric:
This is vital to most set-ups. It can be hung easily, cover a multitude of sins like bright yellow walls without repainting, and provide just the right ambience. You need to use it where you need black curtains, like for a doorway, and wherever the crinkling sound or feel of the paper wouldn't work. The downside of Rit-dyed sheets, cheap as they are, is it is difficult to get a really good black. Also, hot boiling water will run some of the dye onto other things (like rugs. Luckily they were carpet squares, and could be more easily replaced.) If you can afford it, try and get some real black cotton material that's as dense as possible to avoid light-leaks. Lots. I use the fabric to cover every part of my scene that isn't otherwise dealt with (floor, ceiling, walls) and use it to narrow or cover doorways. Obviously, if the haunted house is very large, this is too expensive and too flammable (unless treated), but it's quite effective for a small home scene around the area the audience can see. In every haunted house I always use some black fabric, somewhere.

String and thread
I used a strong dark thread for the gargoyle head. The candelabra was heavy, so I used a black, 25-pound-test, multifiliment, nylon fishing line. Great for Halloween, if you can find it. The visibility problems will be reflection problems occassionally, as seen with the support threads above the ghoul's head. Be careful of black thread against a light background, too. My floating pen idea had to be scrapped at the last minute because the lighting in our scene was too much and the black thread was stark against the white paper.

Painted bricks / stone / wood:
Storage space with me is always at a premium, so I use the lightest materials when possible. It's cheaper, too. If you *can* paint the walls, great! If you can't (or can't afford fabric for walls and ceiling), one alternative is to paint it on fabric or paper. The brick wall behind the gargoyle is one example. With the blacklight illuminating the scene in this photo, you can see the slight glossiness of the paint on the paper, but under actual lighting condition, this was not seen. In fact, people asked me later how I managed to break the big hole in the brick wall! This "broken" section is merely black construction paper to add some character to the wall. I used the existing bookcase to create the "wall". You can see the edge of the break on the right edge of this picture. Note the varying textures in this picture. You simply must try slathering paint on some surface and looking at it critically under expected lighting conditions. You will be amazed how easy it is.

If you must make a flat, ask yourself how much heavier it needs to be. Heavy cardboard is often good enough, as with good refrigerator-box cardboard. As a rule, I don't start knocking flats together unless it needs to be a support itself, the audience can touch it, or is large and free-standing. If no one is going to be pushing on it, a 4x8-foot flat can be assembled with 1x2 clear fir. I like this material because the price is not exorbitant for fully-sanded wood without knot-holes. In 2002, you can get an 8-foot length for under $4. In a commercial haunted house, you'll be doing something like standard housing construction with 2x4's and 3/8-inch plywood.

High-Scare Platform
Heavier-duty than flats is the High Scare Platform. It is a convenient platform that was typically constructed four feet off the ground for technicians and actors to conveniently peek over walls, unobtrusively control hidden wires, make noises for the public, and reach down over their heads (which was very effective in the Alien room with an actor dressed from the waist up in an excellent alien suit.) Most were a full 4x8 foot sheet of plywood, but were changed for the public-accessed World of Terror to meet the fire code requirement of either (a) open mesh to allow water to get to any fire, or (b) a separate automatic fire extinguisher. We also were required to provide a minimal staircase for access for actors, but other, more hazardous areas were technician-only accessible.

Window with gauzy curtains:
  1. The stage left doorway was filled in its lower half with a brick-painted piece of cardboard.
  2. Obtain a piece of 1x2-inch or lighter wood for a "travis rod" which will be mounted across the top of the doorway to fill the upper half and support the fabric.
  3. Staple a piece of gauzy, veil-like material (whatever's cheapest) in place to fill the window.
  4. Staple some darker, heavier fabric across it to fill the window.
  5. Split the fabric down the middle vertically so it can be drawn aside like a curtain.
  6. Carefully gather the heavier material to each side in turn and staple it into a "drawn curtain" pose on the travis rod.
  7. Tack the wooden travis rod across the top of the doorway.
  8. The gauzy fabric can now be blown with a fan.
Ghost Mache
This is quite effective for appearing semi-transparent in low lighting conditions. Cheesecloth is soaked in a solution of half water and half common white glue to make a mache. Two layers is stiff enough to hold its shape and can be somewhat hair-raising in dim light. An example can be seen here. Note how it fades out on the "forearms" where there is only one layer. It was one of my favorite simple effects when I was helping at Gyro's World of Terror one year.

Crystal Ball
My first one was a Pyrex coffee maker that looked like a piece of labware. It had a stand which grabbed the cylindrical neck. It looked like a Florence flask without the flat bottom. I inverted it, capped, after filling with some milky liquid I whipped up in my chemistry set (something with sodium thiosulfate, I think.) Lights mounted underneath completed the picture. When an actor passes their hand over the crystal ball, blue light can be changed to red, etc., for added flavor. Try poking around at the hardware store for a lamp cover that's proper globe.

Black light
It casts a rather eerie glow over things, and is handy when you want something revealed in fluorescent paint, like the cross-gravemarker here. Overall, though, I prefer the effect of more natural, warm light, that's created from a heat source. A filament of an incadescent lamp is my preferred choice. Decorative neon flicker-lamps are also not bad, though I prefer a more yellow light for candle effects.

These can be suggested with the simplest of markers, or fancier like a firey gravestone. It helps if there's something suggesting a mound, or grave-like outline like my picket fence. You can try moving any grave cover-stone aside, or making a jagged break down the middle, and putting a light or something more sinister that's just visible. If you've got a whole coffin, or stone sarcophagous, someone can even get in there and mess with visitors minds. Don't forget you could make a string puppet, too.

Gravestone with hellish fires
Make a hollow gravestone with desired cuts where you want fire to glow through. Glue crinkled aluminum foil as lining inside gravestone. Mount a decorative neon flicker-lamp into this chamber. They use about 2W of power and run barely warm. This picture shows ours in operation.

Common cotton string cut and glued in place with paper or wood glue works great. Decide on a size. Tack-down the outside shape, such as a triangle for the corner of a doorway. It can be done hanging, but laying on a sheet of something that can be removed later is helpful. Paper or cardboard with a coating of vaseline works. Run some radials, then start at the center and tack-down a spiral web. It's highly visible, and takes almost no storage space in the off-season.

Scuttling Spider
A nice addition which looks really good in operation is to get one of those big rubber spiders and wire its legs in a standing position with its body held back a bit from the surface. Form four loops of wire under its body for two dark strings as a guide, two loops per string. Stretch the dark guide strings taut in front of the web and mount the spider on them so it can be pulled with a third dark string. Adjust the distance to the web so that the legs just brush the web, which should wiggle things nicely and make a very effective scuttling giant spider. You may have to fuss with the legs so they don't catch too hard on the web. I've found lighting the web with a light source at one end (behind some cardboard or some books and just slightly in front of the web to illuminate the front) highlights the web nicely and provides somewhat disorienting lighting for the spider moving across the web. For this kind of scene, you might want to make a fairly large (or at least long) web, say about six feet.

Blinking rat's eyes
Schematic diagram of circuit.

Slow waxing and waning light
Schematic diagram of circuit.

One machine which works fairly well, but is subject to the severe limitations of humidity, is a flat box with both dry ice and water boiling with an electric heater as shown here. It's main advantages is you can lift the lid to drop a cake of dry ice in it and fill it with water, it can then be shoved under the edge of something (or even have something on it), and requires little maintenance. Mostly, the water will boil away before the dry ice is gone. It's helpful to put baffles in the water container or, better yet, get a partially enclosed one like the guts of a steam iron, to prevent splashing when it's moved. Water-vapor fog is limited by the humidity. It will sit forever on a rainy day, but dissipate within inches of the source on a dry day.

Conventional fog is, of course, tiny drops of water suspended in air. The pros use something a little longer-lasting in the form of an atomized oily liquid. While it's supposed to be fairly non-toxic, I don't like the smell or the fact I'm coating my lungs with an oil, however light. The alternative, though, has its limits. You'll need a cold source, typically dry ice, which can be obtained from fire extinguisher refill places and a few markets that stock ice. If you've got a Dewar flask (an expensive item and not always rentable), you could even use liquid nitrogen. The idea is to get the air saturated with water vapor when its warm, then cool the air over dry ice. One can place dry ice in water for a nice vaporous container whose fog will roll down the sides. If you're boiling the water, the vapor will rise into the air. If it is merely very hot water, the vapor will fall slightly, but be very dense.

My most incredible fog experience occurred on a rainy night where the humidity within the building was near 100%. Steaming-up the bathroom with the help of the shower provided a medium for a quart or so of liquid nitrogen to be splashed into the shower. The effect was instantaneous. Fog condensed and filled bathroom instantly. It was total white-out. We made our way to the door by touch. Amazingly, the thermal shock created a couple of thin clouds which hung in the air far down the hall. I've never again been in a position to try to recreate this.

Moon, stars, and lightning effects
This is where you make a sky of black paper, nice and matte. Behind it, you create a light-colored, preferably white, light mixing chamber wherever you want the light to show through. Standard lamps will suffice for moon and stars, but you've the option of a xenon flashlamp circuit for the lightning. It has the advantage of intensity, but not the duration of a lightning flash, which can flicker fifty times over as much as a second or more as the cloud charge dissipates. For stars, just make pinholes. It works great. If your backlight sources are not intense, just make the holes a bit bigger. For the moon, replace the black paper with several layers of waxed paper. A smeary white paint job can do wonders for hinting at detail, if you look closely at the moon here. The nice yellowish cast "through the smog" is achieved with an incadescent lamp at low voltage. Lightning can be achieved with a jagged cutout backed with transparent tape to reinforce the gap as demonstrated here.

Small Spotlights
Drawing of small spotlight. Take a closer look at the light shining on the gargoyle.
  1. Obtain an empty, clean margarine tub with snap-on lid.
  2. Wrap paper or cardboard around a small, low-voltage lamp like a flashlight bulb. It should stay in place in the tube, but you should be able to position it.
  3. Poke three holes 3/4-inch from the lip of the tub (low enough not to interfere with the lid): two for the hinge wires, side by side and spaced apart by about the thickness of the tube, and one for the lamp wires about a half-inch underneath the hinge holes.
  4. Slice a long slot in the margarine tube the width of the cardboard tube on the opposite side of the tub from the three holes. The cardboard tube should be adjustable in the slot, but should stay in place by itself. It should run from about 3/4-inch from the lip of the tub (low enough not to destroy the integrity of the tub structure) down to near the center bottom to allow a wide height-adjustment range.
  5. Fit the tube into the margarine tub slot, wiring the tail end of the tube to the tub holes opposite the slot, making a crude hinge for the tube. Run the wires from the lamp through the third hole. Anchor one or more margarine tub lids to a sheet of cardboard that can be tacked to the ceiling. I typically make at least three of these small spotlights.

There are many ways to implement the effects. I still need to try some designs. One would be a direct sheet of falling drops in a row from a series of jets along a pipe, rather like a gentle lawn sprinkler. This would spray directly down into a screened catch trough. The problems would be that it wouldn't look very random, and for sure some idiot would splash water all over your floor. The water would simply be pumped back up to spray again.

The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is so inspiring. One effect that got me to thinking was the window when you get off the elevator, but before you board the Doombuggies. It's large and give a vague illusion of a storm raging outside in an ugly yard. One thing one could do is make a flat window box of plexi and spray water around in it. That's not fake at all. Indirect lightning effects would be easy enough to achieve visually. It would be fun to try lightning with a real plasma sheet full of glass tubing, except it would only be fired sporadically. More practical would be to set up fixed lightning shapes in a backdrop and fire different ones to make it look sort of random. There are certainly a number of games one can play with partial frosting. Apparent distance for trees, say, seems a bit tricky, though. I'll wager there's some way to anchor plastic Christmas tree tinsel (possibly at both ends) and blow a fan along the length of it to give a nice water flicker effect. A little frosting would be in order to obscure vision if it was close. I could waste a lot of time playing with simulating rainstorms.

Floating Candelabra
This could be done much lighter. We dripped real paraffin wax over it (and the gargoyle's candle-stems) to cover up the fact we were using light-colored toilet-paper rolls for the candles. I think I would use white styrofoam or make my own tubes now. The main body was a paper towel tube which held the D batteries to power the flashlight lamps in each "candle". The "flames" of each lamp must be set down into the candle body so as not to give away their artificial nature outright. A circuit can also be used to flicker the lamps slightly. There are unlimited variations on candelabra design, but remember you need to accommodate and hide the lamps, batteries, and wiring. If I used cardboard struts again, I might paint them silver. I might use LEDs for their efficiency nowadays. Just remember that LEDs have a sharp turn-on voltage and the current must be limited with a resistor or some electronic circuit if the voltage is more than a couple tenths of a volt higher than its "on" voltage. White LEDs are *too* white unless you use a filter with a slight yellow cast. You also could use all yellow or a yellow and white combination to get your desired color.

This fellow is made from carved Styrofoam and spackle. If you have a lot you want to build, consider getting sheets of Dow "blue board" insulation in one- or two-inch thicknesses. It comes two feet wide and about eight feet long. The advantage over bead foam is the more uniform texture, and when cut it doesn't have the smoother bead surfaces, so plaster sticks better. The nice thing about creating vaguely anthropomorphic critters is precision isn't critical. Layer the foam and glue it to make your blank. Judicious rough-block construction at this point will save carving time. The rough surface will sort of take white glue for layering sheets (given a long drying time), but polystyrene solvents and related adhesives are much better if you can figure out how to apply them without dissolving the whole form like cotton-candy doused with water. A very quick light brushing or misting with solvent and the surfaces should be brought together immediately.

It helps to plan internal wiring ahead of time, like carving channels and laying in wires before gluing. We neglected to do this so wiring for the flicker-lights had to be run from the gargoyle's hands straight to his shoulders. The head was built separate so it could be set up to swing from its shoulders toward the audience. The area behind the eyes was carved out from the back to accommodate a black-painted piece of cardboard with two red LEDs (light emitting diodes) for eyes and a battery quite comfortably. The half-circle initial cut was done carefully so it could serve as a foam cover over the chamber inside. The hollows of his eyes were opened-up to this internal chamber, and painted black also.

John got fancy with the mouth. It was cut deep and painted black, initially. He hand-carved a full set of wooden teeth, painted them white, and set them into the mouth individually. The tongue was a quarter-inch-thick piece of closed-cell polyethylene foam (like they make some pool toys out of), worked and shaped with a nice cleft in the middle, and painted a fluorescent red-orange. He was able to use the teeth to help retain it.

The ears were a problem in the long run. The all-plaster ears kept getting broken loose. I'm considering replacing them with a long-lasting casting compound. Neoprene would be nice. Latex is convenient, but does rot after a few years. We decided we wanted some blacklight effect, so we painted it with a greenish fluorescent paint (which was invisible under actual lighting conditions. Highlights for the brow and the fingers were easily accomplished with the aid of a little black paint or a felt-tipped pen.

The head was drilled through side-to-side and a tube was inserted with an edge sturdy enough to withstand the cutting effect of the support thread during use, and smooth-edged so it wouldn't cut the thread. Two screw-eyes were mounted at least a foot apart on the ceiling to each side of the head-swing range. The holes were positioned so that the head would swing most of the way to the door, but not likely bash anyone in the face. A thread to control the head was attached at the back, top part of the head and run through a screw-eye behind the gargoyle on the ceiling and off to the side to someone off-stage. The mounting location allowed for the head to be relatively level when pulled back to the gargoyle's neck and shoulders in a "home position".

A cave can be built rather easily with a layered effect. The wallboard in the front was rough-sawn with a jigsaw. The pieces were removed carefully and split to create the second layer of cave-like features. The final layer is simply a solid wall. A quick, crude paint job in black is done -- note the grayish highlights. A few foam "rocks" were tossed in with some latex "bones", and a light was added to highlight the bones.

Page revised 9/12/2002.