As anyone who knows me will attest, I love Halloween.
So naturally I am very passionate about the season, as witnessed by my many, many stories I have written in honor of the day. I have written almost as much about my opinions on the holiday, often trudging familiar ground over and over so that the ruts make the going a bit rough. The thing is though, whenever I hit a great or horrible haunt it makes me want to write. Not to light the place up but to go back and stress how easy it can be to get it right.
Not perfect, but right.
The thing is that most places either overthink the haunt or they don’t think at all.
I went to one iteration of the latter this past weekend. It was done poorly, lazily, and even the scare actors didn’t seem to want to be there. The worst part of it was that the place was a site of a pretty great festival so the bones are there to make it something special. Doubly annoying and disappointing is that just down the road was a place that looked scary just driving by and the place looked packed. If you can’t take that as inspiration and a challenge then I dunno what will work.
When we started doing our convention here in Flint I had a con in mind that I definitely didn’t want to be like. Sure, we’d be alike in ways that you can’t avoid but I wanted a different, better heart, in the center of us. That heart remains. That heart, for us, was a commitment to the event, to the fans, and to keeping it low cost. It was sort of our mission statement. And while a haunted attraction isn’t quite the same thing you still should have a deeper mission than – let’s make some money.
It has to be more than that or it will show.
It can be as simple as – I want to scare people.
Or it can be complex – I want to create a memorable event that stays with the people who experience it.
There has to be a reason you want to do it beyond making some extra money for you or your business. There’s nothing wrong with that but you should want more.
So great, you have a mission statement, now what?
It has to begin and end with story.
And that means it can be simple or complex but it has to make sense to the participants and to you. You have to create an atmosphere and part of that is creating a tapestry that uses the story as its through line. So, you are in a haunted house – well, then you don’t have chainsaw clowns. OR, you have circus with crazed carnies but, you know, not ghosts. You have to pick your theme and stick to it. Sure, it can be constrictive but that’s where you get creative. You work within your limitations – time, budget, space, and theme – and you start to craft something that has impact. I went to one, years ago, that will always stay with me because they had a wonderful story – a rural farm family invited a circus to stay on their family, circus folk killed the fam, the son lived and haunts that land now. Very cool, very inventive haunt that had a hayride, maze, and house and it was great. It wasn’t that it was full of pyrotechnics, or was gory, or in your face, no, it was because it created atmosphere and held it. All you need is to give each person a moment, just a moment, where they believe they could be in danger. That’s the fun. For me it’s in looking at the set design and finding the story and its details, but part too is that you want, just for a moment, to think that the veil has been pierced and something could happen.
Anymore the emphasis is on bigger, louder, and more intense, when subtlety can work. Yeah, there are people who want all of that stuff. They want the visceral experience more so they can say they survived than because it ‘feels good’. Having going to a haunted camp that got way too intense the whole thing still had moments that worked when it played on expectations and used them to their benefit. You use the darkness to hide the flaws and limitations of the haunt and to prey on the guest. You make them think that there is something going to jump out and then nothing happens, and you build, and build, and build until you can get a great scare in. Not a cheap one, but an earned one. And that comes from story. Invest them in where they are and what they are seeing. And the thing too is that if you do it right, and can make it so that you can move things around you could keep changing the layout and add that to the story. Change some scenes. Change the ending. Have it so that folks are compelled to return. And give them an ending. Give them the full story with a conclusion, not a weak scare. Yes, a haunted attraction is a thrill ride but it can be more. It is a living story. It is a living movie. It is you going through this yourself, with the people you care about. It bonds you. It connects you. And it can haunt you.
Or not. Or you can go big, and loud, and in your face and sure, it freaks some out but the people who really care about the haunts will forget it. You made your money, sure, but don’t you want more? Don’t you want to truly haunt them? Get beneath their skin? That is why you do this stuff. This is what makes the holiday so special, just as say, Christmas can have a lasting impact because of the sentiment and connection to family, friends, and faith. I love seeing what new tech there is for haunts and, like a film, it can be very effective if used sparingly. But with actors who care, with a story that is coherent, and with passion you can overcome a lot. One of the scariest haunts I ever went in was a carnival one where it was literally just a tractor trailer shape that was black inside and had walls and a straight away but inside, hiding, was a scare actor dressed up and waiting, peeking out, and it scared the heck out of me. I loved it.
One of the things that makes Halloween so impactful and memorable as an adult is going to a haunt with friends and sharing that adventure. It doesn’t have to be over the top, or extreme, it just has to be passionate and sincere. We say we want a lot of things but often what we want is sincerity more than the noise and lights. Sincerity – Halloween could a lot more of that these days, that’s for sure.