I think that this is part of my yearly ritual on the lead up to Halloween. My yearly missive about haunts and haunted houses and the like. I suppose because it’s something I am passionate about and also something I feel knowledgeable enough to speak to.
Anyone that loves Halloween knows about haunted houses, even if you don’t like them, and a lot of folks don’t, people KNOW they exist. Haunts are part of a sort of subculture to Halloween, which is its own subculture of horror. Haunters are part carny, part vaudevillian, and part outpatient. You have to be a little off to put the time and energy into creating and working at something made just to scare the sense out of someone. Saying that though, there is an art to it. Like everything else, you can do it, or you can do it ‘right’. In this case you can either bring passion or you can mail it in.
Most haunts mail it in.
They pick their themes and antagonists like they are reaching into a hat and pulling out names.
OK, great, chainsaw wielding clowns in a factory.
They are sort of put together like Halloween madlibs.
And I am sure the people mean well, by and by, but there is no art to these haunts.
It is all commerce.
It’s chasing whatever is trendy and building a sort of scarecrow out of it.
And all of that is fine.
As there is a need for the lower end of food options to be available, the fast food that fits the bill but isn’t memorable, there is also a need for the artfully crafted and created.
Here too you get issues with the budget taking the place of the story and scares.
Sure, you have half a million in animatronics, lights, smoke, and atmosphere but you still have a warehouse that we’re supposed to believe is a military outpost where space beavers are attacking patrons.
It’s wonderful to go into a haunt that has the budget to create another ‘world’ but if they do nothing with it, then who cares?
It’s the middle that is the sweet spot.
Where you can have the ability to create an ‘otherness’ to a space and yet the story to transport you. You’ll never really believe that a demon is trying to get you but if there’s a moment, and I say this all the time, that scares you, and genuinely scares you, then it’s a success. Cheap scares are easy. Like a cheap joke. Real scares stick with you.
The scariest memory I have from being a kid, and again, this is an old story, was a simple haunt at a carnival where one person in a creepy outfit was hiding way down towards the end of the hallway that was the totality of the house and it was horrifying. They would poke out and then hide again. Daring you to come past them to escape. Simple and creepy. Didn’t even need a story.
That’s what works.
With haunts you need an actor or something compelling to drive home the story.
The core of it is the story though.
Even if it’s just something as simple as – you are entering a haunted house.
Then make it FEEL haunted.
Follow the same structure a story or movie uses and build towards a finale.
I hate going into a haunt that is just moments, scares, with little connection and no finale.
You are taking people on a journey, and while the journey is its own reward you also want to build towards one last thing.
One last release.
One last scream.
THAT to me is the joy of these things.
I have been through a lot of haunts but very few stuck with me.
Very few mattered.
The ones that did stuck because they were designed well, because they had passionate actors, and because there was something there. Something that unnerved me.
I have had a dozen ideas for haunts that would be fun to see and I am not even in that business.
I can’t imagine what someone who can tell a story but also knows how to create a performance could put together.
Anything can be scary.
Anything can be made just a LITTLE different, enough to unnerve you.
And that’s it.
The normal becoming strange.
That’s the door you open to let in the boogeymen.
You don’t start with demons and monsters, and you don’t end with them.
You have them in the middle and at the end you end with something quiet and chilling that tells you that…you’re still not safe.
That little belief that these people may want to really scare you or even hurt you, not that they will but that they COULD, that is the way in and the way to the real scares.
And again, you can cheat and put people in real harm or jeopardy, can put them in situations where something COULD go wrong but that’s a careless path with little craft and no art.
No, true terror is what we create within ourselves and a good haunt just blows on that flame enough to make it engulf our minds.
One good scare.
That’s what this season is about.
At least one.
What’s so scary about that?