Every Halloween, thousands of people across the world hand over hard-earned cash to be scared out of their wits in haunted house attractions. The industry generates roughly $300 million in revenue in the United States alone, according to the Haunted House Association, with countries around the world increasingly adopting the tradition. While in the past a few sound effects and an actor wearing a white sheet might have caused sufficient terror, these days haunted attractions pull out all the stops with Hollywood-style productions and effects. “With any good horror movie, it will keep you focused on the story and will suspend reality.
A good haunted house or haunt will do the same through the use of many senses,” says Tom Sadowski, stage manager of Haunted Overload, a spooky trail located on a farm in New Hampshire, United States. “Once people get through the experience of getting scared they often have a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of bonding with anyone they are with. It’s a great first date idea,” he adds.
Here are five essential ingredients for concocting a truly terrifying experience.
Sadowski notes the importance of sound in intensifying the feeling of terror. “It can be used to heighten the sense of anticipation and fear,” he says. “Depending on your theme, sound really adds to the ambiance,” he adds. Specialized companies can help haunted attractions design their own terrifying soundscapes, from the chirping of crickets, circus music or thundering noise.
Sadowski says that smell is a relatively new but valuable addition to the arsenal of tools a haunt relies on to keep the fantasy alive.
Proprietors can ramp-up the fear-factor with stomach-churning scents, like rotting decay or the smell of a slaughter house.
The most important ingredient of a truly frightening haunt experience are actors says Sadowski. “Scare props just don’t compare to the interaction actors can have with the patron,” he adds. While zombies and goblins might be scary, it seems that clowns rank on top of the fear hierarchy for the unrivaled sense of dread they conjure. “The funny thing is they seem to either evoke a very strong response, or at the very least a sense of creepiness,” Sadowski says.
Haunted Overload is located on a farm in the woods of New Hampshire, which in itself can be a scary experience for people used to the reassuring crowds of a city, says Sadowski. It takes 45 minutes to walk the half mile-long trail, which is lined with hundreds of lighted pumpkins and features monsters as tall as 34 feet.
Visitors start their adventure walking down a path lined with scarecrows, after which they walk into a sculpture with a vortex of fog shooting out of its mouth. “It’s a very ethereal experience,” says Sadowski. “Then they come to what we call the pumpkin alley.
A ghost the height of a telephone pole greets them and they begin their journey past hundreds of jack o’lanterns to a four story skull made out of wood.” The haunt also features a train yard with a full-sized steam engine as well as a creepy circus tent.
“We try to avoid people seeing other groups as they go through the haunt to prevent the break in their personnel experience,” says Sadowski. The organizers do this by using buildings and large props to obscure the view and allowing a limited amount of visitors at a time. The layout is rearranged each year by the Haunted Overload’s founder Eric Lowther, who also designs most of the props. “If you don’t change things people get tired of it and you will lose customers,” says Sadowski. A quick tip on how to cut it in the terror stakes? “I think between having good acting and a lot of visual eye candy you are sure to scare,” says Sadowski.