How Haunted Houses Work

Halloween Image Gallery Halloween is big business in the United States. The holiday brought in more than $5 billion in related profits in 2007. See more Halloween pictures.
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­Word has spread in recent y­ears about a massive haunted house that will scare you so badly you'll be reduced to a quivering lump on the floor. It contains 13 fake-blood-soaked, cobweb-filled, ghost-packed levels that the owners bet will cause most mortals to flee for the nearest exit. In fact, the proprietors are so confident that their haunted house is the most terrifying thing to hit Halloween since Jason and Freddy, they'll return your admission fee if you can make it all the way through.

Of course, no one has actually been to such a place, which would have insurance agents and fire marshals shaking in their boots. That's because this haunted house of mythical proportions is as much a Halloween confection as candy corn.


­In reality, a haunted house with a money-back guarantee due to potentially hazardous obstacles might not be very pop­ular with the public. Granted, people love to get scared -- but only when there's no physical risk involved. Think about eating a calorie-free bacon-cheeseburger: You get the satisfaction without the love handles. Likewise, when you visit a scary haunted house, your body releases adrenaline (a process detailed more thoroughly in How Fear Works) without the stress of being in real danger. For thousands of people every year, that adrenaline rush is worth around $15, or whatever cost haunted houses charge.

Staged haunted houses -- as opposed to the real thing, those actual houses believed to be haunted by the dead -- are a relatively new form of holiday entertainment in the United States. Kids have only been trick-or-treating since 1939, and it didn't really pick up until the 1950s [source: Rogers]. With the rise in urban crime and the growing association of Halloween with teen vandalism in the following decades, local governments and organizations wanted alternatives to the pumpkin-tinged tomfoolery.

­Staged haunted houses were among the solutions and­ started out as not-for-profit ventures by community organizations and charitable group­s in the 1980s [source: Flaim]. By the early 1990s, the private sector took a cue and began opening commercial for-profit haunted houses [source: Rogers]. Today, estimates that there are more than 4,000 charitable and commercial haunted houses operating in the United States every October [source: Hauntworld].

­For all the variety among haunted houses, or haunted attractions in industry speak, many fundamentals remain the same. After all, they all share a common goal at the end of the night -- scare the pants off everyone who walks through.


Haunted Attraction Industry

The Halloween industry is big business in the United States. It's second only to Christmas in the amount of decorations people buy each year, and that doesn't take into account the piles of candy and costumes purchased as well. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent an average of $64.82 per person on Halloween-related paraphernalia in 2007, adding up to more than $5 billion in overall Halloween spending [source: National Retail Federation].

The haunted attraction industry accounts for a relatively small portion of the Halloween-profit pie. estimates that Americans spend between $300 and $500 million each year on haunted house tickets -- or around 8 percent of that $5 billion total. Since the average admission price is about $15, that figure translates to more than 3 million customers looking for a decent scare. Those sales are spread out among more than 1,200 commercial haunted attractions, about 3,000 charitable ones and 300 amusement parks with seasonal haunted attraction events [source:].


­You can break down these industry statistics even further to see how those 4,500 haunted houses across the country stay afloat. Compare the haunt industry to modern retailers: At the top of the pack you have the big box stores that attract the greatest number of customers simply because they have the most resources. Then, you move down the line to the mom 'n' pop stores, which might have less flair but remain profitable because of community loyalty. Seasonal haunted attractions at amusement parks like Walt Disney World move tens of thousands of people through their gates. These mega haunted houses comprise around 1 or 2 percent of haunted attractions in the United States and serve 40,000 to 60,000 customers [source:]. However, the average haunted attraction brings in about 8,000 guests each season [source:].

The term haunted "attraction" points to the diversity within the industry. Granted, out of the thousands of haunted houses out there, you'll find plenty of the same scare tactics and setups. Yet many successful haunts fill different entertainment niches to keep old customers coming back and welcome new ones. Consider location choice, for example. Instead of sticking to dilapidated old homes, you'll find some of the top-ranked haunted attractions in the United States on retired boats, in wooded areas and even in the converted Eastern State Penitentiary in­ Philadelphia, which housed Al Capone and his cronies.

Then there's the theme. Mega haunted houses, like Netherworld in Atlanta, may change their themes each year. For instance, the two attractions at Netherworld are called "Mangler" and "Carnivore" for 2008. The former is a take on cinematic horror involving crazed scientists, dentists and butchers gone awry; the latter is more fanciful, with hordes of werewolves and ghouls around every corner.

­But haunt owners can't simply plan a killer theme, drench a warehouse in fake blood and expect customers to line up around the block. Before haunt owners can start scaring customers, they have to first scare up resources.


Haunted House Safety and Logistics

Before haunt owners can get the scare, they have to ensure that the attraction is completely safe for customers.
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Running a haunted house isn't a one-month-out-of-the-year dream job. First, the house costs quite a bit of money to construct. In addition to purchasing the raw space, one haunt owner recommends allotting $15 to $25 per square foot for decorations and special effects [source: Pickel]. If you have a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, we're talking $75,000 to $125,000. Ricky Dick, who co-owns Pittsburgh's Castle Blood haunted attraction with his wife Karen, stresses that to manage a haunt you need two essential traits -- a love of scaring people and the discipline to do all the boring stuff required so that you can scare people.

One of the primary messages that you'll see mentioned in industry information is the importance of haunted house safety. The purpose of a well-planned haunted house is to create the illusion of danger but never actually come close to putting someone in harm's way. Insurance, safety equipment and maximum capacity will vary, depending on the city where the haunt is located. Those figures could influence where you can rent or purchase space.


­If someone gets badly injured in a haunted attr­action, it could scare away business from other haunted attractions as well. Injury-related lawsuits could also shut down an attraction. Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta has 32 cameras installed along their mazes and prints a disclaimer on the back of admission tickets to help protect the attraction from litigation. It isn't uncommon for haunted attraction Web sites or disclaimers to include specific warnings for women who are pregnant and people with heart conditions.

After you know the regulations you're working with, let's say you find a warehouse you think will make a perfect haunted space. Before you spray a single drop of fake blood, check out the facility's sprinkler system and fire safety features. Haunt World Magazine recommends being generous when applying flame retardants to materials. If something catches fire in a tightly designed space like a haunted house, disaster could strike. In the case of emergency exits, find where the doors and windows are and if there are any pillars or obstacles blocking those exits. The walls of a haunt maze must be constructed 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) away from the structure's walls to provide emergency exit routes and easy access to the maze [source: Dick].

Of course fire isn't the only potential hazard. Haunted attractions have all sorts of props and hardware that could injure customers and employees. Most of the time, haunted house mazes are dark and foggy, increasing the chances for a stumble. Check along maze walls for any nails or screws that could be poking through [source: Kirchner]. Remove loose cords from the path and ensure maze walls are reinforced and won't break or fall over if people lean on them [source: Kirchner]. Props must also pose no danger. Take, for instance, those chain saws that crazed lunatics in many a haunted house wield at guests. Although it makes a bone-chilling noise, there's no blade. Faux fog and compressed air help create a frightening atmosphere but can also raise carbon monoxide levels in the enclosed spaces. As a result, managers must be sure that air is properly filtered in the attraction to keep it safe for breathing.

­Finally, when selecting the location, haunt owners mustn't forget about parking. The haunted house season comes and goes quickly, but for a successful attraction, that means heavy traffic. If you can't move cars in and out of the lot easily, people will go somewhere else for their Halloween frights. And speaking of frights, now that safety and logistics are covered, it's time to design the haunted house.


Haunted House Design

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The groundwork for a frightening haunted house experience lies in design. Most haunts are designed as mazes -- guests can find their way through, but there must be enough twists and turns so that they can't anticipate what's coming next.

­Two factors that impact haunted house design are throughput and scaring forward [source: Glenn]. Throughput is essentially a haunted house's productivity standard. On high-traffic nights, managers want to move as many people as possible through the attraction in the shortest amount of time, keeping lines down and customers happy. Throughput also helps haunt owners figure out the number of customers they need to get through each night in order to make a profit at the end of the season. For instance, to get 500 people through an attraction in a single night, one haunt owner calculated that groups of six entering the haunt every 25 seconds would meet that goal [source: Glenn]. If you bump the throughput much higher than 25 or 30 seconds, you risk breaking one of the cardinal rules of haunted house design: Customers must never see those people who have gone in before them.


Maximizing throughput without diminishing the quality of the entertainment is a balancing act. If groups race through the haunt, they won't be as scared, which could lead to mediocre reviews. To get both the shocks and the speed, here's where "scaring forward" comes in. When a haunted house designer plans where actors or special effects will appear, the goal is to scare visitors along a path rather than causing them to retreat backward. This brings up an insider tip, thanks to Ricky Dick of Castle Blood: If you have a low scare tolerance and don't want goblins jumping out in your face, walk near the front of the group. Thanks to the necessity of scare forward, many of the special effects and actors are cued from the side or the back of the group to keep folks moving along their panicky path.

The time it takes customers to walk through a haunted attraction will differ with people and the attraction itself, since some are larger than others. The 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, La., which was ranked the scariest haunted attraction in the United States in 2008 by HauntWorld Magazine, lasts between 30 minutes to an hour. And of course, in case someone becomes too scared or injured to continue, haunted houses usually design multiple exits for emergency situations and actor mobility.

Proper haunted house design can also help owners stretch their resources. Smaller haunts may "double" or "triple" their actors by placing them in areas of the haunt where they can jump out from multiple directions and startle different groups of customers [source: Dick]. Those hiding places for actors are referred to as scare pockets. For nonmobile haunted houses, a well-designed maze could save on renovating costs each year. Haunt owners usually change the overall theme and at least some of the set so returning customers have a fresh experience each year. Ricky Dick estimates that he alters around 20 to 25 percent of the haunt's layout each year, but nothing too drastic. Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta will usually undergo an extensive remodeling, retaining some of the same scare tactics but used within a different theme and layout.

In addition to cost savings and positive customer experience, a well-designed haunt will also elicit the best scares.


Getting the Scare

Getting the scare at a haunted house is all about illusion. When you walk into a haunted attraction, you're essentially entering an enormous magic trick that must fool you into believing -- even if just for a few moments -- that you are in real danger and the things you're encountering are not of this world.

The illusion begins in the parking lot at many haunted attractions. At Netherworld Haunted House, werewolves and goblins stalk customers while they wait in line, offering a preview of what awaits inside. While most retail store greeters want you to feel immediately comfortable upon walking inside, haunted house actors intend to do exactly the opposite. Haunt operators want customers nervous and on edge when they enter the attraction to prime them for a more effective scare.


To frighten people at haunted houses, there are two main avenues: cringe-inducing gore or the nerve-racking startle. Most haunted attractions use a combination of both. Well-planned attractions play on multiple senses to build customers' internal feelings of danger. Plunging into total darkness or being blinded by strobe lights can quickly disorient and spark fear. Often, an eerie soundtrack will play in the background as well. Ear-ringing blasts from air horns then give customers sudden jolts. Custom scent pellets release noxious odors, such as vomit, into the fog or air released from air hoses. Depending on the design of the maze, guests may also be forced to feel their way through darkened corridors or push aside heavy curtains or obstacles.

Many special effects, such as a shot of air or an animatronic skeleton that bolts upright, are controlled by motion sensors and touch pads. Touch pads that activate when guests walk across them can add more unpredictability than motion sensors since not every person will walk across the pad in exactly the right place to set it off. Haunt owners enjoy this aspect since scares need to be quick and unpredictable. At Netherworld, many of these machine-driven scare tactics are powered by air. A trailer-sized air compressor is housed outside of the attraction that sends air through a series of piping above the haunts. When activated by touch pads, the air compressor delivers bursts of air to the individual machines, forcing them to move.

Creepy house
Actors usually get the biggest scares at haunted attractions, but a creepy, abandoned house sets the stage nicely.
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These artificial elements set the stage for the actors who often achieve the most intense scare reactions. Where animatronics could short-circuit, live actors have long been the backbone of haunted houses. A prop like a fake bat flying overhead may be used to distract customers into looking up and when they turn their focus back to the maze, an actor has popped out in front of them. Actors can also invade personal space in a far creepier way than machines. The primary rule of haunted house acting is never to come in contact with customers … but actors still get pretty close. According to Ricky Dick of Castle Blood, the hardest thing for a new actor to grasp is the need for speed. Once he or she jumps out and startles, it's necessary to scramble back into the shadows to avoid diminishing the scare factor. As frightening as an actor's costume may be, the longer he or she stands near a guest, the longer that guest has to realize that the zombie or monster is just a harmless actor.

Of course, the experience depends on the individual customers. Not everyone startles or gets grossed out so easily. Lucky for haunted house owners, there are many tricks up their sleeves to crack even the bravest visitor.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Arms­trong, Ben. "An Opinion." Haunted House Magazine. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • Dick, Ricky. Personal Correspondence. Sept. 23, 2008.
  • Flaim, Denise. "Fascination with fright: Celebrate wretched excess." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. Oct. 31, 2006.
  • Glanton, Dahleen. "Halloween Bedevils Some U.S. Churches." Chicago Tribune. Oct. 28, 2004.
  • Glenn, Norm. "Effective Throughput in a Haunted Attraction." Haunted Attraction Magazine. Dec. 12, 2006. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • "Halloween Sales Leave Retailers With Nothing to Fear." National Retail Foundation. Sept. 24, 2007. (Sept. 29, 2008)
  • "Haunted Fast Facts." HauntWorld. (Sept. 29, 2008)
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  • "Haunted houses' horror of making a profit." Dallas Morning News. Oct. 27, 2007. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • Hurt, Harry. "Werewolves Come and Go, but Business of Halloween is Forever." The New York Times. Oct. 21, 2006. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • Kirchner, Larry. "Safety Checklist." Haunted House Magazine. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • Minton, Eric. "Thrills & Chills." Psychology Today. May/June 1999. (Oct. 1, 2008)
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  • Rogers, Nicholas. "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night." Oxford University Press US. 2003. (Sept. 29, 2008)
  • Wilson, Craig. "Haunted houses get really scary." USA Today. Oct. 12, 2006. (Oct. 1, 2008)