How Haunted Houses Work

By: Cristen Conger

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.
Busa Photography/Moment/Getty Images

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.

Related HowStuffWorks 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)
  • "Haunted house business gets scary for owners." Associated Press. MSNBC. Oct. 30, 2005. (Oct. 1, 2008)
  • "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)
  • Pickel, Leonard. "Haunting Profitability." Haunted Attraction Magazine. March 4, 2006. (Sept. 29, 2008)
  • 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)