Jonathan and Crystal Discuss Lessons Learned Over Years of Running a Haunt
This blog is based on Episode 186 of our Haunt Weekly podcast, which was titled, Seven Things We Wished We Knew When We Started Haunting. The name kind of says it all, and Crystal and I are going to share with you our hard-learned lessons over the years. Here are those seven points:
- When it comes to making panels, don’t cheap out on materials.
- Don’t cheap out on tools.
- People will get a lot more scared than you would ever imagine.
- Properly staff your haunt.
- Build a proper haunt family.
- People can be absolutely horrible at times.
- People can be absolutely amazing at times.
Don’t Cheap Out on Materials
So, first of all, don’t cheap out on materials when you’re making panels. You end up spending more on materials if you cheap out, as weird as that sounds.
“Because you’re not going to be able to reuse them,” explained Crystal.
A good panel made with the right materials will last you, functionally, forever. A panel made with low-grade materials might make it two seasons, if you’re lucky. Use torque bits and drive them with washers whenever possible. The washer prevents countersinking, and the torque bit is just so much easier.
Don’t Cheap Out on Tools
Don’t cheap out on your tools, either. Outside of haunting, we’re casual builders and handypeople. We like playing around with carpentry stuff from time to time, but we’re by no means prosumers. As home haunters, our tools only get a real work-out for a few months a year. Basically, from now until the end of October is the tool season. I expect to have batteries on chargers for the next three months pretty much consistently. Everything else is used occasionally around the house. When we first started, we felt it was insanely wasteful to buy pro-grade tools or near pro grade tools.
“Partly because it was cost prohibitive, especially in our early years,” said Crystal.
Looking back on it, that was a huge mistake. We should have bitten the bullet and, as the saying goes, “Buy once, and cry once.” That’s a good expression, and I like it. Tools from Harbor Freight are a huge gamble, especially the low tiers. When I originally wrote this, I had, “Harbor Freight is crap.” But then I remembered the chop saw that built 95% of the roof was a Harbor Freight tool, and it’s lasted over 10 years. It’s still cutting pressure-treated lumber and everything else just fine. I can’t say, universally, Harbor Freight tools are crap, but eight out of the 10 tools we’ve bought there have been. Hand tools and so forth are fine, and we buy their bits fairly regularly. They don’t have torque bits.
People Will Get Very Scared
We saw videos online of people totally losing it in haunted houses, and we thought, “Okay, this is a highlight reel, this is a minority.” In our case, that wasn’t true. We built assuming people were going to act like civilized adults and not crash into the walls. We were expecting people to go through haunts like we do. No. Combine that with the fact we had Masonite walls for a lot of our haunts during those first few years. Those walls took a lot of punishment, and they didn’t last. We’ve gotten much, much better about bracing and cross bracing. We’ve learned our lessons and, basically, every place we think there might be an impact zone is tested, usually by me.
“You’re the ‘make sure it doesn’t move’ person.”
I basically get as far back as I can, run into it with my full weight, and see what happens. Luckily, I still bounce.
We didn’t do a really space-conscious build the first two times, so there was room for guests to collapse and fall without damaging our stuff. But, in later years, as we got tighter with the layout, we kept finding groups of adults crashing into things. One year, we actually had the entire structure of the haunt move six inches.
Properly Staff Your Haunt
We messed this one up for so many years. We’re a small haunt, usually about 600 square feet, so we never really need more than about a dozen people on staff. The largest we’ve ever been is 1,000 square feet. We thought that no-shows on the staff wouldn’t be a problem—we were wrong. I understand if you’ve got a 50-, 100-, or 200-person haunt that a certain percentage, probably 15% or 20%, aren’t going to show. But, when you’ve got 12 people, and you know who they are and where they live…
“And you’re friends with them outside of the haunt…”
…you’d think that no-shows aren’t going to be a big deal. They are. The number of no-shows that you can tolerate is extremely low. Now, we’ve got a great haunt family, and it’s dependable overall, but things do still happen. We’ve had people we thought were dependable bail on us on Halloween night. There have been multiple years in which we were scrounging for actors, because we thought we had every position staffed, but we didn’t. Someone didn’t show, someone’s car broke down, something happened, and suddenly we’re down two or three people—not enough to open.
“Early on, we made the mistake of bringing on older teenagers waiting in line that were excited to get involved, and we said, ‘Here’s your spot for the night.’ That didn’t work so well,” said Crystal.
We had real issues with that, and one of the ways we resolved those was we started building “boo holes”—holes in which we could stick human beings, and they’d add something to the haunt. It’s an extra scare, an extra startle, but it’s not essential to the room. The room will function fine and feel full without them. Basically, we book every position we need, and we fill all the boo holes. Then, if people don’t show or there are issues, we pull people out of boo holes and put them in more public-facing roles.
Build a Proper Haunt Family
Once again, we have a great crew now, and we’re doing really well, but, in the early years, it wasn’t very dependable. People would drop in and drop out, people would come for one night and never return, even though they said they would. It was frustrating. The lesson was, you have to find people who really want to be there. I think this is true whether you’re a paid haunt or a volunteer haunt, because, if you’re a paid haunt, you’re never going to be able to pay people enough to make it their real job.
“Not if they’re just the seasonal actor, but you can have full-time, real jobs at paid haunts, because there are builders and things,” Crystal observed.
We’re just talking about the actors right now—the main, frontline actors. We’re not talking about the builders, owners, creators, and developers that work full time.
“First-time actors are also sometimes problematic, because they think they’re stars. It’s rare to meet someone who needs very little training.”
People Can be Horrible Sometimes
This is a depressing one. People steal, people lie, people cheat, and we get it. We lock our doors, and we lock our cars. We’re not these ultra-trusting, naive people. We never were. But having a baby reach in to steal money from a donation box?
“That was pretty bad.”
Or, stealing about $100 worth of candy from a free haunted house. Intentionally destroying a free haunted house so others can’t enjoy it, and then doing it on Halloween night. These things go beyond the pale of what I expect from ‘people can be crappy.’ That’s what I’m talking about. Yeah, I know people are awful, but that’s a different level of it than I’m used to personally. Oh yeah, and going in and planning on hitting an actor. Talking in the first room about how they’re going to take a swing at an actor, then, swinging at the biggest guy we had in the haunt.
“I’m just glad he didn’t take a swing at me.”
That’s the reason we put the big, muscly guy at the beginning. So, those are just some of the things that have happened to us. Even though I’m still grateful for the experience, there’s been a little bit of, “Man, we really underestimated how crappy people can be. We have to lower our expectations of humanity a bit here.” That’s really frustrating.
Here’s the thing—this has resulted in us making a lot of small changes. We’ve redesigned the donation box—good luck sticking your baby’s hand in it now! We have better front-of-house security and stronger props that can’t be torn down no matter what you do. If you want to do the Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball on our dummies, you’re free to try, but they’re not coming down.
People Can be Amazing Sometimes
We see humanity at its worst, and we also see it at its beyond best. We see the extremes. Yeah, we’ve had our assholes, but some great things have happened. I wish I’d known, going in, that if we did this long enough, we’d have a moment where I’m standing out there greeting people, and I’m talking to a mother who’s taking her five-year-old child in for the first time—it was finally old enough to go through the less scary version of the haunt—and the mother is saying to me, “I used to come here when you guys first opened.” How long until we have her grandkids coming to our haunt?
“When we started, we had would have never anticipated that.”
We’ve gotten tons of great news coverage, and we’ve gotten wonderful feedback from the community. The community has offered so much to us in terms of coming out and helping and providing resources. The generosity has been amazing. I didn’t expect any of that. We did this because we’re weird people, and we love haunting, so we wanted to do this. We never expected the community to love us for it, if that makes any sense. Why do we haunt? Because we like scaring people, and we like building scary things. This is just a socially acceptable way for us to do it.
“Exactly, and it’s a creative outlet.”
Basically, the alternatives were far worse socially, but we didn’t expect the love and feedback that we’ve gotten. I didn’t expect we’d have legends going around about our haunt. People are awesome, too. Yeah, there are assholes, there are people who’ve done horrible things, but there are people who’ve been overwhelmingly awesome to us. I get choked up every year, at least once, talking to someone. I didn’t ever imagine that would happen when we started this. I didn’t expect I’d get emotional. I didn’t expect people would care this much about what we do.