Audio Completes Your Haunt Environment and Makes It Real
This blog is all about audio and why it’s a key element in the development of your attraction. This topic was discussed in Episode 4 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast in response to several requests by listeners. So, let’s get right to it.
Gone are the days of setting up your haunt and getting a CD of that “ooooaaaaa” sound that every single ghost animation used to make. Those of you who are laughing right now know exactly what I’m talking about—every animation and every vibrating ghost on a string used that one sound chip. I’m not a tech guy or an audio designer, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of really cool audio folks, and I’ve picked up some tips along the way.
Sound is Essential to Bring Completely Guests into Your World
First and foremost, if you’re going to do a haunt, you have to find somebody who knows how to incorporate sound. I know many people think haunts are a visual medium and that should be the main focus, but guests need to hear the experience as well. Sound creates a sense of reality. Whether it’s music, sound effects, or even sounds made by the actors, it’s important to recognize that audio completes your environment and makes it real. No matter where you are, sound impacts the way you feel about where you are. Even when it’s completely silent—or you think it’s completely silent—there’s always something in the background.
Here’s an example. We did a haunted house many, many years ago that was set in a subway, and I wanted the sound of a subway throughout the entire house—the sound of cars rattling overhead, the trains in the background—because it provided that ambient depth to the environment. Your brain tricks you into thinking you’re aren’t in a warehouse or wherever. That haunt was actually in the old bumper cars location at Busch Gardens Tampa. So, I wanted to transport guest with that ambient sound to complete the mood.
Sound Makes a Space Seem Larger and Enhances the Scares
I don’t think a lot of people think about this, but sound makes a space seem larger. If you hear something you don’t see—something that’s coming from outside the location you’re in—it creates the sense of a whole world out there beyond the world of your haunted attraction and the queue line. It’s the world of the particular story you’re trying to tell in your haunt. This sounds weird, but incorporating audio makes that world bigger, so you want to add sound outside the room that you’re in.
Of course, sound enhances the scares. We’re going to talk about all of this in greater detail with specific suggestions and ideas as we go along. Sound enhances the scares in several ways. It can be used to build a sense of anticipation. Movies have known this for years. You hear the fright fiddles and the horror horns, and those are used to build a sense of anticipation: “Don’t open that door! Don’t walk around that corner!” Audio can also be used to reinforce and enhance a visual scare, a drop door, a character emerging into a pool of light. Let’s face it, if you clap your hands loud enough in a quiet room, people are going to jump, so don’t underestimate the power of audio as a real scare tactic.
You know I’m not going to get through this or any topic without talking about how important storytelling is. You can use audio to help convey the details of your story. One thing I’ve done in several haunted attractions is have a radio playing in one of the scenes. Sometimes the broadcast is directly about the storyline of the haunt itself—for example, a police alert saying, “Be on the lookout for X, Y, or Z.” Sometimes it’s just music playing from the era or location of the storyline to enhance that sense of reality. You can do this with a radio or television or a phone hanging off the hook. You could have a little speaker in the phone receiver and have somebody screaming out through the phone, “George, where are you? We were just talking. George! GEORGE!” It draws people in and, again, it helps tell that story.
Audio Turns Your Haunt into a Horror Film
The most important reason to incorporate audio—and I mean audio on a grand scale—is it makes your haunt more like a horror film. Most people who go to haunted attractions have been to a horror film. They’ve seen scary movies, so it’s important to give them that same experience, only live. Live theater, live performance, is always in 3D, whereas movies are 2D—except for the ones where you wear the special glasses. A haunt breaks down that barrier between the audience and the film. We’re trying to create a movie that guests walk through and get scared in. Without incorporating audio—whether it’s music, sound effects, or whatever—you’ve lost one whole element. And people recognize it right off the bat. Many guests will be thinking, “Hey, there was no music. There wasn’t any sound in there.” Whether they’re aware of it or not, they won’t have nearly the rich experience they would if music and sound effects had been incorporated. In a nutshell, if you don’t include sound, you’re missing out on very important element of the storytelling.
Creating an Underscore
Now I’d like to focus on the idea of an underscore or a music bed versus what I call point-source or specific locations that emanate sound of some kind. Using an underscore will definitely reinforce the mood. We’ve already talked about how audio makes the world seem bigger.
There was a haunted attraction we did at Howl-O-Scream that was called Catch Your Breath. In Catch Your Breath, we were able to use audio in a lot of different ways, and I’ll give you a couple examples. The idea of the haunt was that it took place in a small rural town and there was a motorcycle gang that would kill 13 people in this town on the 13th of every October. Each time they killed someone, they’d leave a dead dove beside the body. Each year, we’d have a different murder theme. It started with Catch Your Breath, in which everyone would be suffocated.
Since it was a rural town, we had Patsy Cline playing in the queue. Now, I’m sorry if you’re a Patsy Cline fan, but I think Patsy Cline can be kinda creepy, especially if you make it scratchy. We were lucky enough to be working with a theme park that was BMI-ASCAP licensed, so we could use pretty much anything as long as we reported it and paid a ton of money to make it happen. We’ll talk about licensing more a little later. I’m clearly not an expert, but I’ll tell you what I know and give you some ideas about where to look to find answers about licensing as opposed to hiring a lawyer. So, we had Patsy Cline music playing in the queue, which took you to a certain era in this small rural town.
Another thing I used as an underscore or sound bed was the sound of doves cooing—which, to me, sounds kind of ghostly. Of course, this was part of the story in that at every murder scene there was a dead dove left by this motorcycle gang. I wanted that ghostly, creepy sound of doves cooing throughout the entire house, and it set people on edge.
An underscore can also help focus guests’ attention. It acts as a distraction to any outside noise. When the dove noises were playing inside the house, guests couldn’t hear the people in the queue or the music that was happening outside. It created almost a white-noise effect. This will work in pretty much any haunted house. If you have a music bed, it brings guests’ focus into the space itself. In one of our houses, we tried to do a music bed of creaking wood and whispers that faded from one side of the house to the other. This sounded really cool on paper, but it wasn’t noticeable in the house. Standing in one location, it sounded like the volume went up and down, but it was actually shifting from one side of the house to the other. We had much better success doing the exact same thing in a single room. For example, we did a boathouse scene in one of our haunted houses, and the boathouse actually rocked like it was floating on water. We faded the lapping and creaking slightly from one side to the other to match the rocking of the boathouse. Using that kind of audio really reinforced the reality by putting our guests specifically in that location. It didn’t matter if they were hearing anything before or after. That sound masked any subtle noises and made it work really well.
Use Sound to Create Suspense
Of course, the most important reason to use any sort of sound or music in a haunted attraction is to create suspense. If you’ve ever watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie, you know he was amazing at using music to create suspense. Even movies that, in my opinion, weren’t that great, like Eyes Wide Shut, used music exceptionally well to set the tone. I know I’ll get letters from people saying Eyes Wide Shut was the best movie ever, but I didn’t care for it. However, it did use music effectively, and I would strongly recommend you watch about five or 10 minutes of that film to see how they used that single bing, bing to great effect. The music was minimalistic, which really set the tone beautifully and created suspense. You were always wondering what was going to happen next in that film—even though the answer was, “very little.” So, use the underscore to create suspense.
Use Point-Source Audio to Draw Guests’ Attention
I mentioned point-source audio, and I’ll explain what that is. With underscoring or a music bed, the sound seems to be coming from the entire room. This is achieved by placing a few speakers around the room to create an even coverage of the sound. Point-source audio comes from a specific location and is usually done with a smaller speaker or a noisemaker that an actor holds. The purpose is to give the sense the sound is coming from one specific location.
Use point-source audio to help focus where guests should look. Say you have a queue actor who’s on a microphone. Put the speakers near where the queue actor is standing so his voice isn’t coming from behind the guests—which is just weird and distracting in the wrong way. If you use point-source well, it enhances the scares. You put a triggered scream on a drop door, and you’ve got this amazing, voice-saving audio device, which works really, really well. If you use point-source audio as a distraction to draw people’s attention in one direction, all the guests will be looking at spot, which gives the actors the opportunity to scare them from the other side of the room or from behind.
Going back to Catch Your Breath, in the very first room we had a pay phone that was ringing non-stop. Now, if you’re too young to remember what an actual ringing phone sounds like, it’s not a chirp, it’s not something from Star Wars, it’s none of that. It’s actually a ringing sound, and it’s really, really annoying after a long period of time. We had this incessant ringing coming directly from a pay phone that was hanging on the wall. I just realized, pay phones are probably something many people haven’t seen, either. Anyway, look it up. This ringing not only put people on edge, but it also acted as a distraction, because everybody was looking at this phone, so the performers in the room could scare from behind.
Point-source Audio Enhances the Realism
The other about point-source audio—and the same is true for point-source lighting—is it makes the room seem real. If there’s a radio in the room, the sound should be coming only from the radio. If you’ve got a blender in a kitchen scene, and there’s a hand sticking out of the top and swirling around inside the blender, there should be a sound coming from a speaker placed underneath that blender, not from speakers all around the room. If you’ve got a birdcage and you want the sound of birds coming from the birdcage, make sure the speaker is there.
Our audio designer used point-source audio really cleverly at Howl-O-Scream. We created a scare zone in which we took two stereo tracks and cranked all the source to one side and then all the source to the other. We wanted our guests to feel like they were being watched by a bunch of little trolls and creepy monsters living in the bushes, so we put speakers in the bushes. If we hadn’t taken the stereo system and cranked it from one side to the other, it would have been considered a music bed. But, since we did, only certain voices came out of one speaker and, later, that same voice would come out of another speaker, so it would create the illusion you were being followed, because the speakers were staggered. The audio was very simple. We recorded somebody saying, “Look, they’re coming. Look over here, look over here.” We’d get people to start looking through the bushes trying to find them. On the next track would be, “Ah, you didn’t find us. We got ahead of you. I see you.”
In this way, we used audio as a character. If you’ve got a voice coming from one specific source and then that same voice coming from another source, it becomes like a moving character. Anybody can do this who has a GarageBand or Audacity, and you can use very simple ideas and materials to create some point-source scares. The key is having the sound come from the speaker at the source—underneath the birdcage, inside the crate where the growling demon is held, etc. This not only makes sense from a realism standpoint but allows you to focus guests’ attention.
Audio Equipment Doesn’t Need to be Expensive
Now I’m going to talk about audio equipment in very general terms, because I’m not an audio guy. You need to find someone who knows audio. If you’re an audio guru, please go to our Facebook page and post publicly to the group suggestions for any of the stuff I’m going to talk about. I want to have good information that people can share.
First of all, audio equipment doesn’t need to be expensive. If you’ve got one audio system that’s going to play your bed or whatever your underscoring is going to be, you can use things like portable MP3 players or even a portable CD player. You can hook these up to little Bluetooth speakers, and those are more than enough for point-source audio. If there’s a scratchy old radio playing in the corner, number one, it doesn’t need to be high-fidelity sound, and, number two, it only needs to play quietly from a corner. If it’s super loud, it’s’ going to fill the whole room. There are all kinds of tiny speakers out there for very little money at places like Walmart, K-Mart, Target, and those kinds of stores.
If you’re able to have a centrally controlled audio system, that’s a huge advantage. You can control everything from one location. You don’t have to go to every speaker and adjust the levels. Obviously, this is more expensive, but it does give you significantly more control. Another huge advantage of having centralized control is that if something goes wrong in the house and you have to shut it down, you have a God mic, which is basically a microphone that allows you to talk to the entire house or broadcast an emergency announcement like, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to evacuate the house. Please move to the nearest exit,” or whatever.
If you’re working in a haunted attraction in a historic site or someplace with stone walls, you may not be able or allowed to drill holes in the walls to run cables to speakers. You may have to go with independently powered or even battery-powered smaller units to create your audio experience.
Design Your Haunt for the Equipment You Have
People are always saying, “I’m so jealous. I wish I had X, Y, or Z.” The grass is always greener, or the haunt is always scarier, in somebody else’s yard. What you really need to focus on is designing for the equipment you have. If you’ve got eight boomboxes, three MP3 players, and your grandma’s old stereo, don’t design a haunt that requires a symphonic overture to be played anywhere, because it’s going to sound tinny and not good. However, if you decide to design a haunt in which you’re chasing cannibalistic homeless people through a junkyard, well, looky there, your equipment is perfect for that. Sometimes, low-production value can be your friend. That scratchiness in the source material or in the speaker itself can work really, really well, and you don’t have to pay anybody to add it.
However, if you have the opportunity to work in an audio studio, take it. I’m not going to lie to you and say, “I’d much prefer to record things on my phone and play them back over an MP3 player that’s connected to a $15 speaker I got a Walmart.” No, I wouldn’t prefer that, but you can make it work. I realize not a whole lot of readers have access to a professional studio, but you can always buy studio time and work that into your budget. It’s not a bad idea in some cases, but you can also find ways to do it a little bit cheaper. Digital recording is now something pretty much anybody can do. It takes a little bit of study, and you need somebody who can operate the equipment with GarageBand or Audacity. You can even get Pro Tools on your laptop. You can mix and put together a lot of your own stuff.
Work with Your Local University
If you have a college, university, or even a trade school in your area that has an audio or theatrical sound studio, you might be able to get in as a project with a local university. If there are students looking for a final project that involves mixing, recording, editing, and designing for a three-dimensional space, you might only have to pay for studio time—not for the studio, board operator, designer, recording engineer, or any of those things. Again, I’m not trying to NOT pay people, but sometimes there are students out there who need the experience and can’t get it anywhere else, and there are haunters out there who need the product and can’t get it anywhere else. It never hurts to ask. Create win-win scenarios. You’ve given this audio designer dude or gal a great opportunity to design something they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise, and you get something affordable and of higher quality than you could afford to do on your own because the students are out there trying to make things work and impress their professors. As a little side note, you might get that university to help promote your haunt, so that never hurts, either.
The Value of Triggers
Before I leave the topic of equipment, there’s one other thing I want to talk about, and that’s triggers. With point-source audio, you don’t always want it playing on a loop all the time, so you might consider investing in some inexpensive triggers. There are all kinds of them. Motion triggers start your playback when something comes close to them, and pressure-pad triggers deploy when somebody steps on them. Triggers can be used for audio, animation, or even lighting. A company that offers lots of triggers is Fright Props. I’m not saying they’re the only or the best source, I’m saying they’re the first one that comes to my mind, because I’ve used their products before. This is not a paid advertisement, but it’s a place to start.
There are some high-end triggers that will rotate and can be used to trigger up to four different audio tracks. One of my favorite uses for triggers is with these bungee apparatuses called Slingshot, where the performer jumps out of the darkness and either bounces on the ground, flies out over your head and then bounces back up to a platform in the dark, or just leaps straight off the platform and scares you. At Howl-O-Scream, we added a motion sensor or a proximity trigger so, when the performer broke the beam on this trigger, it deployed an audio sound, which would be a different sound every three or four times the trigger was fired. So, one time the monster coming out would be Scream 1, the next time it would be Scream 2, and the next time it would be Scream 3. The performers got used to the sequence, so they, in turn, would lip-sync if you wish, to these monster sounds. It saved their voice, and being on a slingshot or a bungee is really exhausting. So, if the performers don’t have to scream as they come out, it becomes far more impactful. Those speakers were put underneath the platform, so the sound and visuals were coming from the same side of the pathway as where the performers were located.
Sources of Great Haunt Sounds
Whether you’ve got a multi-bazillion-dollar audio set-up, your five MP3 players, an iPad, or your grandma’s old stereo speakers, you have to find something to put on them. Before we get into recorded sound, let’s take a little time to talk about something that every haunted attraction has probably used at one time or another—noisemakers used by actors. Back in the day, we used shaker boxes. Shaker boxes are good for beginning haunts, but you need to make them sturdy. I can’t tell you how many shaker boxes or shaker cans I’ve seen at haunted attractions that get smacked up against a wall, break open, and little nuts and bolts fly everywhere. I’ve also seen actors who bang them into their own fingers. So, make sure those boxes are padded whenever possible, and give the actors gloves whenever possible. That being said, if you can find a way to eliminate using shaker boxes, do that. I don’t think they’re a great scare. They don’t do much for me.
Better than shaker boxes is taking little pieces of metal conduit, cutting it into 8- to 12-inch-long pieces, and wrapping one end with duct tape so it serves as a handle. You can take two of these and bang them together to create this metallic industrial sound, or you can scrape them along the concrete. This works especially well if you have sliders—those guys who run out of the darkness, drop to their protective knee-gear and steel-toed boots, and scare people. If your sliders are dragging these little conduit pipes, not only do they throw off sparks but they make a horrible sound.
Of course, the be-all and end-all for every single haunt I’ve ever been to is the chainless chainsaw. I know everybody thinks of that as a prop, but what really makes it scary is the ungodly loud sound. They make some good fake chainsaws now that have speakers in them. The growling comes from the engine, not the blade itself. The other thing about chainsaws that works really well is the smell of the gasoline, but you can only use them outside, or ventilation becomes an issue. I think chainsaws are a little bit overused, but most haunt guests don’t think that. Most haunt guests think they’re really, really cool and will expect them as they leave your haunted attraction.
Another great noisemaker out there is a battery-powered car horn hooked up to lights. These work really well if you’re doing a clown theme. It’s fun to all of a sudden hear [a horn blast] coming out of the darkness that scares the heck out of you. Shovels also work well as noisemakers. Scraping a shovel across concrete creates a really unnerving, terrifying sound, just like the metal pipes we mentioned earlier.
I’ve tested many things over my many years of haunting. Goose and duck calls work well with clowns. Tibetan meditation bowls aren’t necessarily scary, but they create a really cool atmosphere. They come in various and sundry sizes and different tones. We’ve even gone so far as to test what I call clap gloves. These are basically two pieces of wood that have been epoxied to leather gloves. When the hands are clapped together, it makes a slapping sound. This is actor-generated audio.
I should mention that I never use whistles as audio or sound effects. The reason is that, for many years, whistles have been used to announce there’s something wrong or there’s an emergency. I’d say that a siren would also be a bad idea to use as a scare sound.
If anybody has other ideas about noisemakers, please let me know. Email me, post on the Facebook page, or send me something on the website, because I’d love to expand the industry’s understanding of what noisemakers could be.
Sources of Live and Recorded Music and Sound Effects
We’ve talked an awful lot—probably too much—about noisemakers actors can use, so let’s talk about where to find sources for music or sound effects that you can either record or use live in your haunts. Before I begin talking about this, I strongly recommend you do some research and find out what you can legally use and what you can’t. Different musicians have different requirements, restrictions, and licenses to use their material. I mentioned BMI-ASCAP earlier when I talked about working for Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream. The same is true when I’m working for the Vault. With the Vault, we created our own audio soundtrack, so we didn’t have to worry about using outside audio. I wrote a couple of songs, hired musicians, and put them into the studio. So, look into what the rules, regulations, licenses, and laws are for each piece of music you want to use.
There are websites that shed some light on this situation. One of them is PDInfo.com, another is FreeMusicArchive.org, and there’s another called MakeUseOf.com. All of those will give you insight into what you legally can and cannot use for music. They also have a huge library of public-domain music, which is music by artists who don’t want a bazillion dollars every time you play it. In many cases, this music has a common-use license, which means all you have to do is credit the artist. For many years, there were people who made music for haunted attractions and all you had to do was register with them. Midnight Syndicate was one. I don’t know if they’re still doing this, so double check. There are some great haunt musicians that create these beautiful soundtracks for haunted attractions, things that can play in the background. Besides Midnight Syndicate, there’s NoxArchana and a relatively new one called Shadows Symphony. Buzzworks is another one. Anybody who’s been to any haunted attraction tradeshow knows Midnight Syndicate has a disk for pretty much any theme you’d ever want to use, and they’re great guys to work with. You can chat with them, explain what you’re trying to do, and make sure you have their blessing to use their music. Let’s be honest, everybody who works that hard to create something that wonderful deserves to be compensated in some way, shape, or form.
So, when it comes to using music, make sure you’re doing the right thing and following the rules and laws. Breaking the law is going to take a lot of profit out of your haunted attraction. You can try to sneak some music in without going through proper channels, but I don’t recommend it. If it does catch up with you, it’s going to limit you significantly, and you’re not going to be in good shape. My recommendation is to find a few talented musicians, put mixing software on a laptop, and create your own cool soundtrack. It can be just a few chords or a few notes, or it might be a full band. You might even be able to find a local goth and/or creepy band to do something original for you. I don’t know if creepy is a music genre. You probably need to pay them a few bucks, but they also may do it just to have their music heard. With the electronic software that’s out there, people can produce their own creepy music beds. If you have the opportunity to do that, I strongly recommend it.
You may even find that you can generate revenue by selling some of your own music that you use in your haunt—the soundtrack to XYZ haunted house. I’ve never done that, but I’ve talked about it at great length. Since it’s possible to purchase music on iTunes, Amazon, or whatever, it might be something to look into. I know more and more theme parks are starting to sell their audio from various and sundry attractions online, and you can download it. Disney has done this for years. People love it, because they want to relive that experience. You can pretty much do the same thing if you create your own creepy sounds for your own haunted attraction.
So, I guess that’s all I have to talk about when it comes to the sounds that go bump in the night in your haunted attraction. I want to thank the folks who suggested this topic. If you’d like to suggest a topic, ask a question, or make comments on what I’ve said or written on any podcast or blog, please go to our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, rest in peace.