When It Comes to Creating an Extreme Haunt, How Do You Know When You’ve Crossed Over the Line?
This blog is based on Episode 6 of my A Scott In The Dark podcast, which was inspired by a few suggestions I received from listeners. One person asked me, “With all of the extreme haunting that’s out there, could you do a show on what you think is over the top or unnecessary, and talk about some of the challenges with that?” Another listener asked, “Could you talk a little bit about design relating to when to include blood, guts, and gore and when not to include blood, guts, and gore?” I decided to pair those, and my response was Episode 6.
How to Determine What’s Too Much
When it comes to the question of what’s too much in a haunt, if you ask 15 different haunters, you’ll probably get 14-1/2 different answers, and all of them may be valid. I have a strong opinion on this, which is—it depends on what’s right for you, your audience, your demographic, your crowd, and what you want to accomplish. In the haunt industry, determining when something is too much is like asking somebody to identify the best kind of music. It depends on the scenario. If you’re hosting a high tea in a really posh setting, heavy metal is probably not the music you want to have playing.
I’ve been to haunts where touching is allowed and haunts that are no-touch, and both types can be cool or not so cool. It depends on what you want to do, what you can get your cast to do, and what you think your audience wants. There’s a lot of different things to consider. I’ve seen “extreme” haunts that read as gimmicky versus revolutionary. We’re all looking for that next big soundbite to drive attendance and get tons and tons of people into our haunts, but it’s dangerous to look for that in a gimmick.
Several years ago, they came out with the “free” haunted house—if it doesn’t scare you, it’s free. In my opinion, that’s gimmicky. Nobody would argue that it’s a great headline, and it draws attention. If anyone reading this made tons and tons of money doing this, please send me an email or join the A Scott in the Dark Facebook group and let me know I’m wrong. If you contact me through the Facebook group, I can respond in real time and other readers can share their thoughts and opinions. That way, it becomes more of a discussion amongst a group of like-minded people as opposed to just me voicing my opinion.
Should You Allow Performers to Touch Guests?
Another issue that comes up regarding what’s gimmicky and what’s revolutionary is, “Should you allow performers to make physical contact with guests?” When I worked in theme parks, I was never able to design a house where guests could be touched, because there are all kinds of legal ramifications. Because of the number of people going through theme parks, there are concerns about safety—not just assuring guests are physically safe but that the park is safe from litigation. It makes total sense and, obviously, I think everybody wants to be free from litigation.
I’ve done haunts were performers can touch guests and haunts where they can’t. If you decide your performers mustn’t make physical contact, there are ways to get around that and still make guest’s feel as though they’ve had physical contact. One example is to use either air blowers or the AirZooka—that’s the brand name—which is basically a plastic bucket that has a piece of tarp or Visqueen on it. When you pull that back and let it go, it shoots a blast of air. By the way, if you fill them with fog, they blow smoke rings, which is pretty cool. You can have a performer hiding in the shadows shooting that at people, and guests will swear they were touched when they really haven’t been.
Another cool thing you can do if you choose not to touch guests is to use cat toys or feathers on long sticks to brush against a guest’s ear. If you decide you don’t want to run the risk of doing a full-contact house, these are ways to get around that but still interact physically with guests.
When you do full contact, one of the things you have to keep in mind is you must give your actors and your guests parameters. In full-contact houses, it’s basically lap-dance rules: the performers can touch guests, but guests can’t touch them. You have to give your performers guidelines as to where and how they can touch guests. We want guests to feel frightened, but, in most cases, we don’t want them to feel violated. So, it’s an interesting bridge regarding how to handle that. When I’ve done full-contact houses, I’d tell the performers they could touch anything from the armpits up and from the knees down. This way, nobody is getting into a bad-touch scenario—”Don’t touch me there. It makes me feel all tingly and inappropriate inside.” I make a joke out of it, because there are guests who will complain about that even if it didn’t happen. So, we made it clear to all the actors to touch guests on the shoulders and arms but nothing on the torso area near any of the inappropriate parts, if that makes sense. We never had a whole lot of problem, because we made it clear to the guests before they entered the house that they would be touched. They were told three times, it was on the website, and it was on the printed material. Some guests actually got upset when they weren’t touched, because they expected they would be. When you have a character who’s, let’s say, a dominatrix, and she doesn’t smack you on the butt, you could get a little upset, because you feel you missed out on something.
You need to decide what’s too much for you. What are you comfortable with as an artist and what are you comfortable with as a business person? Whether you do touching or not, there’s a couple of things you have to keep in mind. First of all, it’s dark in most haunts, so whether or not physical contact is made is harder to identify—was it physical contact with a person or did the guest brush up against a manikin?
In no-physical-contact haunted experiences, I discovered that the majority of times when guests believed they were touched, they were indeed touched by a person, but that person wasn’t on the payroll. It was the person behind them in line, and because it was dark, they believed they’d been touched inappropriately. That happened quite a bit. Also, if there’s any alcohol involved on the guest’s behalf, they may imagine they were touched or feel something inappropriate happened when it didn’t.
In one of my experiences, a guest came up to me and complained that a street character had insulted his girlfriend. This isn’t what happened. We had a recording of two wise guys trading insults back and forth as skeletons on a balcony, and I was the voice of one of the wise guys. Obviously, since this had been prerecorded in a studio, they weren’t responding to any guests walking by. This guest insisted to me that one of the skeleton guys had said his girlfriend was fat. I tried to figure out which actor he was talking about—I was thinking live performers, of course, not animatronics—so I could have a word with them. It finally came out that one of the animatronic wise guys had said, “Hey, she doesn’t sweat that much for a fat girl,” which I can’t believe we even recorded. I tried to explain to this guest that everything had been recorded three years previous and the skeletons weren’t actors. Then I spoke the line I’d recorded, and he realized we hadn’t insulted his girlfriend, he had—by assuming we were talking about her.
So, back to the original question—is touch revolutionary? Probably not so much anymore. Is it gimmicky? Probably not so much anymore. I think it’s going to become more and more of the standard as long as we can keep the paranoid people under control—not only guests but also haunt owners.
Is it Revolutionary, or is It Gimmicky?
In the days when I was at Howl-O-Scream, we did some revolutionary things like Alone and The Experiment. To my knowledge, Howl-O-Scream in Tampa was the first theme park to do a haunted attraction where guests went through by themselves. Is that revolutionary in the haunt industry? Absolutely not. Many independent haunts had been doing it for years. When you put it into a theme park setting, it goes against the we-have-to-get-as many-people-through-as-possible mentality. When we did Alone, for example, we pitched it for about five years before it was actually approved. The park president finally said, “Yeah, go for it. Let’s show them how scary we can be.”
The Vault of Souls, for which I’m the Creative Director, isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it certainly is a different approach to haunting, because there are no jump scares or startle scares. The first two years it was all about the atmosphere, the elegance, and the paranormal side based on the history of not only the building but also downtown Tampa. It was an unusual experience, and that made it difficult at times to communicate to guests what they were in for. The ratings show that the majority of the guests thoroughly enjoyed that kind of experience. Our audience was targeted. The Vault of Souls doesn’t play well with teens who want the chainsaw and lots and lots of gore. The Vault of Souls has none of that. We don’t call it “an evening of elegant fear” for nothing. It’s targeted to a particular market.
It is Storytelling, or Is It Just Shock for Shock’s Sake?
There are haunts out there now where guests are tied up, waterboarded, forced to eat things, or forced to drink a liquid from a feminine hygiene product. There are some houses out there that are really, really over the top. I think that’s all shock for shock’s sake, and I have yet to experience one or hear of one that embraces the concept of storytelling while doing that. To me, that’s more fear factor than haunt. Now, there are some people who love and thrive on that. It’s great for media if you can say, “We’re the most disgusting, most vile, most over-the-top haunted attraction anywhere.” And there’s an audience for that. Is that too much, and do I condemn it? No, I absolutely do not condemn it, but I don’t find it entertaining. Feel free to disagree with me and share your thoughts on that.
I’m all for taking it to the edge, but don’t take it past that point, because then you muddy the waters. Are you trying to scare people or just gross them out? Steven King once said, “If I can’t scare you, I’ll gross you out. I have no shame.” I get that, and there have been plenty of times, in various and sundry haunts, in which I’ve used the gross-out factor.
In The Experiment, for example, at Howl-O-Scream, I had a room where one of the guests had to put their hand inside what looked like a garbage disposal to get the next clue, the next key. Then, of course, we flipped on the garbage disposal, and it vibrated. For me, there was something terrifying about putting your hand down that garbage disposal. Was it a real garbage disposal? Obviously not. Did we force anybody to feel pain? Absolutely not. In that same house, we had people dig through live insects to get the key to the next room. The Experiment was interesting, because it truly was an experiment. It was essentially a precursor to the adventure side of escape rooms. Escape rooms rely on two basic patterns—the puzzle room where you solve clues to move on or the adventure room where you have to do certain things to move on.
Eating pig’s intestines, drinking curdled milk, being tied up and having my head held under water—I ain’t gonna do it. That’s not entertainment. To me, that’s not even frightening. It’s just annoying. I don’t mean to bash anyone who’s out there doing that, because some folks are being very successful at it. I say, “Rock on. You’ve clearly found your niche, so stick to it.”
Understand Your Audience, and Have Appropriate Sensitivity
To me, what’s more impactful or dangerous than the over-the-top, eat this or do that experiences are those that involve controversial topics. In the theme park industry, we avoided violence against children and anything to do with religion, and we tried to keep violence against women at a minimum. We couldn’t always do that because, some of our victims were played by female actors, but I tried to have as many male victims as female victims. No matter what you do, you’ll eventually offend someone, and that’s a difficult thing to deal with. We’re not out there to offend anybody. We’re out there to scare people. However, to scare people, we have to put them in scenarios that may be considered inappropriate or unpleasant.
A friend of mine tried to do a haunted attraction based on Nazi Germany, and it failed miserably, mainly because there’s still a generation that remembers that very dark spot in our history. It wasn’t scary. It was anger-inducing, because it was just too close to home. Was it terrifying? Absolutely. The atrocities that happened were inexcusable and unfathomable and indescribable. This was certainly not a form of haunt entertainment I’d recommend. I don’t even know why they tried it, but they did.
Another good question is, “Should you include children in your haunt?” I always say, “A family that scares together stays together.” I’m going to sound contradictory here, but, if you have a family with kids who want to go out and play just like mom and dad do—and they understand it’s all pretend—I say, bring it on. That’s super cool. The haunt industry is a great place for anybody who understands it’s all just pretend. If your guests are parents who want to bring their kids, and you’re able to follow the appropriate labor laws, go ahead and do it. I see no problem from a content standpoint.
It amazes me how often asylum haunts get letters from people who are involved with psychiatric care. If I do an asylum-style haunt, I set it in a different era, when the treatment of people with psychological illness wasn’t nearly as humane. Even if I do that, someone will complain that it’s disrespectful to people with mental illness. My response is that we’re not going after people with mental illness. What we’re doing is showing what happens when asylums go horribly, horribly wrong. Any of you who’ve taken a class from me or met me in person know this is my approach to creating any haunted attraction—pick a location, and add the phrase, “gone horribly, horribly wrong.” If you do this, you can create a haunt out of anything. You’re not presenting an asylum in a realistic setting. You’re presenting an asylum in a fictionalized setting where things have gone wrong, and your message is, “This isn’t right. This isn’t how things should be run.”
I’ve had people ask me, “Should I ever do a haunt about a current political situation?” I think you’re going to run into huge problems if you do this, especially right now. We’re very polarized as a country, so to do anything political is just foolish. It will either make people angry or make people laugh. I don’t think either one of those is particularly helpful when you’re trying to tell a scary story. We had a situation when we did a mortuary—which is one of the most common haunted-house attractions—where morticians signed a petition stating our attraction was offensive to their profession. A year later, a bunch of morticians contacted us and asked if they could be part of a publicity stunt for us. They said they’d love to come out and go through the mortuary—”Morticians in the Mortuary.” So, it just depends on the individual and what ax they have to grind. The truth of the matter is, there will always be someone who gets offended or finds something to grouse about. The bigger you are, the more likely it is that people will go after you, because they think they can affect this behemoth of an event or get some money out of it—even if it’s just getting their ticket price refunded. Usually, when you talk it through with those folks and explain the situation, they calm down and realize that whatever you’re doing is all in fun or all in the name of theater—it’s pretend.
How About an R-rated Haunt?
One thing I’ve never done but always wanted to do or at least explore is slightly more adult themes. I’ve been to one haunt that claimed to be R-rated. All they did was play R-rated films in their queue, and there were a couple of video splices in one or two of their scenes. If anybody reading this has done a scene that had, let’s say, full-frontal nudity and only guests age 18 and up could go in, let me know. There are haunts in which guests go through naked on certain nights, just to make them feel completely vulnerable. That’s an interesting gimmick, but I do think it’s just that, a gimmick. I haven’t had a chance to do that, but I probably would. People ask me, “Wouldn’t you be even more scared to have the actors see you naked?” My response is, “If the actors see me naked, I’m more scary to them than they’ll ever be to me, I promise.” Have any of you tried this? Let me know.
Although it’s not necessarily a haunt, Sleep No More in New York has scenes where both male and female actors are nude. There’s a creepiness to the whole experience, but it’s clearly not a haunted attraction. It’s immersive theater. The first thing I realized when I walked out of there was how fast a group of people will get out of the way of a naked wet guy. He’s just gotten out of the tub and is racing toward the audience that’s gathered in his room. People parted like the Red Sea. Everybody was like, “Ahhh! I don’t want the naked guy touching me!” The same was true for naked women, although people didn’t move quite as quickly. I don’t know if that’s a social statement or not. Having nudity in an environmental theater piece is intriguing. It makes people feel more uncomfortable, but, at the same time, it titillates them and keeps them interested. I’m just wondering how well that would work in a haunt.
I’ve done faux nudity and sexual situations, so, if anybody wants to do a haunt in the next couple of years that includes that, send me an email, and we’ll work something out. If you’re able to do that with vampires, werewolves, or even zombies, it adds a level of reality that’s really, really cool. I think it would be something fun to explore—or maybe I’m just a dirty old man.
How Far to Go with Torture
There’s always that question of how far to go with torture. If you’ve seen any of the Saw movies, it’s obvious you can go pretty much anywhere you want to these days with torture. Here’s a funny story. A friend of mine and his partner were in a piece of interactive theater, and one of them was tied up in a chair and the other one had to interrogate them. When the actors left the room after the interrogation scene, one of them leaned over to the other and said, “That was actually kind of hot, don’t you think?” Apparently, the scene continued at home. So, be careful if you’re looking at tying people up. Ask yourself, “Is it fun or is it creepy?”
In my opinion, when you see too much torture, you become distanced from it. If you’ve seen Saw, Hostile, or any of the extreme torture flicks, you become numb to it after a while. So, I guess that means you can go pretty far with torture, because people look at it and say, “That’s gross or that’s cool or that’s horrible. Next!” I don’t think it makes a lasting impression on them.
How to Do Blood Effectively
One of our listeners asked, “How far do you go with blood? Should everything be blood-spattered and blood-smeared with intestines hanging off the walls?” There was a time, early in my career, where I would have said, “You should make it as bloody as humanly possible.” Now that I’m a little older and the industry is more mature, I think blood should be used appropriately. Sometimes, less is more. If you have blood smeared all over the walls of a room, does the audience perceive that as blood or just red paint? If you have a scenario where you’ve got a manikin lying on the floor that’s clearly fallen off a ladder, and there’s a spatter of blood on the white,linoleum floor coming from behind their head, that reads as blood not red paint. Let your blood be focused, so it tells a story. Guests should see it and immediate think, “I understand where that blood came from.” If you do have someone covered in blood, it’s more compelling to put them in a room that isn’t. It’s that juxtaposition of a pristinely clean room with someone who’s literally dripping with blood because they’ve been eating the organs out of the dead body next to them or something like that.
If there’s too much blood, it has an almost white-noise quality, in my opinion. If you want to throw in blood, guts, and gore, that’s great, but make sure it’s juxtaposed so people don’t think, “Is that blood, or did they just paint the room red?” By the way, if you’ve got a room that’s covered in blood, don’t use red light, or the blood disappears.
The perfect example, for me, of how blood is effective or not effective has to do with the first time I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an old film, and I saw it in a theater when it first came out. It was considered to be one of the goriest movies ever, and it was one of the first movies to get an R rating specifically because of the blood and violence—the blood, guts, and gore. You see scene upon scene upon scene of heads severing themselves from bodies, legs growing out of them, and the heads crawling across the floor. There’s a dog whose face rips open and a creature comes charging out. To this day, the scene in that movie that just woogs me out is the one where they’re trying to figure out who has molecules of the creature living in their systems, so they’re taking blood samples. They take out a scalpel, slice off three people’s fingers, and watch them bleed into a petri dish. Taking a scalpel and slicing someone’s finger off makes me cringe more than watching someone’s face explode. Why? Because I’ve never seen someone’s face explode, but I’ve cut my finger, and I know how much that hurts. I know that moment of feeling the blade go through the flesh, and it makes me cringe. I cringed just now, thinking about it.
So, with extreme blood, make sure it fits within the context and fits within the story. Be as gross as you want, be as over the top as you want, but make sure it stays focused, so you don’t work against yourself.
Limits in Escape Rooms
Many haunts are going into the realm of escape rooms and adventure rooms, and I think that’s absolutely the right progression. One reason for doing this is it generates year-round revenue, which is smart, but I also think it’s the next step in the progression of immersive or interactive theater. We’re now giving people puzzles or challenges to explore. Which brings us to, can these go too far? It is too far to have a key hidden at the bottom of a water-filled toilet or a blood-filled bathtub, so guests have to get their hand in there and fish around for it?
We did this in The Experiment. We had a button that opened the door to the next room at the bottom of a really disgusting-looking toilet. You had to put your hand in the water and push the button. There were people who thought that was too over the top. For one thing, you have to have potable water in there and make sure it stays clean, so nobody gets sick. We set it up as a closed system with potable water and a real toilet that would flush after each guest. The water would go from one receptacle to another and, at the end of the night, we’d dump out the water in which guests had immersed their hands. We made it look as gross as possible, but it wasn’t transmitting disease or disgusting germs in any way, shape, or form.
In escape rooms and adventure rooms, it’s quite common for guests to have to dig through a cadaver to find the key or the solve the puzzle for the next room. Again, we’re going to have to start asking the same question—how far is too far? One of the earliest escape rooms was Escape from a Zombie. What’s going to happen when it becomes Escape from a Zombie Who Can Touch You? Then it will be Escape from a Zombie Who Can Touch You and Is Covered in Ooze and you have to change your clothes while you’re still trying to solve puzzles? With escape rooms and adventure rooms, we’re going to go through the same growth process to keep finding what’s new, what’s over the top, and how far we can go.
Make Sure Whatever You Do Fits the Story
Whatever your story is, make certain that the level of over-the-topness fits it. For example, if you want to do a full-contact house where people are being grabbed and tied up, that has to make sense within your story. Be sure it’s not just a gimmick to hold guests there while something disgusting happens around them. Going back to our asylum concept, put a guest in a straightjacket and have them be the inmate. I had an idea years and years ago that I’ve never done—strap someone into a bed, have the bed on wheels, and push the bed through the haunt. Quite often in haunts, people want to run ahead to get away, but if they’re strapped into a bed, they’d be forced to move very, very slowly through terrifying scenes. If they were strapped in a bed, actors could get close to them without making physical contact and breaking that barrier of personal space. The guest wouldn’t be able to throw a punch or injure the actor. All they could do is close their eyes and pray for it to be over. By the way, if anybody wants to do that bed thing, go ahead. Then call me so I can come out and see how it worked.
The Vault of Souls is all paranormal. It’s all about ghosts and the history of this one building. The reason I went in that direction is because one of the directives I was given by the owner when she brought me on as Creative Director was, “I don’t want to do blood.” I said, “Let’s do paranormal then, because ghosts don’t bleed.” There’s no blood anywhere in the experience. The ghosts do make physical contact with the guests. They touch them to guide them, and, occasionally spank them. They move guests from place to place by making physical contact, as a spirit might want to do.
Once you’re sure whatever it is fits your story and you figure out what you’re comfortable with, train your actors to only go to that level and no farther. That way, if a guest complains or brings something to your attention, you can tell them how you trained your performers and find out if the actor went beyond that. If that’s the case, you assure the guest you’ll talk to that individual.
Market Your Haunt so Guests Know What to Expect
Once it all fits into your story and you’ve got your actors trained, the next step is to market your haunt appropriately. You’ve got to let guests know, up front, what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You need to make clear if you have a full-contact, wrestle-guests-to-the-ground kind of haunt or it’s an atmospheric, explore-on-your-own haunted experience with no touching. Make sure guests know, going into it, what to expect. If they don’t, they’ll either be disappointed or ticked off. This is probably the biggest challenge and most important message when it comes to extreme haunting of any kind. When you do your extreme haunt, market it appropriately, so you get the right audience for whatever it is you feel comfortable with.
I realize I haven’t really answered the question, “How much is too much?” That’s because there is no one answer. What’s too much for me won’t be what’s too much for you, and that will be different than what’s too much for somebody else. However, I hope I’ve given you some things to consider to help you decide how far you personally want to go in your haunt.
To sum up—no matter how extreme you go, make sure it’s organic and not a gimmick, make sure it fits your story, and make sure you market it clearly.
If you’d like to ask questions, suggest topics, or even 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.