The key is: consistency, consistency, consistency
by Scott Swenson
Welcome back to the dark. This blog is based on Episode 9 of my A Scott in the Dark podcase series. It’s (ahem) been a while since our last episode, so I decided to about talk the reason for that, which is how to make it to the end of the haunt season (which is when this podcast took place). Getting through haunt season can be tricky. Of course, we look forward to the haunt season and plan for it all year long, but when it finally arrives and we’re halfway through, we realize, “Wow, this is a lot more exhausting than it used to be. Why am I so darn tired?” Even young people think they can’t make it through no problem. Well, just wait until your 20th season.
Consistency—in the Beginning, Middle, and End of Your Haunt Season
I’m here to tell you there are things you can do to get through the season so you feel great, you don’t get sick, you don’t lose your voice, you don’t drive yourself absolutely nuts, and you actually get just a little bit of rest every now and then. Besides all those reasons, the thing that will make or break a haunted attraction—or any performance experience—is consistency. Consistency equals success. Let me say that one more time. Consistency equals success. You never know who’s going to come to your haunt or show and what they’re going to say. If one guest has a bad time, and they’re a noisy guest, they can make your life very difficult. Every guest that comes to your haunt or show deserves the same quality of experience.
This is usually super easy when you start the event. All your props are in working order and all your sets are done. Everything is top-notch at the beginning. On the first weekend, the queue-line actor serving as your greeter is out there shouting, “I’m going to eat your soul. AHAHAHA!” On the second weekend. he’s like, “I’m going to eat your soul, ahahaha.” By the third weekend, he’s become a clown with a horn, and he’s just muttering, “aha, aha, aha.”
You have to be consistent. You have to make certain you put the right plans in order. This isn’t just about actors. You can have that really cool animation you found at some trade show or saw online and it’s amazing. It jumps up and does all kinds of incredible things—the first weekend. Then it starts to have glitches and problems until, eventually it’s a static prop that makes an occasional, unexpected squeak.
This isn’t good, of course. In this world of social media, all you need is one person who gets angry or ticked off about their experience, and they can ruin your whole season. Now, having said that, I’m going to say something many of you have heard me say before—if somebody doesn’t hate something you do, you’ve hit mediocrity square in the bullseye. Someone is going to dislike what you do, and that’s okay. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is when people who come through your event report, “They didn’t have enough actors, and none of the animatronics were working.” These are things you can control—and must control—for consistency. And this is why social media is our best friend and our worst enemy—it keeps tabs on how consistent the event is.
I like to say, “Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.” You know, there’s, there’s no excuse for lagging or dropping off. If you can finish even stronger, that’s great, and we’ll talk about that later. You start with a really tight, well-oiled machine, but that doesn’t mean you finish with something loud and sloppy that has god knows what in it.
The Beginning—Make it Through by Planning Ahead
The way to be certain you make it through the entire season is to plan ahead. I love the phrase, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Every haunt actor has war stories. “There was this time I used my voice so much and so badly I was spitting up blood.” To me, that’s the sign of an inexperienced haunt actor. I’d much rather have them say, “I used my voice really well and I kept my voice going the entire time.”
If you’re a haunt owner, you have to make certain to cast good, strong people who can make good, smart choices as you move forward throughout the season. Make the audition process harder than what your actors are going to experience. Train them harder than what you think the experience is going to be. That way, when they get into the performance, their adrenaline is running, and the guests walk in, it’ll seem less daunting and easier to maintain throughout.
Also important is to train your actors to do warmups, train them to do some physical stretching. This is a no-brainer when it comes to sliders, stilt walkers, bungee guys, or your other really physical people. They’ve got to do some sort of stretching, physical warmup, or calisthenics to get the blood flowing. Yoga is a great way to start, because it decreases the likelihood of injury, number one, and, number two, it will allow your performers to continue to give every single guest that comes to the haunt the same quality of performance, because they won’t be out injured the second weekend of the show. Be sure this the warmup process doesn’t flag as the haunt season proceeds, because warming up is often one of the first things to be ignored, and that leads to injuries. Also, train your actors in vocal warmups. Vocal warms are like singing warmups, but they’re not for singers necessarily. They’re warmups to make sure people are breathing properly.
Another important point if you’re a haunt owner or a haunt director is to make sure you cast enough people. Make sure you’ve got enough people to give everybody proper breaks. In a conga-line style haunted house, where you’re not batching, you’ve got group after group after group and are scaring every 10 to 25 seconds. It’s exhausting, and to do it correctly, you’ve got to give your performers a break. When we were working with Howl-O-Scream, we’d double cast whenever possible, so everybody had as much downtime as performance time. The reason for this is obvious—you always want your performers to be on their A-game. Now, not all budgets can handle double casting and, to be honest, not all haunted attractions need that. If you batch, if you have small groups of guests coming through, if you’re not high startle, or if you’re more creepy that startling, you can have a rotating shift person. That’s what we do at the Vault of Souls. because the Vault of Souls is not a high-impact scare. It’s a lot more atmospheric. Look at what type of haunt you’ve got, and make sure you cast the right number of people.
Begin with a Budget
To do this, you have to budget for it. Even before you start writing cool stuff, put together your budget, figure out what it is you want to spend and how much you think you can bring in. For example, labor is just like any other disposable—you’re going to spend on it every single year you do your haunt, so make sure you’ve budgeted enough labor to have enough people and give them proper breaks. When people start to drop out, make sure you can replace them without having to do another set of auditions or without calling up every person you know to try to find people that fit into the costumes.
Plan on Repairs and Replacements
Budget so you can repair or replace things—props, costumes, makeup people, whatever—and put that contingency into your budget so you’re ready when it happens. For example, any kind of noisemaker you can think of will have to be replaced at some point.
It’s important to not assume, from a budgetary and preparations standpoint, that when you build props, somebody can repair them. You’ll have to repair them, so know how to repair them when you need to repair them. Plan for it, so that when something happens, the fewest number of guests will be affected by the interruption.
If you’re doing an escape room, for example, I strongly suggest buying two of everything. You can’t have things break, because guests are on a time schedule. At the Vault of Souls release rooms, we have a workaround for every technical malfunction that can happen that involves actors and common sense. We worked through that during the rehearsal process. Anything that can break will break during the course of your haunt season. If you want to be consistent, prepare for that up front.
With an animation or animatronic, the first thing you want to do before you even install it is to take it apart. Just strip it down, so you know exactly what it looks like inside and out, because you will have to repair it. You need to have some idea what’s involved in that and have some backups of the widgets and thing-a-ma-bobs you’ll need. Often, when you take it apart initially, you can see where it’s gonna break, and you can reinforce it before it does. That animation is going to be firing or resetting all the time, so you need to know exactly what to do if it starts doing something peculiar.
The same is true with lighting. Make sure you have backup fuses, bulbs, lamps, and whatever else you’re going to need. Oh, and gels! Make sure you have plenty of color medium when the gels burn through—and they will if you’re still using conventional lighting. LEDs are great, but LED fixtures go, too, so, if you need 30 for your haunt, buy 35.
Make certain all your power is in good shape prior to opening, because that’s a consistency issue. When the power goes out, what do you do? How do you plan for that? If you’re in a temporary space, make sure you’re not obviously overloading the power, because that’s clearly a safety issue, and the fire inspector probably won’t let you open. Know where the breaker boxes are before you open.
Consistency in the Middle
So, now you’ve opened, you’re up and running, and you want to make sure week two is as good as week one, week three is as good as week two, et cetera. One of the best investments you can make is to provide water and snacks with protein for your cast—jerky or tofu or almonds or something, because protein is a much more sustainable energy source that sugary snacks and caffeine. The protein will keep them moving and motivated, and water will keep them hydrated. Hydrated actors last a lot longer and are more consistent. If you can’t afford to provide these things, at the very least, have a fridge available so they can bring their lunch. Encourage them to do potlucks. One way to do this is to encourage the cast to provide the food and you’ll provide the fridge and the water.
If You’re an Owner or Manager, Walk Your Haunt
During the run of the event, if you’re an owner, a director, a designer, a costumer, or a makeup artist, get out of the little tent behind your haunt or the dressing room or wherever it is that everybody gets ready and walk the haunt. The best way to keep a haunt in top-notch form is to have the people who put it together out there looking at it. Don’t just observe the actors, but also observe the guests going through. If you batch, sneak into one of the groups. Yes, you can find a secret hiding place and watch what’s going on, but again, the best way to figure out if everything is working is to go through with a group of guests and see how they respond.
Also, listen to guests as they come out of your haunt. This is some of the best information you can get. If they’re enthused about something that you also felt was the highlight of the haunt, that’s great, and that’s what they’re going to remember and tell people about. If there’s something that’s lame or if they’re not screaming when they come out, maybe you need to ramp things up near the end—if screaming guests is your goal. If you’re an atmospheric haunt or a kiddie haunt, obviously you want to hear that guests noticed right things there, too. Listening to guests will help you sustain the quality. Of course, you can’t be everywhere at once, but the more places you can be, the more effective you’ll be as a leader or a director.
If you’re a haunt actor, don’t just scare the person in the group wearing the name tag or the staff shirt or who happens to be your boss. Scare the people around them, because that’s what that person is watching for. You’re not going to scare them, because they know what you’re gonna do. Scare the people around them. That’s what the staff person wants to see—your effect on the guests.
Reward Good Behavior
It’s really important to make certain good behavior is rewarded. If you’re a haunt owner or operator, set up a rewards program. This doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. You can even do something as simple as handing out a “champion of the night” award to somebody in the haunt—the ticket taker, the parking lot attendant, the security guy, a cast member, a makeup artist, or somebody on your tech team—who does something above and beyond. This makes people feel good and encourages them to strive to be better.
I always say, “Reward good behavior publicly and redirect bad behavior privately.” The last thing you want to do is to yell at somebody in front of their peers, because that’s going to shut them down. It’s also leading through fear, which never works. When you walk through your haunt, reward immediately. I used to keep “I Scared Scott” buttons in my pocket and, if I could, as the performer was resetting, I’d simply slip one of those buttons into their hand. If you’re trying to reinforce behavior of anything—humans, birds, dogs, or whatever—make sure you reward that good behavior immediately.
Take Care of Yourself During the Run of the Haunt
Haunters like to party and have a good time, but, during the course of the run, please, please, please take care of yourself and encourage your performers to take care of themselves. If you’re a haunt actor or haunt technician, encourage the people around you to take care of themselves. Nothing makes for a better haunt performance—whether you’re performing, setting up the lights, running the parking lot, or whatever—than staying healthy and rested. I know you’re all just laughing right now, like, “That doesn’t happen!” If you want the haunt to be strong and good throughout, get all the sleep and good nutrition you possibly can to start healthy and stay healthy throughout the course of the run.
Beware of Content Shift
It’s important not just for haunt owners but for frontline folks as well to be aware of what I call content shift. For example, there was a room in one of the haunts where I worked, and the performers got it into their heads that they wanted to add a little more blood and a little more blood into that room as the season went on. We went down to look at it one night, and the actors were, no lie, dripping in blood, which made absolutely no sense in the context of the story. Some people say, “You can never have too much blood.” Well, you can, because it can become numbing to guests if it’s just blood, blood, blood and no variety.
So, beware of content shift. Sometimes it’s not even intentional. Decisions to change anything should come from the director, the stage manager, or the haunt owner, not from an individual actor. Actors can make suggestions—some of the best things in any haunts I’ve ever done resulted from suggestions by other people—but you have to have one person who decides. Being aware of content shift or content creep is another factor that leads to consistency.
Repair and Replace Regularly
Have a group of people, maybe two or three, that don’t work the haunt but come in when the haunt is closed to paint, fix, or replace things. If you don’t have a replacement crew, this group could conceivably be some of your actors, because it gives them something different to do. During the course of the week, the stage manager can make a punch list of things that this special crew—which isn’t exhausted from having worked every single night of the event—can address during the downtime. If a prop is around 50% intact, my advice is to replace or repair it then, because it’s going to break, and it’s probably going to break right in the middle of some crucial scene that will either ruin the scare or hurt somebody.
A perfect example is slider gear. Slider gear needs to be replaced on a regular basis. If it’s looking like it’s about to fall apart, replace it before it does. Trust me on this one. It will be well worth your while, because you’ll avoid injury to both your performer and your guests. If you think you can’t afford to do this, make choices you can afford to do and do consistently.
I also recommend you have fix-it kits for delicate props, props handled by guests, props handled by haunt actors—because they’re rough on props—or an animatronic or animation of any sort. For example, put together a fix-it kit that has all the widgets and gizmos used by a particular animatronic plus the tools needed to install them, and put that kit in a box underneath or near that animatronic. Create fix-it kits for your actors, too. You can create little a touch-up makeup bags and sewing kits. Always have sewing kits available, because you’ll need these.
Two Words to Remember—Gaff Tape
If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said so far, remember this—gaff tape. Gaff tape, not duct tape. Duct tape is something different. I’ve used gaff tape to repair everything from a fog machine to my own pants. It can be used to repair pretty much anything.
You’re probably wondering how I used gaff tape to repair my pants. Some of you already know, but let me tell my story.
One night, several years ago, my slider team said, “Scott, you used to slide, didn’t you?” And I said, “Yes, yes I did.” I was in my grownup clothes, so I wasn’t particularly ready to go out and slide, but they talked me into it. They said, “Just do one slide.” I did that slide perfectly, except for the fact that I ripped my pants from—I believe if the nautical term would be—stem to stern. Basically, from my fly to my back beltloop. When I finished laughing and finally got my slider gear off, I went into the dressing room, took off my pants, took a piece of gaff tape, lined the fabric up, put a strip of gaff tape all the way around my crotch, and was able to repair my trousers so I could go through the rest of the night—or, at least, long enough to get to my office where I always kept an extra pair of pants. Gaff tape will hold darn near anything, and it works in the heat. Gaff tape, Great Stuff, and hot glue are essential.
Consistency at the End
So, we’ve talked about consistency in the beginning and consistency in the middle. Of course, when you get near the end, you want to finish strong. Now, as I mentioned earlier, when I say finish strong, that doesn’t mean, “It’s the last weekend, so let’s just go nuts.” Not a good idea. Someone will get hurt, and if that somebody is a guest, it could be the worst possible thing. Finish strong doesn’t mean finish crazy. It means finish with the same intensity you started with and that you’ve been able to sustain throughout the entire run.
Cheerleading is Critical
I often say my biggest job near the end of any haunted attraction is cheerleading. It’s making certain the cast and the crew stay interested in what they’re doing. My biggest pet peeve is people who say, “I’m not gonna fix that prop, because it’s the last weekend.” If you look at attendance records, the last weekend before Halloween is usually a pretty good weekend, and those are the folks who’ll come back early next year. So, cheerlead to keep people focused.
On the night your event closes, have a huge party. People look forward to this, and it gives everybody the opportunity to say goodbye and get all their hugs and sorrow in on that last night. Use the party as a carrot to encourage people to keep participating and stay focused on the job throughout the run of the haunt.
Before each of my podcasts, I always make some handwritten notes and, just prior to the show, I look at my notes to make sure I cover all the stuff I want to cover. Otherwise, I just ramble incoherently—or, okay, I ramble even more incoherently than when I have notes. I wrote down before I started the podcast on which this blog is based that, at this point, I’d say, “Talk about discouraging late-night shenanigans or last-night shenanigans.” On the last night of almost every haunt or attraction I’ve ever seen, people try to pull something. It may be something as harmless as, “I’m going to take home this prop as a memento.” If you, as the owner, are a kind and generous soul, you can let them do that, or you can say, “Everybody gets to take one thing,” or you can give everyone a special gift at the end. If necessary, you can take a headcount of all the props to make sure nobody takes anything home.
But those aren’t the kind of shenanigans I’m really concerned about. In one of the haunts I was involved in—which shall remain nameless—after the event closed, all the guests were gone, and everything had been shut down for the night, certain people decided to go streaking through the property. So, here’s a bunch of buck-naked haunt actors running around. This is something my friends would often refer to as a CLM, a career-limiting-move. So, make sure you do what you can to prevent those late-night shenanigans.
You should always be professional if you truly care about what you’re doing. If this is a business for you, if this is something you want to keep doing for a long period of time, you should take it seriously. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it, but don’t make stupid choices. Don’t decide to come in after security has locked up the building and run around naked. That’s just not a good move. It doesn’t show a great deal of respect for what you’re doing. It might be fun, but only once.
In closing, I want to remind you that your last guest deserves the same show as your first guest. The only way to do that is through preparation, sustaining the event through the course of the run, and making certain you finish strong. I hope this blog has given you some ideas and suggestions about how to make your event consistent from beginning to end and how to get through the haunt season without killing yourself or anybody else.
If you’d like to comment on this show or make suggestions please, please do. Check out our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, rest in peace.