Scott Swenson joins Haunt Topic Radio to discuss getting into the right mindset for different problems and situations that will occur during your preparation for the haunt season.
Brian: We got Scott Swenson on from Scott Swenson Creative Development, the man with the plan. I know I’ve been listening to your podcast, A Scott in the Dark, probably since you released it because I knew that you were doing it. So, I’ve been following that, seeing some of the projects you’ve been on this year, this last podcast you did was about kind of get your mindset ready, you know, kind of what things to look at, look forward to next year, kind of planning for the future. Then we had Philip on talking about haunt trends last time and Philip kind of covered getting you’re getting your stuff together now, start buying your products now, start getting your labor in check, get people hired.
So, I just want to say thank you for coming on and we’re going to talk a lot about mindset tonight, and of course, any other haunt questions that you want to throw out there guys, because Scott is a well full of knowledge. So Scott, introduce yourself and let us know where we can bind you and stuff First off so we know where to track you down.
Scott: Sure, well First off, thank you guys so much for having me on. It’s always fun to chat with you guys. It’s so rare that we actually do it when we’re not being recorded. So it’s great to just kind of hang out and shoot the stuff.
Anyway, my name is Scott Swenson I am an entertainment and communications consultant I guess is my official title. One of my titles actually is called Designated Dreamer, but I have worked on seasonal events pretty much all over North America, maybe? I’ve done a couple in Canada, I’ve done a couple throughout the United States. As a consultant what I do is I come in, help people understand what the potential is of either an overlay for their theme park or an overlay for their museum. There’s a lot of nonprofits like zoos and museums are getting into the industry now like crazy, so I’ve got a couple of those that I’m working with. Then, I help them as long as they want to keep paying me, or as long as they need me, that probably sounds much nicer.
The nice thing is I was with Busch Gardens in Tampa for 22 years, I was the Director of Entertainment there before I started my own company, and in the last seven years since I’ve been out on my own, I’ve done attractions all over the place, and a whole bunch of Halloween. Last year, for example, I actually worked on seven different Halloween projects ranging from family-friendly to blood, guts, and gory, from theme park to nonprofit. So I’m kind of all over the place and I have a unique perspective. As we were just saying before we actually started the show, I’m seeing different problems and different challenges in different parts of the country. So, I’m not sure that there is a magic bullet solution for any of the challenges that you may be facing right now, but I think it’s important to ask the right questions in order to find the right answers. I think that’s really the solution that I can recommend.
If you’re interested in what I do, you can go to ScottSwenson.com. I do have a monthly newsletter, which by the way, I do not sell any of your information, but it comes out once a month, kind of fills you on the projects that I’m working on, and if you do join the newsletter at the website you can also get members only content. Sometimes it’s a video, sometimes it’s a special podcast that’s just for members of my newsletter. I’ve written several books and sometimes I will give away signed copies of my book from time to time. So, if you if you’d like to do that, that’s great. I also have my own podcast, A Scott in the Dark and I’m co-host of Green Tagged Theme Park in 30 with Philip Hernandez, so that’s kind of the who’s and what’s of who and what I am.
Brian: That podcast can be found on Haunted Attraction Network.
Scott: It’s all over the place. It’s it creeps up everywhere.
Darryl: Everywhere great podcasts can be found.
Scott: The nice thing about Haunted Attraction Network is, not only do they publish the podcast, they also link to the video of my podcast, and they transcribe it, so if you just want to read it you can do that too.
Brian: And Daryl does the news over there.
Darryl: Yeah, you’ll hear my voice, it’s better than my face.
Overlay Versus Revamping
Darryl: So, Scott, one of the things that you were mentioning is with some of these bigger theme parks you do overlays. Now, what is an overlay versus revamping my haunt? And can my haunt do an overlay as well?
Scott: Well, I mean I think so. I like to approach each different project based on what the project is. You know when I say an overlay for a theme park, what I want to do is I want to build upon the assets that they already have. If they are, let’s say a zoo for example if they’re a zoo that has very little indoor space, but a giant field that’s being utilized for virtually nothing, then maybe that’s where we want to focus if we want to do something scary. If we want to fit something family-friendly and they have a carousel, let’s do a clown section. I mean, that’s what I mean by overlay, taking existing assets and finding ways to Halloween-ize them, to look at them through a Halloween lens or a Halloween filter.
I think that independent hunters can definitely do this because I think it’s important to be able to look at what you have and how you can reuse it. I mean when I was working at how well screaming Busch Gardens, I would constantly when I was trying to come up with new concepts for the following year, go back and walk through our warehouse and go, “well, there’s some stuff we haven’t used in a while, and though that piece is really cool. That used to be an animation, now it’s a static prop.” So, I think that when it comes to approaching, how do I revamp or reinvigorate my haunt? I think the first thing you should do is look at what assets you have and then figure out what different story you can tell utilizing those same assets.
I’ll give you a perfect example back from the Busch Gardens days. We had a significantly reduced amount of money one year and we were asked… OK, required to add an additional haunt that we had not budgeted for. Now, when I was there Howl-O-Scream had anywhere from 7 to 9 haunts each year, and we had to add one that was not budgeted for. So again, where did I go? I went to the warehouse, I saw what we had, and I invested the only money that we really had for that haunt in some laser tag rifles and I created a zombie hunt experience for guests that took place in a recycling plant.
Since it was a recycling plant we could take all of the junk that we had sitting in our warehouse and put it together in certain configurations. So, there was a chain-link room, there was a corrugated metal room, we had this old tow truck that was rusting and had no motor in it but was a great prop, so we were able to bring that out. We had a series of doors that we used up at the front of the park one year, because it was all about the icon and the back story for the marketing standpoint, and we brought those doors out and just lined the hallway with them.
The basic storyline was that zombies had escaped into this recycling plant and it was the guest’s job to stun them long enough so that we could capture them and bring them back. It became so popular that one lasted three or four years because guests just kept saying, “no, you can’t get rid of it,” and it was just one of those Hail Mary plays where we basically went back and looked at what our assets were and decided what story can we tell based on what we have? Then, what do we need to add to it in order to make it unique?
So I think anybody can do that when you’re planning, but you kind of have to look at the individual parts as parts and not look at them the way you’ve always used them. So, you gotta go back and go, “I got a bunch of blood bags that we used for a hospital scene.” OK, well maybe now you want to use them as like a Vampire Diner. You have to kind of take your concepts and turn them upside down and shake them up. Sometimes you’ll come up with the most ridiculous, stupid, completely wrong ideas, but they somehow then lead you to something much better.
So when it comes to adding an overlay or shaking things up for the following year, that’s the first place I would start, is look at what you got. Don’t immediately jump onto the trade show floor and go, “well, I want three of those, and two of those and we’ll figure out how to put them together when we get back to the site.” That doesn’t do anything for you. Figure out what you have, how you can reuse it, then when you go to the trade show you can say, “oh, and we can reinforce this story that we already have with this and this.” That way you don’t buy random crap that just sits in your backroom or sticks out.
Darryl: Oh, come on, that never happens.
Scott: No, of course not.
Darryl: Thousands of dollars later, that’s why we all have stuff sitting in the backroom.
Scott: Yeah exactly in the backroom, because you thought it was cool.
Darryl: We used it once. Now, the idea of doing overlays and using what you already have, does that fit into the mindset of doing offseason haunts
Scott: Oh absolutely. So, I’m starting to get more and more enthusiastic about off season haunts. I wasn’t for a long time, but I think that’s the blinders that I had on having worked in theme park for so long. My thought was, being in theme park, let’s do Halloween in Halloween, and then by the time February rolls around, let’s do Valentine’s Day that’s completely different, then let’s do spring which is completely different, summer which is completely different. So my I was always against doing offseason haunting. But, I have seen it work so incredibly well, and in fact I’m working on a project for one of my clients now for an end-of-summer experience that isn’t really haunt persay, but it is creepy. So, I think that can be that can be kind of fun. Again, the reason it came about is because we had some costumes that have been sitting in the back for a while and I was like, “we should reuse these.” Sure enough, we sat down and said, “oh, and we can pull these and pull that.”
I think people get under the horrible misunderstanding that it when you do a new theme it doesn’t mean that you have to throw out everything and buy everything new. You just have to change the stuff enough so that it seems different to the guest. In fact, at an upcoming show, at Transworld, I will actually be teaching a seminar this year called Turning The Page From Halloween to Christmas. I’m really excited about doing that because they are two festivals that I really like to do, and there are so many different approaches. One of them that I’ve seen done very successfully is to actually just do a haunt, your standard haunt, and add some really dark creepy Christmas.
You know we’ve all seen, I think it was two or three years ago, now three or four years ago now, where Krampus was everywhere and it was Krampus, Krampus and more Krampus. I think that’s a great start, but I don’t think that’s the only way to go. I think you’ve got a million other opportunities. If you think about it, Christmas is a time to tell ghost stories. I mean traditionally, you know, A Christmas Carol, it’s all about ghosts, so it’s a much more natural fit than you think.
I have a title that I actually went so far as to buy the URL, it’s called Scared Into Your Arms, but I would love to do it at Valentine’s Day. I would love to do a, “let me terrify you so that you run to your significant other arms and cuddle and go through together.” So yes, you can you can take your existing stuff and add another story level over it, or you can shake up your existing stuff and see what works for the holiday.
Thinking to the Future
Brian: So one of my things I tell myself is always be thinking ahead, thinking into the future, thinking about if I can buy this prop, what can I use it for after using it in this scene? Can I use it for another scene? You know, I see a lot of people regret purchases at Transworld or other trade shows because they’re like, “what did I buy this for?”
Scott: Because it was perfect for that one part of that one room that one year. No, I hear you, I hear. I’m not at all above or below, depending on your point of view, taking a prop and completely repainting it, or taking it and taking it apart and using bits and pieces of it. I’ve even gone so far as to take like an animatronic and strip it so that it’s just the guts inside and we do something robotic with it. I’m not afraid to say, “well, I spent $1,000,000 on this piece, I can’t take it apart.” So you’re going to either not use it, so it’s kind of a wasted asset, or you’re going to find a way to alter it and turn it into something new that you can actually use. That’s just my logic. Some people are like Holy Grail, we’ve had this prop forever and we can’t change it, we can’t touch it, so instead, we’ll just not use it. That doesn’t make sense.
Brian: I love creating something out of nothing. I have this one big area in the warehouse, and I’ll just be putting stuff together, and voila. Don’t know where it comes from sometimes you just kind of get in the flow of it, and yep, there it is. But I guess that’s what kind of creativity is about.
Finding the Right Mindset for Creativity
Brian: So, when it comes to being creative and getting those concept ideas what are some good techniques? I know each person is different. What kind of things do you do to kind of get your mindset for going into a creative session, or a build, or a theme, or you know what do you do to get prepared for that?
Scott: Well, the first thing I look at is are we starting from scratch or have you done something before? Are you trying to reinvent or are you trying to create from scratch? If you’re trying to reinvent and anybody who’s ever listened to me talk has heard me say this, we were just mentioning it again before the show, look at what the guests have responded well to. I was used to say at the end of each year, for any haunted attraction, or any Christmas attraction, or any summer concert series, ask the guests you know what did they like? What did they not like? And what aren’t you doing that they would like to see do? It’s a start, stop, continue method. Start doing things that you’re not doing that the guests want to see. Stop doing things you are doing the guest can’t stand. And continue with the guest’s like. So, don’t get so high and mighty on your high horse where you say, “I’m going to create this wonderfully esoteric concept that you know only three people will understand.” That’s kind of a waste of time. You can add those elements. Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve written some that were completely out there and very wacky, and sometimes they’ve worked, and sometimes they haven’t. But that’s where I would start. Start with the groundedness, start with, Start, Stop, Continue, if you’ve already done it before. If you haven’t, again, go back to your assets.
Also, another place that I find a great deal of inspiration is I’ll look at folklore. I love to take stories that have been told forever, you know? Whether it’s mythology or whatever, and take it and apply it to like a contemporary theme. That’s a jumping-off point. Usually, what’s happened with me is that folklore ends up getting completely buried by the things we keep layering on top of it, but it gives you a great story structure to start off with, and I’m all about the story.
I don’t like to say, “let’s creatively think about a new haunt. Let’s do a circus room and let’s do a doctor room and let’s do a gouging out your eyeballs.” I want to tell a story, and I may need to figure out how do I put all those things in there because they’re assets we have, and I also like to create variety, but I still want it to work together as a guest experience. The moment you shift storylines, I think the guest has to take a moment to figure out, “wait, what the hell is happening now?” You have a much more powerful cumulative effect. If you can tell a story that continues to build and gets more and more intense than gives a rest, and gets more and more intense than gives a rest, then has this big moment that everybody is going to talk about and then everything’s it’s over, and then you know the chainsaw into the gift shop. You laugh because you know everybody does it.
Brian: Been there, do that.
Scott: Yeah absolutely, and it works. There’s nothing wrong with it. Again, continue, that’s the continuing part.
Brian: Well, that’s what they want. If I took the chainsaws away, they would complain about it.
Scott: Believe me we tried. We tried at Busch Gardens. I had a boss who said, “I want you to come up with what is the next chainsaw.” We tried everything from leaf blowers to… I mean we tried all kinds of things and we couldn’t find anything that was even close. So yeah, again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Brian: yeah, the way I have my cue line set up is, everyone once in a while the chainsaw guys will chase them out, but the exit is right next to the queue, so you’re anticipating. You already know what the last scare is anyway, but the crowd anticipates it because they’re seeing you know every five minutes, a chainsaw chasing a group of teenagers out the door and then they disappear back into the little shop.
Scott: And well, and what ends up happening is then, not only does the chainsaw scare the person, it also is entertainment for those watching. It’s like every time, every time I’ve used a slingshot or a human bungee apparatus. I’ve used them actually on the streets for atmosphere and scare zone, which for an independent haunt might be considered like queue line entertainment or creating an outdoor thing. I’ve had people actually kind of just sit around and watch the bungee scare get people that are not expecting it. I’ve had the same thing happened with camo performers who are in the bushes. They’ll actually build an audience of people watching other people get scared.
Brian: We purposely put picnic tables out for parents who want to drop their kids off and they’re just sitting there, right at the exit just watching people get scared. “This is hilarious. I’m not going inside, but I love watching you all scare people.”
Darryl: Now earlier you were talking about how you’re taking a look at some of your props, some of your assets, and coming up with different ideas. Even if they’re kind of bad, that might lead to becoming a good idea. What kind of a mindset should a person have or techniques to help develop their mindset that they can come up with stupid ideas during brainstorming, but have that push forward into something else? What are some techniques that they can use?
Scott: Well, one of the things that I will use if I’m facilitating a brainstorming, because I’ve done that as well, I’m not even the expert on the topic but I’ll help facilitate other people who really know what they’re doing when it comes to brainstorming. One of the things I like to do is ask ridiculous questions. One of the things I will say is, for example, let’s say you’re trying to brainstorm something to do for a new theme, let’s say a new overarching story theme. A ridiculous question might be what theme would you use if you didn’t have to worry about offending people? Or another ridiculous question, what theme would you use if you didn’t have to worry about budget? Or another ridiculous question is what theme would you use if you were blind? These kinds of ridiculous questions which don’t exist really in real-world shake us up enough so that we stop getting locked into, “I’m going to do a vampire. I’m going to do a zombie. I’m going to do classic monster. I’m going to do pirate.” Those things that have been done over and over again.
The reason I love this, this approach is, that’s actually how I wrote the venue flow to my very first haunt that as 100% responsible for from a creative standpoint at Busch. My boss said, “what would you do if you didn’t have any rules?” Because in the theme park world, especially early on, we had a lot of guardrails and they were really concerned that it was going to spill over into the day brand and how far is too far? Being an hour from Universal Studios here in Tampa we knew that they were the bad boys and we couldn’t get away with half the stuff that they did. But once my boss said, “what would you do if we took off all the rules?” That was when I created the Mythical Land of Club Muse, which was a haunt called after hours that we did it at Howl-O-Scream many many years ago. The whole idea was it was a goth club where the guests were being kidnapped and killed, and their body parts were harvested to create artwork. Now it sounds like one of those, “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” However, we were able to implement. One of the rooms, for example, we called it the Found Art Room, which was just a human skin stretched up on chains with tattoos like they had tried to save the tattoo. There was a jewelry worker who made things out of teeth and bones, there was a painter who painted in nothing but blood, and of course, they were “painting” with water in a red-lit room, so people thought they were getting splattered with blood when they really weren’t.
What ended up happening was it worked on 2 levels, which would love to say I planned this, but I didn’t. It worked on 2 levels, there were some goth kids who thought this was just the coolest place they’d ever been and just kept going through the haunt over and over and over again, and there were other people who were afraid of the goth kids who were going through the haunt over and over again. So, I actually had more actors than I thought because the people who were afraid of the goth kids who were standing behind them thought they were cast members.
So, it worked on so very many levels, and we never would have gotten there had we not been given the permission to think outside the box, and sometimes it’s even giving ourselves permission to think outside the box and say, “what would you do if there were no rules?” I mean, that’s a really broad statement. That doesn’t always work, but I like to ask those questions of what would you do if you had to include a tractor? Again, going back to your assets you can use those things. Or, “what would you do if you only had a cast of 6 and you wanted 8 rooms? What would you?” Let’s face it, with the way staffing is going we may be there. So, I think asking ridiculous questions is a is a great jump starter.
I also think it’s important to take notes even when you’re not brainstorming. I’ve got all kinds of little slips of paper. My recommendation is don’t just take them, actually organize them, because I take them by them but don’t really organize them. But, ideas like if you have a nightmare that’s really cool, or you see something like even bad movies where you can find good moments. Bad horror films, which I think are actually better than good horror films in my opinion, but a bad horror film with a great like moment or segment, jot it down, “oh I want to try that someday, or I want to find a way to do this live, or what would happen if we…” To this day, I don’t know how to do it, but I had one guy come up to me and said, “we have a retention pond outback, what if we did an entire room that was floating?” So as you walked into the room you got the movement of everybody walking on the pontoon. I was like, “that is so cool.” I’ve never done it and I think it’s absolutely nuts, but it that is so cool.
Darryl: Just think the unease that a customer would have if you fit that into the right frame of mind and they don’t realize that they’re walking on water.
Scott: That’s right, that’s right. So, I think it’s, allow yourself to contemplate the impossible, and target your questions and your setups to do that, I think that’s a great way to jump, start to find something new.
Brian: Yeah, I have things written down in notebooks and I have notebooks all over the place. What notebook was that in? Was it the black one or the yellow one, or the red one? I can’t remember so I’ll be flipping. That’s like when I was trying to figure out the name for the Dead Factory. I had two sheets of different names, just you know, Fear Factory, Factory of the Dead, Village of the Dead, so I just had all these different names just to get it out there, because I knew if I didn’t get it out of my head it would drive me nuts.
Darryl: Exactly, yeah, and that’s one of the things that I recommend is, you’re talking about if you have a nightmare or something, is keep a notebook and a pencil beside the bed, and if you wake up in the middle of the night, write it down. Just whatever, write it down, because it does two things. First of all, you remember it, and second you can get back to sleep because you know you don’t have to remember that great idea or that bad or weird idea that you had. So write it down.
Scott: It’s funny because I do that, I always have a way to jot down whatever by my bed. I’ve found that even as I’m writing it, it starts to fade. Don’t think, “I’m gonna remember this tomorrow morning when I wake up,” because you won’t. So even as I’m writing it’s like, “wait no no, no don’t… I gotta write faster because…”
Brian: Starting to fade out.
Darryl: And then you look at your notes the next morning and it’s like, “I don’t understand a damn thing. But hey, at least I wrote it down.”
Scott: What the hell was that?
Darryl: Oh yeah, there was something, yeah, but at leas you wrote it down and you were able to get back to sleep.
Scott: Then the glowing fish with feathers did what?
How to Look at Assets and See a Repurpose for Them
Darryl: Exactly. Now, coming up with ideas with your assets and throwing these ideas forwards, what kind of mindset does a person need when they look at one of their assets and maybe it needs a little bit of work, or they see an asset that they really want, but it’s not something that they can afford themselves, or they’re at Transworld, what kind of a mindset can a person have that will help them build that same sort of theme and that type of scare without that $10,000 prop? Without that one that they have to spend several $100 in several 100 hours in repairing their own asset? What can a person do and how do they get through that?
Scott: I mean with broken assets, my favorite cheat is if you’ve got broken assets that at one time were pristine and really cool, and now they’re broken and tattered, do a time shift. Imagine that you’re looking at something that has been around for 100 years instead of brand new this year, so shift time forward. It’s a great way to say, “Oh, I don’t have to fix it, I just need to throw extra cobwebs on it.” I think that allowing yourself to not get locked into, “well, this has to take place now so this looks fresh and pristine.” I’ve done that with vampire concepts in the past on several occasions, where we had some things that looked really elegant when they were first built, but now they’re, you know, they’ve been through several seasons, so they were crap and they needed a lot of work. So what we did was, we kind of made it so that the storyline led it so that the vampires were down and out, but they were holding on to their past glory. So, it was a time shift.
I think one of the things that I just recently told one of my new clients was, creativity is not about the budget. The budget is about the implementation of the creativity, and if you’re creative enough you can find work arounds. Maybe that workaround is, say for example, you want to have a scene with a giant octopus that is animated, and you can’t afford a giant animated octopus. Well then, instead of changing your time like I was talking about earlier, change your perspective. Make your view of it smaller so that maybe you have two or three tentacles that are reaching through the wall, they’re trying to pull the wall out, as opposed to the fully articulated octopus.
If you look back to like 1950s, 60s, even 70s horror films, they didn’t have great big budgets so they would find ways to change how you see things. Sometimes it’s suggest that they’re there without actually building them. Darkness is quite often our friend. You can put the idea in someone’s mind, and then if they can’t see it, they will put it in their own imagination.
Brian: We use that a lot, yeah.
Scott: But yeah, it’s the Hitchcock concept. You know what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. I would love to take credit for that, no, that’s Alfred Hitchcock. So, I think that’s another way to help get around that, “Oh my gosh, I can’t afford to do that concept.” That said, I always think that, as much as I am the story guy, you need to have at least one element that is so overwhelming that that’s what guests talk about. Sometimes you have to say, “OK, I’m going to skimp on this room and this room and this room, so that here I can have that gigantic something that everybody is going to be buzzing about as they walk out.” Now, of course, we’ve all done that, and have them buzz about something completely different you go, “Dang I wasted a lot of money on that.”
So, here’s an example, for one of the haunts at Busch Gardens years and years ago we built an entire… well, we called it a the backyard cemetery and the theme for the whole story was it was a mortuary but that he was throwing bodies into a mass grave in the back as opposed to disposing of them properly. So we built catacombs and filled them with bodies and body parts sticking out and we did the whole 9 yard. We even built an animated worm dropper that would drop worms on guests, rubber worms on guests. We invested in tons and tons of worms and we thought this is what everybody gonna be talking about. This is what everyone gonna be talking about. As they came out what they were talking about was a scene that we had done at the beginning where the room was filled with cockroaches and we covered the walls with cockroaches, we had the right sound in there, and we sprinkled pistachio shells on the ground and there was crunching underneath their feet. So the you know the $50 pistachio shells that we had to replace every two or three days was significantly more impactful than the giant scenic with the moving body parts and the worm dropper and the whole 9 yards. So, sometimes it backfires. I think that you have to have something that the guests recognize as, “Oh my gosh, it was worth it just to go through for this very moment.”
Scott: When we did an Edgar Allan Poe house one year, we had a room that I credit our lighting designer. We did a room based on the mask of the Red Death, and it was a black and white checkerboard room with four mannequins as though they’re dancing in a waltz, and then a giant character which was actually on a platform that had a live actor in it that was masked the full mask of the Red Death, big red hat, whole 9 yards. The whole reason it became the room that everybody talked about is our lighting designer came up with a timed strobe effect that it would flash white/red and then go dark for just a second and white/red and it created the illusion that these mannequin characters on the dance floor were actually moving, and it made me sick as a dog.
Darryl: Stealing an idea, one moment.
Scott: Please do, but it made me sick as a dog to walk into that room. I don’t know how the actor who was in there stayed in there because it was so disorienting. You have to get that timing exactly right and you got to play with it. That’s another thing that I think is really important to recognize is, we were talking earlier about how you got a part of your warehouse where you just go and try stuff and put it together. You gotta have that time to tweak and finesse, and don’t make that time after you open, make it before you open. You’re gonna have plenty of tweaking and finessing to do once you open. The guests are gonna go, “that sucks or I see that cable. I get tired of the 15 actors in this one room, but this next room has nobody in it.” You’re going to make those kinds of adjustments on the fly, but allow yourself enough time to experiment and tweak ahead of time. Which is again why it’s so important to plan.
One of the things that more and more of my clients are saying is, “let’s do a three year plan. Let’s do a five year plan.” So that you know what your purchases are going to be and how you’re going to utilize them for multiple years. I have one client right now who I’m working on three different seasonal projects for them, and one of the seasonal projects they’re not real sure it’s going to stick around. So, what they’re doing is everything they purchase for that, they make us justify so that we can utilize it in one of their other events. Which is not a bad approach, it’s frustrating from a creative standpoint because you go, “I can’t use a giant XYZ, that’s fun and playful in a Halloween event.”
Darryl: You mean there’s not a 10 foot tall Easter Frankenstein? What?
Scott: Well, there may be depending on what happens. But again, I think that’s a great a great exercise to go through, “I’m going to use it this year,” and I mean, we all know how long this stuff is going to last, and we know that it’s not the guests who beat it up, it’s the actors we all know. We know that everything has a lifespan and so if you can create things that, “I’m going to use it this way this year, this way next year, maybe let it rest and be a background prop for a year three, then year four and five I’ll bring it out as an antiquated antique,” whatever that may be. But don’t just think that haunting, and you guys know this, we all know this, haunting is not something that you just think about in October.
One of my favorite quotes actually came from the corporate director of design and engineering at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, and he said, “we need to think of Howl-O-Scream or any seasonal event, the same way we think of every other attraction, it’s only open 18 days out of the year.” So that way you don’t have that what I call jumping on a moving train mentality. Where all of a sudden you go, for us it’s July or August, “Oh, let’s start haunt stuff.” No, back it up, get as much planning done as you can, because that will give you the time you need, and nobody likes to plan they like to dive in. But we’ve all heard the phrase measure twice cut once.
Darryl: Especially in building props or building scenes.
Scott: Or amputating bodies, but that’s a whole…
Darryl: You won’t go there. We won’t mention that.
Scott: I won’t go there again, not since the restraining order no.
Brian: We usually start our brainstorming after Transworld, like March, and then we meet and afterwards and start brainstorming and stuff. And then, of course, most haunt owners work full time. There are a few lucky ones that do this all year long, which would be nice. So what I do is I go with my days off, I work at the post office and I have a floating day off, usually during the middle of the week, so I’ll go there by myself. And then I have my crew on the weekend come out. I like having help, but it’s hard when you have people there and you’re not in your own bubble. So I’ll go out there just by myself and just think about, I’ll go through them on a few times, kind of get to what I want to do this year, especially the first few couple weeks just kind of get my mindset set. Then we’ll go through each room and we’ll put a post-it note, “this is what we want to do in here.” Then we’ll go to the next room “this is what we want to do in here.” And then I’ll try to have all the supplies and the tools and everything there so when I do have help that comes in. “Yes, I need all these sheets and this hung up in this room. I need new lighting, sound, speakers, stuff.” You know we have different levels of abilities, so it’s like “OK, you guys, I need all these cobwebs strung out.” It’s taking me a while to figure out how to delegate and release some of that control. But of course, I do go back and check it out and I might tweak some things. I’m like, “yeah, awesome job, we just do this and that.” Jane was asking something about a forced perspective.
Scott: Was that the tentacles? What I was suggesting with the tentacles is instead of having an open space that has a big animated octopus have a walled-in space, say like the side of a ship, and the tentacles are coming through holes in there so you don’t have to see the whole thing but you suggest that there’s a complete creature behind the wall or in the darkness. It’s a not necessarily forced perspective, although mask of the Red Death they did use forced perspective in painting the black and white checkerboard tiles, which went up the walls and it kind of warped the perspective there.
Brian: With the red light and the white light.
Scott: It was it was a mess, I mean in all the right ways.
Brian: We had a strobe fence one year or a couple years, with the chain link fence and then throwing about three different strobes in there. That’ll mess you up, but it’s kind of an easy setup too.
Overcoming Disaster and Preparing for Possibilities
Darryl: Now, as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, Scott, sometimes disaster strikes whether it’s you have restrictions for the amount of people that can come in or you can’t open at all.
Scott: Oh, that would never happen.
Darryl: Yeah… As we were talking about before we started recording, sometimes the mice chew through wire and something doesn’t work. What kind of mindset do you need to overcome when disaster strikes?
Scott: So when a disaster did strike and I had a lot more free time on my hands the last couple years I took a course, an online course from the University of South Florida called Post Crisis leadership, and it was all about how to prepare for any sort of crisis, whether it was a pandemic, or weather-related, or you know pick something, and one of the things that I learned from that course that I think is really smart and I wish I’d discovered it sooner is to always have a parallel path.
This comes in especially true when you’re trying to order things from outside the country because let’s face it, shipping has still not gotten back to where it should be when you’re trying to drop ship stuff. In fact, some of it is probably sitting on a ship in the waters off of Los Angeles right now trying to get into the United States. Have parallel paths, and by that I mean, for example, we were talking about the chewing through the light thing.
One of the things I always suggested, and we actually ended up doing it at Undead in the Water here in Tampa, when they decided to completely change up their concept but didn’t have enough money to invest in redoing all of their lighting, instead we gave all of the guests handheld blacklight flashlights and did the entire haunt in invisible blacklight. So, that way they could open as a museum during the day and not see anything, and then the guests come in with their blacklight flashlights, they were actually lighting the scenes, it gave them mastering control of the environment. But that was our parallel path, it was either we buy a lot of black lights or we use these handheld ones.
I think just have a bunch of flashlights at your front gate. That’s gonna be significantly cheaper than refunding all the tickets, and if for some reason the lights do go out, make it a flashlight tour. It’s not ideal, but it’s still a haunt. I’ve said it for years, give me three good actors in a candle and I can scare the crap out of you; in this case give me three good actors and a flashlight. I think the idea is have parallel plans that, I mean obviously you can’t afford to have them all fleshed out and all purchased, but this is what they hammered into us over and over again. The only way to come out of a crisis is to plan for it before it happens. That’s the only way to come out of a crisis unscathed. Whether that crisis is a mouse chewing through your power cables, or a weather shut down.
Darryl: That never happens.
Scott: I actually had one here in Tampa where we had a 5000 square foot clearspan tent that got hit by a microburst, and the whole top of the tent when we came in the next morning was destroyed. We had a week to take the salvageable props from that 5000 square foot space and reassemble them in a 1500 square foot space and rethink a new pathway, and what do we do with our actors? What we did is we took our actors, we made it a scare zone for one weekend, and then the following week we reopened the house. What was interesting was, I think was actually a better haunt in a smaller space, because we were able to get rid of all the fluff, we were to get rid of all the filler. Because you didn’t have room for it. So we just had to focus right in on the storyline. But again, we always knew that we had this backup space. We also knew was too small for a real haunt. But when it’s lose the haunt completely or move it into a space that is too small, you move it into a space that’s too small and you make it the best you can make it.
Yeah, really plan ahead again. Have those parallel paths worked out. Have multiple suppliers. We all have our favorite fog supplier. We all have our favorite lighting instrument supplier. But have a second favorite so that if for some reason, not that it would ever happen, but if for some reason they couldn’t get those products from whatever country they’re coming from, be prepped because the guests don’t care that it didn’t show up on your doorstep. They still want something really cool.
Darryl: But at the same point, they maybe didn’t know that room was supposed to be full of fog and have lasers in it.
Scott: True. But say, for example, you’ve created a room that has a laser swamp in it and you put in squishy floor mats that’s actually really just the foam mats that go under chairs in offices. What you don’t want to have happen is guest walking going, “what are all these office mats doing on the ground in this swamp?” So again, even then you have to have some sort of backup plan, is there something you can roll out over that? Just get a big roll of green fabric and roll it over those things so that they can’t see it, because they wouldn’t have seen it if the laser swamp was actually working.
I agree with you, though I’m I am notorious for walking through an event saying, “I’m only seeing what’s not here,” events that I’ve worked on it’s like I’m only seeing what we didn’t get to do, I’m not seeing what we did, and that’s just not fair because the guests aren’t like that. So I agree with you, but even in situations where they may not know, even if it’s for your own sanity, have a plan B and C and D.
Brian: Yeah, I’ve heard this expression before, like restraints on time and money breeds creativity. So, when you have time restraints and you’re on a restricted budget, then you’re forced to focus like a laser beam and then you’re like, “OK, this is what we’re gonna do.” I do that a lot, I think.
Scott: I think some of my best work has happened when I’m under the gun. Even when I write, I have a tendency to write in my head a lot, and then not really put it on paper until last minute, which is frustrating because I do then like to go back and fix. So that’s something I have to change in my mindset. But you’re right, guardrails quite often help you be more creative. You know all too often I think people have the misunderstanding that it’s like, “I don’t want any restrictions because I want to be able to be creative and be open and be free.” Well, that’s sort of like saying to a kid, “hey, go out there in that field and pretend there’s a jungle gym.” You know, if you don’t have the jungle gym, the kids are going to have much fun. So you gotta build the jungle gym first. What’s your framework? What are your restrictions? Whether that’s financial or that’s physical. I want to build a scene that looks like we’re standing on the moon. Unfortunately, I’m in a 10 by 12 room. Well then don’t do that scene, that doesn’t make any sense. So, if you know that you have the 10 by 12 room, then perhaps you build a scene where you are inside a space capsule.
Darryl: Looking out at the moon out of a porthole.
Scott: Yeah, and you put those great video monitors in those portholes and you put in video content and you can create a very claustrophobic scene that still puts you on the moon.
Brian: I like it.
Darryl: So imposing some of those artificial restraints like I’m in a 10 by 12 room, or I have $150 budget for this room, does that then help create some of the creativity? And then when you do actually have $1000 to create this room, it gets better?
Scott: I could give you a really complex answer to that, but the simple one is yes. If you’re used to working under restraints and then you have fewer restraints, what will happen, at least what’s happened with me is, I will keep adding. It’s like, “oh and I can do this too? Cool, great, let’s do that!” Or I’ll have somebody come up to me, I really honest to God had this happen, somebody came up and said, “well, Scott, you’ve only spent about 50% of the budget for this room what else can we add that’s really gonna be cool?” “Let me find out!” I’m calling my buddies at Gore-Galore!” Or, I don’t know, let’s find something cool. You know, we gotta find something that’s going to make it amazing.
I kind of did this backward, most haunters will start doing independent or smaller haunts and then eventually maybe go into a theme park or a multi haunt experience, a scream park, or whatever. I did it very backwards. I started my haunt career designing multi-level haunts for a theme park. But, where we started our research was with home haunters, because we knew that when it came to theme park, we didn’t have the big theme park budgets that Universal or Disney had, so we started with, “what can we make out of nothing? Should we start saving chicken bones because they make great props?”
So that has been one of the most beneficial things, to work with incredible restrictions so that when those restrictions are lifted, or they no longer exist, you can go, “OK, well, let’s take this concept and build it even further.” That’s what also led me to my understanding that creative has no budget, budget is in the implementation. You can use the same story and the same creative idea, but you change your time, you change your perspective, you’re inside the space capsule instead of standing on the moon.