Lessons for haunters from a unique traveling circus
It’s Jonathan and Crystal again, and this blog is based on episode 177 of our Haunt Weekly podcast, in which we talked about Paranormal Cirque. Specifically, we discussed the experience itself but also lessons haunters can learn from Paranormal Cirque as a haunted attraction—which it is, at least in part—although that part was sort of disappointing, as I’ll discuss shortly. This is an unusual attraction that seems to be generating a great deal of curiosity and buzz.
We’ve actually covered Paranormal Cirque before, in episode 132, way back in June 2018. Basically, that was a news story about the circus coming to town that had a haunted house as part of the experience. From that first introduction to Paranormal Cirque, we were, frankly, skeptical. We had a lot of reasons to be skeptical, and we’ll discuss those here.
This Isn’t Your Family-friendly Circus
But first, here’s a little background on Paranormal Cirque. This attraction is part of Cirque Italio, which is an Italian organization that has two touring groups. Cirque Italio is known as the Water Circus, which combines more traditional circus acts with water features and gimmicks. The other is Paranormal Cirque, and the two are marketed very differently. For Cirque Italio, the tent is bright white, and it’s a family-friendly show. Paranormal Cirque is NOT. Paranormal Cirque is held in a black and red tent, and it doesn’t, in any way, bill itself as a family-friendly experience. In fact, children under the age of 13 aren’t allowed, full stop. Kids 13 to 17 are welcome, but they have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian over the age of 21. That seems a little crazy to me, that a 17-year-old must be accompanied by a 21-year-old guardian.
“It’s kind of like R-rated movies, you know?” said Crystal.
Well, that makes sense, because there’s tons of crude language, sexual humor, and so on and so forth. Basically, the general MO of this organization is to travel the country spending a weekend here and a weekend there. The show is hauled around by at least 10 tractor trailers—that’s what I counted, but there may have been more—and a gaggle of RVs, which I’m assuming contain the performers and other people who work on the show. There’s a show on Thursday, a show on Friday, two shows on Saturday, and two shows Sunday, for a total of six shows. In bigger cities, like New Orleans, they stay for two weekends. After the show was here, they went to Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Alexandria, and did only one weekend of shows in each of those towns. The last show in the evening ends around 10:30 on Sunday, and they set up in the next town in time for an 8:30 pm Thursday show. So, that means they have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and part of Thursday to tear it down, move it, and set it back up. That’s damned impressive. It’s a feat of logistics, I’ll say that much.
So, you have to keep an eye out for where they’re going to be and when they’re going to be there. I’d advise readers to check their website, ParanormalCirque.com, for the latest tour information.
The Power of Social Media Word-of-Mouth Marketing
Paranormal Cirque has an interesting marketing strategy, which is: I could find no evidence they’ve ever used television, radio, newspaper spots, or any traditional advertising. We did see social media ads for the show when they were a pretty good distance away from us, two or three weeks out. Another thing they do is, on the run-up to shows, they have a PR blitz combined with targeted, geographic social media plugs. The goal is to build word-of-mouth advertising. That seems to work, because everyone was talking about this show.
Besides being unique, one of the real marketing points for this show is that its run is so limited. They’re only in town for one weekend, usually, and only for six shows. After that, they literally pull up stakes and leave.
“It was really popular here in New Orleans,” said Crystal, “because there’s such a haunt culture, not only with the haunted houses but also haunted tours and people interested in the paranormal. They’ve got a ready-made audience here. However, the Paranormal Cirque performance we were at was, unfortunately, at the same time as the Game of Thrones, and not a lot of people wanted to miss Game of Thrones to go to this.”
The show is pretty simple and pretty brilliant. There was no billboard advertising, but the tent was a billboard.
“It was very noticeable,” Crystal chimed in.
Very, very noticeable. Obviously, this advertising strategy may not translate well to haunts, because haunts have longer runs—typically six weeks with more open days—and they usually have a permanent, or at least semi-permanent location, so there’s always the assumption they’ll be back next year. Paranormal Cirque owes much of its success to its social media campaign. They’ve really been pushing the show on Facebook, and Facebook, for all of its flaws as an advertising platform, encourages and engages that word-of-mouth promotion. Being able to share ads with friends—on public Facebook, via messenger, and by private messaging—is amazing. Paranormal Cirque was also advertising on Instagram, which is a similar thing—you can drop things in Instagram messages, reshare, etc. That gets a lot of traffic. Or, you can turn your building into an outdoor advertising campaign.
Translating this successful strategy to the haunt world, you could have the two winning components of a unique show and using social media to drive word of mouth. You could set aside a weekend for a unique thing you’re going to do—“This weekend only, we’re doing this.”
“There’s also the fact that Paranormal Cirque is a new phenomenon here in the US,” said Crystal.
Yes, those are two other things it provides—novelty and the fear of missing out.
A Few Complaints
However, on the down side, they don’t have much stuff to do in their show area. They had one food truck and two snack stands, both of which had essentially the same things—popcorn, hotdogs, etc. In other words, movie theater food. Or, in this case, circus food. There was also a souvenir stand. It’s worth noting there are no beer or alcohol sales. This, at first, struck me as odd, because they really heavily pitched this show as being for people 21 and older, so I thought, “Then you should have beer.” However, I’m pretty sure that’s impossible with all the local liquor laws.
“It’s probably more weird for us, because we’re in New Orleans, and everywhere has alcohol.”
Given that alcohol is sold everywhere in this city, it seemed odd to go to an event that was adult-themed and didn’t provide it as an option.
One other thing—there’s no ATM. Well, they do have an “ATM” in the form of a cash box and a credit card machine, but the prices are really high.
Paranormal Cirque has a lot of neat stuff for sale, but it also had steampunk hats, goggles, and so on that didn’t really tie in with what they were doing. We ended up not buying any souvenirs, mostly because we couldn’t find t-shirts we liked, so we just passed on it. That was a shame, because I love buying shirts at places I visit. It’s a habit I picked up as a kid and maintained in my adulthood.
“I was planning on getting one, but they didn’t have them in sizes that would work for us,” explained Crystal.
The “Haunted House” Experience
OK, now to the haunted house. About 20 minutes before the circus begins, they throw open these big gates and let guests into the haunted house section, which is basically the path to the tent where the circus is. Calling this a “haunted house” is a stretch—a great stretch. There’s not much to it. They have a little labyrinth that zigzags toward the entrance to the arena, and there’s a pop-out there. It’s essentially a hallway to the big top with some scares and people trying to startle you in various ways. Guests were in and out of the haunted house in under two minutes. Still, it didn’t break up the flow to the tent. What did break of the flow was everyone had to be escorted to their seats. Apparently, no one understands the concept of assigned seating.
There were two actors in the haunted house that I have to highlight. One of these was a raven-haired woman who had amazing presence. She was tiny as hell—short and probably weighing next to nothing—but she had the demeanor of someone who means business. She was carrying a foam wrench or hammer or something—I couldn’t quite make out what it was—some kind of weapon. She was carrying it around, and all I can say is that chick was scary. She just had that kind of presence where your eyes just went to her. Then there was the opposite—a tall brunette who was doing the crawling and sliding thing. Despite being a full foot taller than the other woman—she was probably six feet—she could hide herself anywhere in the room. She was sliding and crawling and doing snake-like shimmying on the ground, and she really stood out. It made me realize and appreciate just how much circus-performer skills and haunt-actor skills overlap—that ability to command the attention of the crowd or the ability to hide from the crowd.
“And the ability to work with each other to focus attention over here and then sneak up over there,” added Crystal.
The Circus Itself
That takes us to the acts themselves when the show started. I want to try to keep this part as spoiler-free as I can. I’m not going to give away any secrets. They were fun and I want people to experience them. However, I may let something slip unintentionally, so keep that in mind. Also, we’re not going to talk about the acts in order. We can remember all the acts, but not necessarily the order, and it’s not important. The order probably changes on the flip of a dime anyway.
When we went, the show was bookended by two of the most amazing acrobatic acts I’ve ever seen. The first one was like parallel bars set up in a square with four gymnasts who were swinging back and forth and crossing each other. I was like, “Dude, what the fuck? How many times did you kick each other in the face practicing this?”
“And they were dressed as zombies and shuffling whenever they weren’t on the bars,” said Crystal.
The big climax was the Wheel of Death, which is this big, hamster-wheel thing that spins around a giant pendulum thing—it’s kind of hard to describe. They were both mind-blowing acrobatic acts. The first had incredible coordination and timing along with some great acting on the floor, and the second was these amazing feats of courage. The gymnast was so confident up there that he’d pretend to mess up sometimes, and the crowd would gasp. He was that good.
Also, there was a magic act that was most of the second half after intermission that was really, really good. Now, I killed my fascination with magic for myself a while back. I went down a YouTube rabbit hole about how magic tricks are done. I shouldn’t have done that. It was a mistake. However, the timing in these acts was amazing.
Into the Dicey Realm During Scene Changes
Next came things that we found more dicey. This is a one-ring circus, so, between acts, the stage crew has to take everything down and set up the ring for the next act. They do this quickly, but it still takes time, so, to keep the crowd entertained, there was a clown, a little person, who did a routine during each change of scene that involved members of the audience. To be honest, this part of it came off as slimy rather than funny.
“Yeah, there was lots of humping,” Crystal explained.
Lots of humping, lots of threatening to shove his face down a woman’s cleavage, things like that. It got pops from the audience, but I couldn’t tell how much of the laughter was awkward versus actual laughter. It was clear to me that at least some of the subjects were very uncomfortable. This happened multiple times.
“Like the one where the men were checked for size.”
Oh, god. Yes, they had their genitals touched, we’ll say. That was awkward too. This is definitely how the show earned its “R” rating. Realistically, the show itself doesn’t have any significant violence—nothing you wouldn’t see in a PG movie—and most of it is in the magic act, where it’s obviously not violence, and that’s the whole point. There’s no nudity and not much talking during the acts at all, as they’re mostly acrobatic acts.
There was also an act in which four members of the audience were brought on stage and told to act out a scene that was being fake-filmed. The thing was, the explanations for what they were supposed to do were being pantomimed with grunts and gesticulations. It was funny to watch these folks struggle, and one of them got fired completely. Some people can’t take direction under the best of conditions, as we know. But this went on really, really long—like 30 minutes—mostly because of this one person who couldn’t take direction. In other words, there was one person in the group who was really dumb, but that’s all it takes to completely mess up a scene.
“They were given a role where they had to humiliate themselves, so, if you have any kind of fear of being on stage, you’re not going to want that role or do that well,” offered Crystal.
That was the only time I got messed with by the performers, but they immediately rejected me, because they decided I wasn’t a manly enough. I’m a lover, not a fighter, guys. Sorry.
Among the other acts was a silks performer, and that was one damn-good-looking dude.
“He was pretty.”
There was a ground ring performer, there was a high ring performer, and there were several other smaller acts such as someone doing plate-spinning. We’re in kind of a unique position both as haunters and as New Orleaneans, so we’ve seen a lot of these types of acts before. One time, we went to a haunted house in an aerial school. That was bizarre but also kind of cool. We have tons of burlesque shows, local circuses, aerial schools, things like that. If you don’t see these things very often, they’re going to be much more impactful. The performers at the Paranormal Cirque were all very good, but the entire act wasn’t new to me, so that made it feel a little less special to me personally. It was clear that most of the audience hadn’t had the experiences we’ve had, so, for them, it was new and fresh, and they were enthralled every second. I was still enthralled but not to the same extent that other people in the crowd were.
Should You Go?
So, this brings us to our advice regarding Paranormal Cirque. The first piece of advice is, “Go, definitely.” Arrive about 30 minutes early so you can check out everything including the haunted attraction part. Be prepared for vulgar, sexual language that’s specifically aimed at people in the audience—which means, possibly, you. Be advised that there’s a lot of audience participation. While they’re tearing down one set and putting up another, there are the performers that come into the crowd or the strip in front of the main stands to do various things. There’s no nudity or sexual themes in the show itself, and there’s not even any offensive language in the show itself. It’s in the interstitial stuff where the audience interaction can get pretty sexual.
“The spotlight on the performer in the front is a good lesson in lighting and getting attention where you want it, if you haven’t learned that yet,” said Crystal.
Tickets are relatively cheap. We advise you to get the $30 tickets. Don’t spring for VIP ticket. It isn’t worth it, because the seating is awkward in the VIP section. Just trust us on this. Guests get a fair amount of interaction because they’re right there at the edge of the stage, but you miss a lot of the interstitial stuff, and that’s a big part of the show. Also, there’s not a bad seat in the place except maybe at the extreme sides. My advice is to get black seating in the risers anywhere but the last two rows, as close to the stage as possible, and near the center. It’s assigned seating for all ticket holders, so you get to pick your seats. I advise you to buy online.
“There’s an intermission and time afterwards to hit up the souvenir stand,” said Crystal helpfully.
The food prices were pretty reasonable, and the food was pretty good, but the souvenir prices were high. One mistake we made is we kind of pooped ourselves out and didn’t stick around afterwards. They had a great meet-and-greet thing going on where guests could take photos and spend time with the performers. This is something to consider for a haunted attraction, as it looked like everyone was having a lot of fun.
Lessons for Haunters
And now we’re going to talk about lessons for haunters. First, a little professionalism can go a very long way. These guys at Paranormal Cirque have some pretty significant limitations in that they have to tear down and rebuild everything in a matter of days, so they can’t do a lot of the things that a permanent installation can. They have to use a tent, they have to use hot-dog-cart type things for food stands, and so forth. However, they clearly spent some time and money on professional graphic design on everything. All of the tractor trailers have the logo on them—prominently—and all the food concessions and everything else had professional signs and lighting. Without much energy—and with probably not too much money—they went a long way in creating a professional product.
“It increases expectations when things look well put together,” said Crystal.
We didn’t really know what to expect in a circus held, literally, on a mud lot. I’ve been to high-end circuses like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey before. Paranormal Cirque was in between the mud-lot and the high-end circus, but it leaned more toward the latter, and what pushed it there was the quality and quantity of the signage. Everything was well marked and signed—where the restrooms were, where to enter, where to exit, seating, and things like “Don’t take video of the show.” They did great signage all around, and it added a lot of professionalism, especially for a show that’s torn down and put up quickly.
The attention to detail was also really, really good. Everything on the set, everything on the stage from the set to the props, was detailed very well.
“There was a facade that all the performers came out of that looked and felt like Hell’s Gate,” noted Crystal.
Paranormal Cirque has two important marketing components for any experience including haunts—uniqueness and a limited run. The have only a six-show run and, even if they come back to town, it probably won’t be the same show, so that takes advantage of the fear-of-missing-out factor. It’s a unique experience you can’t get any other time in any other place.
Another point—promotion doesn’t have to be expensive. Because Paranormal Cirque offers something unique that people want to see, and it has this big presence, promotion can be cheap using a social media campaign. I’m not saying they’re slacking, but they’re not engaging in complicated media buys. They’re not worrying about what size newspaper ad they should buy in the Times-Picayune. They’re skipping straight to things they know work for them. They focus on a few things and do those very, very well. The goal of their promotion clearly is to create a spark, light a fire, and let word of mouth take over. For every ad I saw for this show, there were three people who told me about it.
It’s important to create an air of mystery. The Paranormal Cirque, if you read the site, doesn’t explain too much about what it is. You know it’s a circus, you can find clips of some of the acts on the site, and they have a well-done teaser trailer that’s about a minute long. If you’re thinking about how to make a good teaser trailer for your haunt, check out the Paranormal Cirque teaser trailer. It’s worth a look.
We’ve talked in the past about content warnings in haunts and how you have to be up front about the content you have. You don’t want to trigger people with PTSD or other issues. Paranormal Cirque does this well. They have clear content warnings on their site, but they do it in a way that leaves the mystery about what the show is, what’s inside, and what’s going to happen.
Paranormal Cirque reminded me again about how critical it is for your performers to have presence. Presence is hard to define or explain, but we all know there are some people who, when they walk into a room, everyone has to look at them. That raven-haired woman was definitely one, and they put her front and center—not just during the opening but during many of the acts and afterward. She was in the front and center of the queue line for guests to have the photos taken with her and the rest of the cast.
“There was one performer who played several characters. If you want a quick study in how to change up your character, go and see him. It’s the change in demeanor and personality that goes with the character—those little things, like slouching or looking at your feet when you walk if you’re trying to play someone who’s unsure. Go see the show, and you’ll know who I’m talking about,” said Crystal.
The next point is about the importance of fun. Everything about this experience was geared toward being fun first and scary second. Some of the vulgar stuff might not be seen as fun, especially for the people being subjected to it, but, overall, the whole experience is geared toward fun. There are startles both in the haunted attraction and on stage, but everyone in there left with a smile on their face. You can tell a lot about what a crowd thinks by the pitch of the conversation when they exit. Conversations can have happy pitches or sad pitches. Everyone I heard had a happy pitch as they were leaving.
Lastly, focus on secondary money-earning opportunities. As I was leaving, I started thinking about how much we actually spent—and this was without purchasing souvenirs. I think our tickets were only about half of what we spent. There were concessions, photo ops, and face painting that cost money. Imagine if every customer at your haunt spent double their ticket price. Wouldn’t that be great? After visiting Paranormal Cirque, my final piece of advice for haunters is to think of ways to double your revenue by offering the things we’ve talked about in this blog—especially something unique that really adds to the experience.