Discovering the similarities between Renaissance Faires and haunted attractions
This article is based on Episode 13 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast. At first, I wasn’t going to do this episode, but something happened recently that I just couldn’t get out of my head, so I decided I just had to do it. I went to a Renaissance Faire a few days ago and took some video while I was there. I noticed some similarities between the Renaissance Faires and haunted attractions. If you follow my YouTube channel—which you probably should—you’ve already seen the video of the similarities.
After editing the video, I got to thinking I wanted to talk about this stuff rather than just show it. So, that’s what we’re doing here, and I’ve lovingly called it “Learning from Ren Rats and Fairie Folk.” When I use the terms Ren Rats and Fairie Folk, I say that with the utmost love and respect. There are so many similarities and overlaps between haunted attractions and Renaissance Faires. We’re really talking about our brothers and sisters in the immersive theater industry. I like using that phrase—the immersive theater industry.
The Similarities Between Renaissance Faires and Haunted Attractions
So, the Renaissance Faire I’m referring to is the Bay Area Renaissance Fair here in Tampa, also known as BARF. So, I went to BARF—sorry, that sounds kind of strange—and, while I was there, I had a chance to make a lot of observations and connections between what they do and what haunted attractions do. If you think about it, the Faire is similar to a haunt in that guests come expecting to be immersed. They come expecting to be taken away, to go somewhere else. However, unlike haunts, they aren’t forced through them. They live in these environments—not only the staff but the guests that show up in full costume.
And a lot of them do show up in full costume. They go to great efforts to look the part. Many of them go to great efforts to sound like they belong in this Renaissance world. Just like with haunted attractions, there are a lot of bad English accents. We used to say at Busch Gardens that if anybody wanted to be scary, they put on a really affected English accent and, somehow, that made them scarier. The same is true at Ren Faires, because “m’lord and m’ladies talketh in a strange manner.” That’s the first similarity I want to point out—bad English accents. They’re not all bad, but a lot of them are.
Second, guests expect to be immersed in a completely different world, a world where they don’t live in their normal day, and they want to come and play. They spend the day strolling and hanging out in a simpler time, and a time that had a more magical quality to it.
Creating a Theme and Sticking to It
I went to the Renaissance Faire right after Saint Patrick’s Day. Because of the Celtic history, everybody feels that just by throwing on something green, they somehow belong in the world of the Renaissance. I saw somebody in green dressed as one of the incarnations of the Joker—not the Heath Ledger version but the all-in-green version. I also saw Batman. The whole Marvel/DC universe comes crashing into Ren Faires, and sometimes it gets kinda confusing. I saw one fan there who was very much in the spirit but had done a mash-up of the Dark Knight and Batman, so I guess it was Batman as the Dark Knight, and their dog was dressed as Superman—or Krypto, I guess it is. It was odd, but it was fun.
There are very few rules at these Faires, and that’s different from haunts. Haunts tend to stay a little bit truer to their theme. I’ve done classes on sticking with the story or sticking with the theme, and questions like, “Where the hell did that clown come from?” come up quite often. Well, that happens at Ren Faires, too. Where the hell did Batman come from? And why is Krypto here? You just don’t get it. But, they’re in the spirit, and they feel they’re contributing.
The performers—the people who are actually officially volunteering or on payroll—do a phenomenal job of staying in character and creating an environment. Even when they’re on their lunch break, they set up a royal picnic where lords and ladies are having their own little high tea, and the performers who are playing folks at the lower end of the social strata are having their own grunge-fest picnic off to the side. The performers do this in full view of everyone, so they stay in character the whole time.
This is similar to what we did the first two years of the Vault of Souls. The idea there was that guests were coming into the world of these real characters and catching up with what they were doing. This is exactly what happens in the Ren Faire, so I thought that was really neat. It’s really about living as these characters in this world, and I find that intriguing and something that haunted attractions should continue to move toward more and more rather than just the, “When do I jump out to scare somebody?” The focus should be, “What do I do when they discover me?”
One of the things I absolutely loved at the Ren Faire was that a whole bunch of the characters got together and were playing rat golf, which takes place in and among the crowd. I’m sure there’s probably something dangerous about it, but it was really fun to watch. These characters all have staffs—not a group of people that work for them but large pieces of wood—and they have these stuffed, beanbag rats that they toss and hit with their sticks, trying to get them into a hole at the end of one of the pathways. They make the guests get out of the way, and rats were flying overhead. They have these weird, quirky rules like, if somebody drops their staff, everybody else has to drop their staff, and the person who dropped their staff first has to pick theirs up first. It’s just weird and wacky, but it makes sense somehow in the world of the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.
Dark Imagery Abounds at Ren Faires
Another thing I found a little bit surprising is that Ren Faires are loaded with really dark imagery. Much of it is dark magic and the symbolism of that—medallions made with pentagrams and tons and tons and tons of skulls. There’s skull imagery everywhere. Sometimes it’s just a skull and sometimes it’s a skull and crossbones with a pirate vibe to it. There are gypsy characters roaming around, and quite often they have talismans of skulls, feathers, and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of that vibe going on there. You can get stuff made with all that imagery as well. Some of the vendors have medallions and rings, and there was one vendor that had what appeared to be human skulls. I’m assuming they were fake, but they were covered and dressed in such a way that they looked as if they were wearing hair or headpieces. These were art displays. So, if you’re looking for something for your office or the lobby of your haunt, check out a Ren Faire. There’s some pretty cool stuff.
Then there were the armadillo shells. Who knew that was a thing? Someone had taken armadillo shells, emptied them, flipped them over, and added what looked like large vertebrae to make handles to create a serving dish to serve, I don’t know, road kill? The ones on display were filled with sand and had hat pins or hair garnish of some sort. It was a strange tent, that one.
Then there was the mermaid exhibit. Yes, they had a mermaid in a tank of water—with a beautiful silicone tail by the way. She’d dive down and pick up shells for kids, and that was really cool. In the queue for that show, there was a phenomenal banner of a mermaid kissing a skeleton, which was oddly creepy—and somehow appropriate for children of all ages?
And, of course, there are the fairies and ogres, but these are fanciful versions of these characters, almost a Disney cartoon version of an ogre. In fact, one of them we came across was sitting on the ground playing a small child’s guitar—or perhaps a baritone ukulele—and singing for tips. Now, I don’t know a whole lot of fairy tales about singing ogres, but this one was quite enjoyable, and he had the worst underbite I’ve ever seen in my life.
They Have to See You So You Can Scare ‘Em
There were some startle performers out and about. One was a quite good scarecrow statue performer who’d just lean up against a tree with a board across it and wait for people to come by. Then he’d follow them. This works even in broad daylight. Any haunt performer who says, “I can’t do my statue scare because they can see me,” well, that’s the point of the statue scare. They should see you, because if they don’t see you, you’re not going to scare them. It’s as simple as that.
There was also a camo performer—camo as in camouflage—in a big ghillie suit, doing his job in a family-friendly, playful way. His face was exposed, and he was wearing green makeup and talking to the children as they walked by. He was standing in a giant flower pot. Now, what that has to do with the Renaissance, I have no idea, but it was another one of those interesting connections between the Ren folks and the haunt people. We both have ghillie suits, and we both have camo.
Fairy Ears, Leather, and Corsets, Anyone?
Speaking of costuming, if you’re looking for costuming for your haunt, and you have a Renaissance festival happening nearby, definitely check it out. They have everything from masks to horns to fairy and ogre ears. It’s a great place for ears. There was one vendor there that had basic latex prosthetic ears or ear caps and, as part of the purchase price, they’d cut them down, mount them, and paint them to match your skin tone. I saw some very realistic fairy ears throughout the course of the day. They also made hard plastic ones that clip on, like ear cuffs, and those look really cool.
The majority of masks on sale were either carved of wood—which would make them a little difficult to wear—or made from leather. A lot of leather masks were wonderfully cool. There was one Venetian mask vendor, so if you’re doing a high-glamour, Venetian ball that goes horribly wrong, you could find your masks there. The horns were designed to tie on your head and then you put your hair over them. They were sculpted quite nicely and were in all shapes and sizes. So, if you’re looking for basic horns, the Renaissance Faire isn’t a bad source.
Besides masks, if you’re looking for anything leather—from boots to gauntlets to jackets to bottle holders, the Faire is a great opportunity to check out leatherworkers. And I’ve never seen so many places to buy kilts. Utili-kilt, kilts, kilts, and more kilts. Maybe it’s because it’s a Ren Faire in Florida and it’s hot, and people are like, “If I’ve got to be dressed up, and I ain’t wearing pants, so buy me a kilt.” Because the Ren festival was happening on St. Patrick’s Day, maybe they thought there would be some kilt sales going on. If you’re a kilt-wearer, please comment on our Facebook page and help me understand the whole kilt thing. I should probably just buy one, wear it to the next trade show, and people would say, “We told you. See how comfortable they are?”
One of the things I found pretty much around every corner were corsets. If you have dominatrix or pirate wench characters, or any event that requires corseted women, check out the Ren Faires, because they are lots and lots of vendors that sell that kind of thing. You’ll be sure to find the right color, fit, style, design, and whatever. There are lots of women modeling said corsets all over the place.
It’s All About the Actors
Probably the most important thing about Ren Faires is the actors, many of whom also work at haunted attractions. It’s certainly true at BARF. In fact, some of the actors I’ve worked with for many years perform there—as everything from an Italian or Spanish priest to a fop to a barmaid. They’re all over the place. It’s kind of fun because, when they’re in character, they’ll say “Hi,” and give me a big hug. They’ll try to stay in character, but they don’t necessarily know what character. They don’t know if they should go into something creepy and scary or just stay in the character they’re playing. There’s a lot of overlap between local haunt actors and Ren Rats. It’s great, because it gives them the opportunity to hone their skills.
Just like in the haunted attraction industry, there are some great Renaissance actors and some not-so-great Renaissance Faire people. They’re just not that strong, and they don’t necessarily understand that each interaction with guests has a beginning, a middle, and an end. They tend to play inside jokes to make other performers laugh. But, for the most part, the actors stay in character and try to shun the people who do that.
A Side Note about Smells
I’d like to talk a little bit here about actors, Ren Faires, and personal hygiene. In a Ren Faire, just like in a haunted attraction, actors are usually wearing heavy, uncomfortable costumes that hold in heat and moisture. The costume basically creates a little personal steamer for you, especially out in the sun. There were moments at this most recent Ren Faire where I’d walk by people—both staff and guests—and there would be a wafting aroma that brought me instantly back to the haunt break room at 2:30 in the morning when all the costumes were hanging on the rack with fans blowing on them to try to dry them out. I immediately recognized that smell. Most people don’t find it a pleasant one, but it does bring back some really good memories for me.
There are people who’d say, “Yeah, but that’s what makes a good monster. Monsters shouldn’t smell clean. They shouldn’t smell like deodorant or body wash.” Maybe, but if an actor has wretched body odor and/or bad breath, it takes me out of the story for a moment. I’d rather not notice any smell than notice a bad human smell, because that immediately says to me, “This is an actor who needs to bathe,” not, “This is a smelly zombie character.”
This personal hygiene thing is an ongoing discussion. I’ve had it at pretty much every convention I’ve ever been to where someone says, “I intentionally eat onions and blue cheese before I perform so my breath smells like I’m decaying from the inside.” That’s not my vibe. I’m reminded of a phrase that Sir Lawrence Olivier once said to Dustin Hoffman, who was very much a character actor. Dustin came in to film a scene and stated, “I wanted to make sure I looked horrible and tired, so I stayed up all night and drank like a fish. I’m hungover and exhausted, but I wanted to make the scene right.” Lawrence Olivier looked at him and said, “Next time, try acting, my dear boy.” I feel the same way about personal hygiene. I don’t think zombies smell like stinky people. I think zombies smell like decay and, let’s face it, none of us want to bathe ourselves in that scent pop. I got a little bit off topic there, but it’s an issue at both Renaissance Faires and in haunted attractions.
Everything Works Together to Create Immersion
Back to what I learned from Ren Rats and Fairie Folk—what was most impactful and something we all can learn from is how integrated all the departments and elements are at Renaissance Faires. Haunters can definitely learn from this. When someone pours you a mug of mead or cider—even though you know it’s coming out of a spigot that’s connected to a big keg behind the wall—that person is just as much in character as the person playing the king, queen, duchess, the various and sundry knights, the ogres, or whatever. Just because they’re in the snack bar, that doesn’t mean they’re not in character. The young lady selling us incense was just as much in character as some of the people in the living chess match.
It’s really, really important to recognize that taking that level of immersion beyond the performers and into the sales people and the ticket vendors and everyone else allows guests to remain in that playfully creative world. That seamlessness helps the overall experience and makes guests feel even more comfortable.
I also noticed there were very few people who were getting angry. At haunted attractions, when you put alcohol into someone and then scare them and make them look foolish in front of their girlfriends, they sometimes get violent—or at least angry and upset. In the entire day that we spent at the Ren Faire, we saw just one family that got fussy with each other. Everybody else was in a really good mood. Even after being out in the sun for ten hours, people were still enjoying the fantasy. They were enjoying the seamlessness of being somewhere else, of being in a place where magic could really exist, of being in a place where we imagine those characters we love so much in Harry Potter might be just around the next corner. Or, better yet, we can become them. We can dress like them. That elevates the moment to something completely outside our day-to-day existence, and that’s what people are searching for.
“Immersive Theater is More Real Than the Real World”
For some people, immersive theater is more real than the real world. I know that’s true at Renaissance festivals, and I know haunters are very much like that too. They’re more committed to the characters they play in the haunt than they are to their day jobs. It’s an escape, but, for some people, it’s an escape that seems more real than real. I know some of you understand what I mean.
We—as haunt owners, haunt designers, haunt actors, and haunt fans—can help make haunts better by looking at that immersiveness, by looking at that seamlessness, and making it something special.
Here’s a perfect example. There was a booth at the Renaissance Faire that was selling pet dragons. They weren’t anything particularly special. They appeared to be the same rubber dragons you can buy anywhere, except the woman selling them had made armor for them out of pleather. After you bought one, you took it into a little, curtained-off area in her booth, and she’d sprinkle it with some kind of black-light-reactive glitter. A black light would come on, and that brought your little dragon to life. This elevated the purchase of a rubber lizard toy to a ritual. It made it something that purchasers remembered. You may be thinking that might work great for kids, but the adults were just as into it as the children were. It’s the same idea as putting the heart in your Build-A-Bear. It’s creating an elevated moment that seamlessly melds entertainment and merchandise. This is something that haunters can continue to improve upon.
There are more and more haunts out there, and some folks are doing them beautifully. They’re making the whole experience—from the moment people walk in to the moment they leave—based around one theme. Everybody is playing the same game, everyone is living in the same world, everyone is speaking the same language. From my experience with haunted attractions, this is something that can be ramped up to make haunts even more special and real for guests—living in the moment and creating a new world.
If you’d like to see some of what I discovered at the Renaissance Faire, once again, please check out my new YouTube channel or our Facebook group. Just click to join if you’re not already a member. One of us will approve you, and you can chat with all of us there. It’s becoming a neat little group of people. We’re finding out where everybody’s from, receiving comments about the show, making new friends and connections, and coming up with new ideas. And don’t forget to visit my website: scottswenson.com.