Jonathan and Crystal explain why the first room is so important for setting the atmosphere and expectations in your haunt.
This blog post is based on Episode 181 of our Haunt Weekly podcast. That episode came to me in a dream. It’s not often I actually get to say in a podcast. I’d woken up from a bad dream, went back to sleep, and then had a dream where I was explaining to a new actor the importance of the first room. We were sticking the actor in the first room, which I don’t know why we’d do that with a new actor. I spent a great deal of time explaining the importance of the function of the first room in a haunt. I woke up and thought, “Wow, that’s a really great idea for a podcast.” So, that’s why we’ll be talking about the first room. For the following podcast, which would be on the importance of the final room, I was already working on show notes. I thought I could bring in something about throughput after that, combining everything into one thesis statement over a month of episodes. Crystal thought that was a great idea.
Why the First Room is So Important
We often hear the myths that the first room is the most important room, just like breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
“Usually, it’s paired. The first and last rooms are the most important rooms in the haunt,” added Crystal.
I remember something from every haunt, but it’s rarely from the first room. An exception: Evil Intentions, where the first room is the seance room. But what I really remember was the false ending with the chainsaws. Then you turn the corner and there’s this giant church facade out of nowhere. That was really memorable.
The first room sets the tone and expectation for the haunt. The room’s job is to get people ready for the rest of the haunt. You’re gearing your customers up. Yeah, the queue line does that some, but this is the walking through the haunt part. Of course, if you do an outdoor haunt, you can substitute the word “scene” for “room” as you read this.
Approach One: Use it to Explain the Rules of the Haunt
The first room is important in terms of the storytelling, so let’s go through the approaches for the first room. Approach one is the “rules” room. The place we see this done well is Rise. You get in the queue line and, from there, you get broken into whatever your group is. Sometimes we get paired up with other people, and sometimes we don’t. It depends on how busy the night is and who’s around. Then, they funnel you into a closed room with an automated display of the rules. It’s a very cool effect. They do it in blood on a mirror. They really spend a lot of time and money setting this up. It breaks down the rules, there’s a little jump scare thing, and they send you on your way. The rear of the room opens, and you’re into the haunt proper.
“Lots of first rooms do this with characters,” Crystal pointed out.
I’ve also seen it done with video packages. The problem with this approach is that it makes it almost impossible to control throughput. You have to relay the rules, and if you don’t do that in the queue line, on the tickets, or in some other way, you have to do it in this room. The rules take a preset amount of time even if you’re using an interactive character. You can’t skip or bypass the rules. People are also super excited as they wait for someone to pull back the velvet rope and let them into the front door of the haunted house. That moment of excitement is quenched when they have to stop and go over the rules. The public needs to get re-excited all over again.
“The other thing I don’t like about this,” Crystal added, “is that you’re using a character to read the rules, but that character is probably better used somewhere else.” For example, in the queue line or as an actor inside of the actual haunt doing scares. It seems like a misuse of that person.”
This is especially a misuse of a really good interactive actor. You’re probably going to put your best interactive actor in this role if you’re using a human. You’ll have that person who’s really good at popping the crowd, moving through, wheeling and dealing, and jiving. You’re going to have that person there, which means they’re not going to be in the queue line entertaining people who are waiting. They’re not going to be elsewhere in the haunt setting up a scene or something. Those kinds of actors are really hard to come by in my experience.
Just to summarize: If you’re going to do present the rules in the first room, make it cool the way Rise uses the blood mirror effect or have a good character and incorporate some storytelling into it. I saw this once in The Mortuary, but they haven’t done it since.
Crystal added, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character give rules where it could have been just a sign. Every actor that’s given me the rules worked it into their character and their storyline.”
My favorite character for that was the one at Insanitarium. The little pixie girl they had was great—steampunky.
“She was an inventor, a tinkerer.”
She was a) adorable, b) a great character, and c) actually demonstrated their touch policy in a way that was useful. It included: “We will not touch you, but we can touch you with things.” She had a feather on a cat toy and rubbed it all over one of our noses. Helpful, but also interactive, so that wasn’t too bad.
In general, I don’t want the first thing I do in a haunt to be read a list of rules. Being creative with this is a great way to set the tone for an attraction, and it gives you a little more flexibility with timing and throughput control. If you have a great actor or actress that’s able to make those adjustments on the fly, it’s really cool.
“I was just thinking about how ingenious Asylum is from this perspective, going back to the demonstrating that they’re going to touch you, because, in their first room, they do,” said Crystal. “This made it more…intense.”
Second Approach: Make it Interactive
The second approach is interactivity. If you’re going to have an interactive room, you have to have your best character actor or your best interactive actor in there—there’s no alternative. This works better at highly interactive haunts. For example, NecroManor in Shreveport had a really interactive first room, and it was a fairly engaging character, too. He did a tiny little magic trick for us—neat stuff. He held you there, and then there was no other interactivity in the rest of the haunt. It was like it was all front-loaded. It was actually a fine haunt, just a little short for my taste. It set me up for an expectation it couldn’t meet. The rest of it was just a walk-through haunt.
“So, you’re saying your first room should be impressive but balanced?” asked Crystal.
Third Approach: Spectacle
Representative, yes, but what’s important here is approach number three, which is spectacle. At 13th Gate, they have the hellevators, which are really good examples of what I call spectacle. You’ve been already broken up into your group. That’s moment when I feel I’m actually in the haunt, when I’m with my haunt group.
Crystal interjected, “I don’t consider the hellevators to be the first room, because, on busy nights, they bypass them. So that, to me, makes it not the official first room.”
That makes sense. Terror on the Coast never bypassed their giant opening doors. The idea is to do something really impressive that leaves people in awe, whether it’s giant doors, a very cool scene, something that’s unique and memorable in the beginning. What you do can have a major impact on your throughput or space. 13th Gate uses the hellevators, and that’s genius. If it gets too busy, however, they skip it. You just go around it. There’s a little bypass. I’ve never actually had to take the bypass, because we never go late in the season.
“And we always go on a Thursday, because Thursdays are less busy than weekends,” Crystal pointed out.
I love Thursdays at the 13th Gate. My tip for going to 13th Gate: Go on a Thursday. It will be busy but, compared to what you’ll see on Friday or Saturday, you’re in luck. Keep in mind how this can impact throughput. The year we went to Terror on the Coast, they had abysmal throughput. There’s no polite way to say it. It was an incredibly long wait in line for not a very long haunt. After 90 minutes of a barely moving line—with all that time waiting in line without much queue line entertainment, food, drink, or anything—there’s not much spectacle you can pull out that’s going to really impress me at that point.
“I’m hoping that, in the past few years since we’ve been, they’ve worked out some of the bugs.”
When haunts are criticized, they either acknowledge it and say they’re going to work on it, or they get pissed off. Terror on the Coast admitted their problems, and that’s a good sign. They’re generally taking criticism well.
Fourth Approach: Do a Show
Approach number four: Do a show. Disney does this. We’ve also seen this is Hell’s Gate and Statesville Prison. The basic idea is not to break attendees up into groups but to form one large group. Instead of going into the haunt in groups of six, you’re in a group of perhaps 60 that fills up the room, and you have a show. It’s similar to the spectacle, but it involves not breaking up into groups first. This doesn’t really have any impact on throughput or spacing. You know how many people can fit into that room, and you know how long the show takes, so that becomes your throughput. The actual spacing and all that is going to have to be handled elsewhere—probably after the show. Both Statesville and Hells Gate had very memorable shows.
“And they had great throughput. We didn’t run into a group in front of us either,” Crystal remembered.
The spacing is controlled throughout the haunt in a very ingenious way. I think every haunter should do the behind-the-scenes tour at Hell’s Gate.
“We’re not going to give it away. You just have to go—either that or get your own private tour,” added Crystal.
Going back to the first room, you run the risk of front loading good stuff in the haunt, and you also run the risk of setting expectations that aren’t met. I’d say neither Hell’s Gate nor Statesville did that, because the haunts themselves were amazing. The show was probably the most memorable part, but I don’t remember going through the rest of the haunt thinking it was other than advertised.
Fifth Approach: Make Use of Dead Space to Enhance Atmosphere
Approach five is to make use of dead space to enhance atmosphere. I see this at a lot of charity haunts and smaller haunts. Chamber of Horrors did it locally. In this scenario, your first sequence is a long winding path—a hallway—that leads into your first room. If possible, the pathway twists and turns. By the time the velvet rope is pulled back and you go into the haunt, I’ve naturally self-hyped. People will go into the first sequence with their guard up, and this lets them drop it just a tiny bit. They hit the first room, and you nail them.
This doesn’t fix throughput or spacing—you’re going to have to handle that with your queue line. Many haunts will say that’s the best way to handle it. You can just radio the guy at the front of the line say, “We need to start letting in groups of eight instead of just six. We need to let them in every 30 seconds, not every minute.” You can do that. Is this approach good? No, I don’t think so. I don’t really like it, but it’s a way to manage the flow into that first room. Another thing it does is avoid runouts.
“That’s the main reason we have our little entrance, because Jonathan was knocked down to the ground once before we figured that out,” Crystal said with a laugh.
Sixth Approach: Make it Just Another Room
Approach six, and the final one we’ll be discussing, is to make your first room just a room. Evil Intentions, Netherworld, and your humble narrators basically have just a room. You can decide not to do anything super special with the first room but just have it be a solid room that fits in with the rest of the haunt nicely—similar size and importance—but nothing particularly special about it. If you aren’t telling a story or a narrative, you could swap it out with other rooms, and you’d be fine.
This doesn’t control throughput or spacing, so you might want something to handle on the queue line side anyway, but it keeps expectations perfectly where they should be and enables people to jump right into the haunt. You may not have room to put in a spectacle of any stripe, and you may not have room to put in a long, snaky hallway. I think of it more as a classic, spooky-house style haunt.
“I’d agree with that.”
How to Determine Which Approach is Best for Your Haunt
So, which approach is best? Of course, there’s no one answer to that. It depends on your needs. If you have throughput issues or if you’re struggling—especially on your busier nights—to get everyone through in a timely fashion and get those dollar bills, you’re going to need a first room that allows more flexibility. You’re either going to have to do a first room that’s just a room or a spectacle you can adjust on the fly. You aren’t going to want to have it be a rules room, for example, because you’re going to have a difficult time adjusting your throughput and crank people through. You can’t have that conga-line system. Every haunt should be designed with the idea that if you absolutely have to, you can go for the conga-line approach and still be effective. Dead Rising went with a highly interactive first room that bled into the middle of the haunt, which is a more traditional walkthrough, and then exited with another interactive room, so their first and last rooms were highly interactive.
“It made for nice bookends,” said Crystal.
A good use of space is to have a haunt that may not be much bigger than our garage, but make it a full, haunted-house experience. We were in Dead Rising a good ten minutes or so, and that was only a little over 2000 square feet, which isn’t big, as haunts go.
Crystal agreed. “That would be a comfortable size for us to scale up to.”
If you’re not a very interactive haunt, you probably don’t want to have a very interactive front room. You might want to go for a traditional spectacle room, or you might want to throw something wild and dangerous but not super interactive or character-driven. I’d want something where I could be flexible with my throughput, no matter what. We’ve seen what happened at Terror on the Coast when you have a line and you can’t adjust your throughput because of that first sequence—the first room. As impressive as it is, there was no reason for us to be in that queue line as long as we were. Because they had that great entrance sequence, they couldn’t speed up the line.
“Yeah, unless they just leave the doors open,” offered Crystal.
You’d think if they were going to do that, they would have done it the night we were there and the queue line was totally full.
This raises one of the issues with the spectacle-style first room. If you do have to bypass it on your busiest night—and I’m not saying that’s a bad idea—you might have customers who are disappointed, because they came for the hellavators. The hellavors are this giant pair of doors in the woods. It was cool, but it choked their throughput. We realized they were only letting a group in every two minutes or something, and that was why.
So, yeah, be thinking about your throughput needs. The first real room in our haunt is just a room. We take the “just a room” approach due to space constrictions. We only have five zones, and we’re already at pretty much maximum throughput on Halloween night.
“You could have a combination of approaches, like at Rise, where they have a room with the rules and a long hallway before the first real scene,” added Crystal. “I think that would count as a dead space, because there are no real scares there.”
It’s an attic sequence that morphs into the rest of the attic sequence—kinda hard to describe. It was an old house, basically, and it was cool how, when you left the rules room, you start out in a fairly undecorated area and then it slowly morphs into this old, demolished house. Then you arrive in the first room, which was actually a really cool effect.
“For dead space, you have to have at least three turns,” said Crystal.
I don’t think they have three turns at Rise. I think it’s just one hallway. I’d say, three turns with no real scares. It might seem like a crazy amount, but if you’re a haunt that deals with and caters heavily to children, you’re going to have people who bolt and try to run you over. The hallway gives them an opportunity to calm down and build their confidence before going in. Sometimes it pays to pull your punches a little bit in the beginning. You can get them later. If you’re a big enough haunt you can crescendo. If you pop really high to begin with, where do you crescendo? You’ve got to drop off immediately so you can crescendo back up. If you pop really big in your first room, what are your second and third room going to be like? You’ve got to have some variance there to have a really compelling experience.
Also, look at your second and third rooms to figure out if you’re going to have to start big, taper off, and then come back up. Is one going to be the downbeat, basically, of the symphony? That’s one way to think about it. Find an intro that fits your specific needs.
Haunting is an artistic expression. There’s no right or wrong to this. The only rights or wrongs have to do with safety. You can make a compelling first room with just about any style or strategy, including nothing at all. Pipe in some crickets, pipe in some ambiance, make it eerie, but don’t do the scares there. Let people adjust.
“It would be cool,” Crystal concluded, “if you felt like you were walking into a dream—you start out in dark and, as you walk, it gets brighter and more decorated, and there’s music pumping into the background.”
Then, you do the last turn, you’re in a room, and boom, you’re off to the races on the story and the haunt.