by Scott Swenson
This blog is based on Episode 36 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast, which came right on the heels of Episode 35. I wasn’t planning on another episode so soon, but I wanted to talk about the after party following Halloween. You know, everybody wants to start singing, “The party’s over,” and they’re yelling about how we’re going into Christmas too early. One reason for feeling this way is because the cast and crew and other people involved in your haunt often become more like family than your actual family. These are the people you’ve spent all this time with in September and October, and now it seems like you can’t ive without them.
The Original After Party—Screamers Ball
What inspired this particular episode is an event here in Tampa called the Screamers Ball. Now, Screamers Ball is a tradition here, and it originally started as a way for people who worked Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens to get together and celebrate Halloween, because they were usually working right up until Halloween and often on Halloween night. Traditionally, this event takes place a week or two weeks after Howl-O-Scream closes. It started relatively humbly as a gathering of specifically Howl-O-Scream actors who would get together and party, have a costume contest, and get absolutely obliterated. This is how Screamers Ball, run by Jay Kraus, came into being.
As you know, Howl-O-Scream is a theme-park event, but the party is completely independent of Busch Gardens. It’s run by outside people and has absolutely no affiliation with the park. Everyone who works Howl-O-Scream is invited and, what’s really cool, is Screamers Ball has expanded to include haunters from other haunts as well. By recognizing that haunters are haunters are haunters, Screamers Ball makes of point of including everyone from haunts in the area. Year after year, Jay invites me to come back and either host or judge the costume contest because of my affiliation with Howl-O-Scream. And, because of my affiliation with multiple other local haunts, people have started to come to Screamers Ball from haunts like Undead in the Water. The former cast of The Vault of Souls is there, and, of course, alumni from Howl-O-Scream, because this event has been going on for many, many years. This got me to thinking about how casts can find ways throughout the year to hang out together. Because this isn’t only good for them, it actually benefits the owner of the haunt.
Before I get into too much of that, let me tell you a little bit more about Screamers Ball, which was held at a huge nightclub this year. It took place in a smaller place in previous years, but this time it was at The Ritz Ybor in Tampa. This is a big club. It has a huge stage and a big dance floor. It’s also got two outside bars and a small balcony, as well. It’s a former theater that’s been transformed into a club that hosts everything from rappers to electronic dance music. It was a much better venue for Screamers Ball than in previous years. Yes, people do have to pay money to attend, but that’s because the outlay for this event is gigantic.
This year at Screamers Ball, not only did they have the costume contest, they also had a live band—one of my favorite local Tampa bands called Actual Bank Robbers. They played for about three hours, and then the costume contest happened. There was a DJ spinning in one of the front bars and an on-stage DJ who picked up after the costume contest with dancers and a laser-light show. I mean, it was just a huge party, a phenomenal way to put a capper on the end of the Halloween season.
Create Your Own After Party
Screamers Ball is great way for all of us in Tampa to celebrate multiple haunts closing, and I think this is something that can be done in other markets. I know that in the Midwest, for example, you can’t fling a dead cat without hitting a haunted attraction. So, it’s important to see if it’s possible to offer a big, end-of-season party for all haunters to bring people together and break down those walls of competition. Of course, friendly competition is healthy, and it keeps us all on our toes, but it’s also important to recognize that we’re all in this together. When we all work together—and, more importantly, when we all play together and get drunk together—we have a much better time.
If nobody in your neighborhood or your market is doing this, my advice is to look into it. You can research “Screamers Ball Tampa” to get some ideas from what Jay does. If you have the opportunity to do this in your market, it’s a great way to share the reason we all haunt. Haunt owners, I guess, do it for the money, but I think haunters do it because they love to do it. I know there are some markets out there where there are folks who don’t want to play nice with each other and think that so-and-so is out to get such-and-such. Quite honestly, that’s just a crock of crap. So, grow up, get over that. My hope is that this kind of event would do the opposite—it would allow people to lighten up and see we can all work together.
As I’ve said over and over and over again during my 23 years of haunting, haunters need to support other haunters, because this benefits all of us. When somebody gets scared at a good haunt, their first instinct isn’t to go back to that same haunt but to go to another haunt. Partying together it’s a great way to bond the casts, crews, and other haunt personnel. It should also help with cast retention, because they know there will be this huge party at the end. This makes for a stronger community of really good haunt performers.
How to Keep Your Crew Involved in Your Haunted Attraction Year-round
Another question I was thinking about is how to keep your crew involved in your haunted attraction throughout the year. Let’s face it, every haunter wants Halloween to happen on the 31st of every month. I think it’s important to give those people an opportunity to continue to bond with you, your haunt, and your haunt community. I came up with some ideas for how you can do that.
One way to keep your haunt alive all year long is through social media. Create groups, make them private if you want to so your cast has exclusivity, and they can talk about what’s worked well for them. In addition, there are many haunts that do parties throughout the year—Christmas, Valentine’s Day—to bring their key people together. You can also recruit people from previous years to help you market your auditions for the following year. Just keep the lines of communication open in whatever way, and keep that haunt family alive throughout the course of the year.
Another thing you can do is plan group outings to events like Midsummer Scream or Spooky Empire or Transworld and, definitely, HAuNTcon. If you get a group together to go to HAuNTcon in New Orleans, there are seminars that can help you improve aspects of your haunt like the quality of your actors and technicians, and it can be a great bonding experience. Transworld does exactly the same thing in St Louis, and Midsummer Scream does the same thing in Long Beach, California. Midwest Haunters Convention is probably more conducive to the group-outing thing, because it’s a big old party. It’s also more focused on education than Transworld, which is more focused on the trade show floor. It’s definitely important for owners to go to Transworld.
The IAAPA Expo just happened and, although it’s focused on theme parks, IAAPA can still be a great opportunity for you. You can see what’s happening in the other parts of the industry and figure out things like, “You know what, if we sold mini donuts at our haunt, we could make some extra cash.” It’s great if you can take your cast or at least you core crew with you, because you can divide and conquer. Your group can spread out and see what all is out there. The trade show floor is gi-mungus, and there’s always some sort of seminar on seasonal entertainment or haunted attractions. This year, I’ll be teaching a seminar, which is all about trends in haunted attractions and theme parks, past, present, and future—the basic trends of where we’ve come from, where we are now, and where we can or seem to be going.
As an aside, I want to mention that theme parks around the world are growing by leaps and bounds. I was having an interesting conversation about this with my friend, Philip Hernandez, of the Haunted Attraction Network. He just returned from a tour of theme parks in Asia. This geographic area is an exploding market, and the reason it’s an exploding market is because these cultures don’t necessarily have Halloween like we do here in the United States. Canada is kind of the same way. Canada is continuing to just explode when it comes to celebrating Halloween and doing haunted attractions.
Have Your Team Make Special Appearances Throughout the Year
So, back to ideas for keeping your haunt team together year-round. An approach that I think is super smart was done—and is perhaps still being done—by the folks at Netherworld. They have a core group of actors, makeup artists, and costumers that get together and do special appearances throughout the year. They’ve been invited to the opening nights of specific horror films locally and have shown up at charity events as zombies or evil clowns or whatever, all representing Netherworld. Now, not every market can support that, but clearly Atlanta can, and it seems to work for them. You could have your core group of monsters show up—perhaps slightly less bloody or with a few less feet of skin peeled back from their musculature. At Howl-O-Scream, for example, we used to bring some of our Howl-O-Scream performers out during our summer event to promote our Halloween event. This was not only fun, but it gave us a chance to perform and get our little Halloween fix in the middle of the year when we were already ramping up to get it done.
Recognize Members of Your Crew When They Go Above and Beyond
Every cast has what I’ll call a cruise director. It’s great if that person can reach out to congratulate a member of the cast for something cool they did or share with the entire group via social media or an email chain things that happen throughout the course of the year.
One of the things I think is beneficial for haunt owners to do—and, again, this isn’t a new idea—is to post event awards that recognize those people who went above and beyond. One of the best ways to do this is to have the entire cast, crew, and staff vote on the different categories. That way, it isn’t, “Oh, Bob is the owner’s favorite, so he’s always going to get that award.” No, it’s the cast saying to someone, “We recognize that you really went above and beyond.” This year at HAuNTcon, for example, there was a new set of awards sponsored by the Haunted Attraction Network and Seasonal Entertainment Source Magazine. Any time we can recognize those excellent people in our industry or even in our own haunt, that brings us all closer together.
In many cases, casts are made up of people who perform not just at haunted attractions but also work in the world of theater, the world of film, the world of standup comedy, or the world of improv. So, make sure your haunt has some kind of digital bulletin board where people can post what they’re doing. In this way, the haunt crew can come out and support them. If your haunt has t-shirts or jackets or hats or badges or pins or whatever, put those on and come out in force.
Recently, I did a spoken-word event at the Tampa Theatre here and, when I looked out into the audience, I saw three or four people from Undead in the Water. I was like, “That is so cool.” It bonded them, and it bonded me with them. So, give your team the opportunity to support each other throughout the year.
Get Your Group Together and Do Charity Work
If you don’t have a cruise director, or the haunt owner doesn’t have time to recognize people because they’re trying to earn enough money to open the haunt again the following year, it’s equally beneficial for the whole group to get together and do some sort of charity event. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to have everybody spend an afternoon or a weekend or a week working for Habitat for Humanity? They might build a real house for someone who came to their haunted attraction. Doing charity work together bonds people, it keeps the name of your haunt out there, and it also makes you feel good. Imagine doing that with your fellow cast members.
The members of a haunted attraction could sponsor a mile of roadway and do road cleanup. It’s not terribly glamorous, but wouldn’t it be cool to be driving down a highway and see it being cleaned up by a bunch of zombies or crazy clowns? I think that would be really entertaining—as long as people don’t become distracted and drive off the road. This kind of activity is something that would bring people together and give them the opportunity to continue to work as a cast.
One last thing that I think would be really beneficial is having your cast, crew, staff, or even fans submit artwork—whether it’s photos from the previous year or something they’ve drawn or painted or whatever kind of fan art—and consider that as part of the marketing or pre-marketing for the following year. In this way, you can build a whole collection of work, which gives you social media fodder and stuff to put up on your website. You may find someone who’s just breathtakingly amazing and comes up with an idea that’s perfect. Again, this brings your company together.
So, my main point is to do things to celebrate your organization—cast, crew, makeup artists, costume people, security (don’t forget security)—and keep them together throughout the course of the year. Oh, and, including marketing people is essential. I’ll give you a perfect example. When I met the guy who does the social media for Undead in the Water for the first time, I was able to take him through the haunt. He found images he’d have completely missed had I not been there and included him in that way. By making him part of the experience, he was able to do his job so much better. So, keep your marketing folks involved in all of these between-season events. They’ll probably post about it or keep the website active to make sure people don’t completely forget about your haunt.
If you have any ideas I haven’t mentioned, please go to Facebook, find the Scott in the Dark group, join it, and share them there. Or you can go to AScottintheDark.com, and there’s a link that takes you straight to the Facebook group. It’s a public group. You can share your ideas, you can share what’s worked, and you can share pictures of your cast doing fun things together.