The Four Levels of Haunt

The Importance of Targeting Your Haunt to One of the Four Demographic Audiences

Welcome to the Dark! Here we are at the crux of the Halloween season. Haunters are probably not even going to have time to read this because they’re running around like crazy putting the last-minute spatters of blood and touches of pustulent ooze on their creations. So, why am I even bothering to write this? It’s because I need the respite. I’ve been incredibly busy, but in a very different way.

Since I’ve become an independent contractor, I’ve been able to do a lot of different kinds of experiences, especially haunted experiences. Many of you know that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, I was doing the Vault of Souls in Tampa, and I was concerned this year that I wouldn’t have a haunt to call home. As luck would have it, I’m actually consulting on three different haunted attractions right now, and that’s what prompted me to write this particular blog.

I want to talk about the different levels, the different layers, of haunts. Let’s face it, there are a ton of different haunts out there for a ton of different audiences. I’m not talking about things that are more scary, less scary, more bloody, less bloody, what’s too much, or what’s too little. I’m going to talk about the different audiences that a haunt can appeal to. You may or may not agree, and that’s completely fine, and you may have a different experience, which is also completely fine. I just want to share my opinion with you.

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Lamp pumpkin for witch

The Four Haunt Audiences

The way I see it, there are four, basic audiences for haunt—you can do a kids’ Halloween event, you can do a Halloween event that targets tweens, you can do a Halloween event that targets what I call teens-plus (which is basically 18 to 35… or maybe 40, maybe 55, maybe 65, or, depending on how much you’re into it, maybe 85 or 95) or you can do an adult, grown-up, Halloween event. What’s important to be aware of is that each one of those demographics views Halloween differently.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the era where Halloween meant trick-or-treating, going out and raising hell, and having a good time doing it. We didn’t have to worry about questions like: Is it safe for kids to be out after dark? Is there going to be a horrible drug in the candy? Will somebody kidnap us? We’d go out, right after school, on Halloween, and our parents would give us our curfew time. Of course, I grew up in Chicago, so it was dark at four o’clock in October. We’d be out until whatever the curfew was, and that time changed as I got older. We’d be all over our neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods getting as much candy as we possibly could. I wasn’t a toilet-paper-tossing hooligan. I wasn’t that kind of kid. I was a fat kid, and I was more interested in getting candy. I didn’t want to waste time and money on tossing toilet paper over trees, spraying shaving cream on cars, and that sort of thing. I just wanted to spend as much time as I could getting as much candy as I could, filling up that damn pillowcase. That was a fat kid’s Halloween. It was probably also the most exercise I got all year, walking all over our neighborhoods. So, I have a warm-and-fuzzy memory of what Halloween was all about.

As many of you have heard me say, as a kid, I was a total wimp when it came to scary stuff. I was fascinated by it, but I wouldn’t even watch horror movies when I was young. It wasn’t until my friends tricked me into watching Creature from the Black Lagoon that I realized, “You know what? There’s a zipper in that costume, and I could be scarier than that.” That’s when I became fascinated with creating haunt and horror. I went through the phase where I couldn’t get enough horror films. For the longest time, I liked the cheesiest, sleaziest, bloodiest, and dumbest horror films, but then I got into the more intellectual things and became far more posh.

Anyway, as I was saying, each of us has a demographic we fall into or identify with. I’m not going to force you to be categorized into your age demo. If you self-identify as a tween, no matter how old you are, then, by all means, please do so. Since I’ve had the great pleasure of working on haunted attractions for each of these demographics, I thought it would be fun to break it down and talk about the individual needs of each one. Each level requires different stuff.

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Halloween Events for Kids

Let’s start with kids. If you’re doing a haunted attraction for the wee ones, that’s great. I think it’s really important, because it trains the next generation of hauntgoers, it keeps Halloween a vibrant holiday, and it’s something families can do together no matter how young your kids are. Now, I don’t have kids other than Lucy the Demon Dog, and she won’t go trick-or-treating. She just wants to chase cars. So, I have to indulge my kid side by working on kid events.

Years ago, I did a little bit of work with SeaWorld Spooktacular, which is a wonderful, child-based event. It’s all based on fantasy under the ocean, because it was at SeaWorld. It was a ton of fun for toddlers. I’ve also done some work with Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo on their Halloween events over the years and written animal shows for them. This year, I was able to do their preproduction, so I came up with the 30,000-foot view of what the event could be so they could get everything bid out. I didn’t work on the installation, just the pre-event stuff. They’re straddling two different demographics, kids and tweens. I wanted to keep as much kid-friendly stuff in their experience as possible, because that’s their target demo during the day. They do great with the stroller moms, so they didn’t want to lose that when they went into the night product.

Dress-up and Pretend

They’re focusing on fun, fantasy, pretend, dress-up, and fairytales—that side of Halloween, which is the purest and simplest. It’s so much fun to walk around an event like Spooktacular, which is now called Creatures of the Night, and see these little guys pretending. A little girl walks around the corner and sees a fairy or a princess, and her eyes light up. Better yet, she’s dressed like a fairy or a princess—or he is. Who am I to assign gender roles to people? For those who know me, I’m nowhere near a guy to assign gender roles to people. These kids have these moments of pretend and dress-up, and they’re so into it. When a kid puts on a Halloween costume for the first time and goes out there, they actually become those characters. They’re not just wearing clothes that look like those characters, they are characters.

If you’re developing a Halloween event for kids, for that age demographic, include elements that give them places to do creative play. Give them places to live as those fantasy characters they’re dressed up as. You can throw in moments of a playful scare. One of the things I love to do with little-kid events is to put hidden audio that makes it sound like there are either trolls or playful critters hiding in the bushes. There’s nothing that jumps out, but there will be a voice that says, “Hey, over here.” The kids will look and try to find it, and it becomes this sort of game of hide-and-seek. I guess that’s kind of cruel on my part, because they’re never going to find anything. Hmm. Yeah, I guess I’m just mean to kids, I don’t know. Anyway, it gives them a playful scare, and it lets their imagination kick in.

Again, being a kid who grew up trick-or-treating, I think candy has to be an essential element in any child-targeted Halloween event. It’s always fun to get something for nothing, whether it’s trick-or-treat or trunk-or-treat or going out to different candy stations at a zoo, aquarium, or museum. If it’s a kids’ event, you gotta do candy. However, because we have parents out there who are concerned about their children’s health—as well they should be, because they’re parents—there should also be healthy alternatives—but, obviously, never anything with peanuts (the allergy thing).

Have Something for the Older Siblings

A challenge with doing a kids-only event is that families are often more than the little tiny toddler munchkin ones. Usually, there are older brothers and sisters who want to come along, and that kind of bridges you into the tween audience. So, you have to have something that’s at least compelling enough to keep the 11-year-old girl from rolling her eyes and saying, “Oh my God,” or the 11-year-old boy texting his friend, “This is so lame.” You have to have a couple of things in there that are cool to look at. They don’t necessarily need to be terrifying, but they need to be visually compelling or technologically advanced, so those older kids have things to look at or do.

Don’t Go Totally Dark

Another consideration with kids’ events is the dark factor. These events aren’t as dark as adult events, from a lighting standpoint, because kids are afraid of the dark. I’ve seen more kids not go into a haunted house because it’s dark than not go into a haunted house because there’s a giant hulking monster with an ax. Little ones are very much afraid of the dark, so keep that in mind. If you’re going to do a kid-friendly event, instead of doing dark, replace it with saturated lighting. Even blacklight works. Do something with really dark jewel tones, so it has playfulness, it has fantasy, and you’re giving them the bridge into something that’s going to be darker. Also, make sure your scenic and costumes are incredibly detailed, because they’re going to be seen longer and in brighter light, and the kids aren’t going to be running away from them.

A Haybale Adventure

Another idea that SeaWorld used to do, and I thought was really fun, is a haybale maze. They created a maze out of hay bales that didn’t have a top on it and that grownups could see over, so the adventurous little kids could go through on their own. Mom and Dad could always see the little ones walking through the maze. There were cutouts of whatever characters happened to be in the maze—goofy monsters or whatever. SeaWorld had Sesame Street characters in their Halloween costumes, which were two-dimensional cutouts that the kids would discover as they walked around a corner. This is a training maze, a place to play, and it reinforces the idea that kids who are dressed up can have some creative character play while they’re at that Halloween event.

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Halloween Events for Tweens

The next group I want to talk about is the tweens. I call this group the eye-rollers. If you have tweens, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a very brief demographic phase. They think they’re ready for absolutely everything horror and haunt has to offer—and some of them are, quite honestly. But most of them aren’t and, more importantly, unless they’re a tween in the haunt community and have been raised doing haunted houses, their parents don’t think they’re ready. It’s Mom and Dad that are footing the bill for these kinds of haunted attractions, so you have to make certain you give them a little bit more and something creepy.

Ghosts—Yes. Gore—Not So Much

Ghosts are always good, monsters are always good, but I’d keep the gore to a minimum for tweens. It’s okay to have the threat of a monster coming out, and you can do a few boo scares, a few startle scares, but don’t go over the top. The 11-year-old thinks they want the chainsaw and the ax murders and the blood spurting out everywhere. Some 11-year-olds are great with that, and I know some 30-year-olds that aren’t too cool with it. Generally speaking, for the tweens, keep it to monsters.

I actually like using urban legends for this demographic. Ghost stories work really well. I think Slender Man would be kinda cool or things tweens have seen online, games they’ve played, and that kind of thing. I realize that 11- and 12-year-olds have played games we could never recreate in three dimensions, because we’d need a mop and a drain system. I get that. But I think you also have to play to the parents’ sensibilities as well. Give them something startling but not over-the-top gory. Also, if you’re dealing with tweens, keep sexuality to a minimum, because, well… just do it. It’s a lot safer for everybody involved.

How About Z-tag?

One thing that’s fun for the tween audience is something Gantom Lighting has done called Z-tag. This is basically a giant, interactive, zombie game that uses pin-on badges that light up different colors. You can either be a zombie, a human, or a doctor. If you’re a human and stand in front of a zombie for more than 15 seconds from three feet away or less, your light starts to flash. This means you can be transformed into a zombie unless you find a doctor who can cure you. It becomes this interactive game where people run all over your event. I think it’s cool enough for the tweens, or, at least, it gives them something cool to do while their little brothers and sisters are waving at the pirates and fairies. So, think about Z-tag. I know a lot of you are familiar with Gantom Lighting. They do a bunch of demos at various tradeshows and such. Z-tag is also a great option if you’re doing a kids’ event and you want to add something for the tweens.

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Halloween Events for Teens-plus

Now, we’re going to get into why so many people love to live in the haunt industry, which is the demographic I call Teens-plus. The teens-plus are the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds all the way up to—well, for me, it’s probably going to be all the way up until death. This is where you can really go for it and push that envelope. This is where the majority of independent haunts are, and they really, really go for it.

I’m so excited this year, because I have two different haunts I’m working on for this particular demographic. One of them is in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is called Dark. It’s a three-haunt experience that takes place in an outdoor, historic museum. They’ve done family-friendly events for Halloween for several years, and they brought me in to make it darker, creepier, and really go for it. They’re taking a huge leap of faith with me. I’m the creative director and writer for that event.

I’m also doing some consulting here in Tampa. Again, I was brought in to look over stuff, fine tune, polish, help them with actors, and that sort of thing for a haunted attraction called Undead in the Water. It takes place on the Victory Battleship here in Tampa, and I think that’s going to be a really fun project. The idea there, too, is to go for it.

Deliver the Unexpected

When you go for it, that doesn’t mean be as bloody as you can be. It means giving guests something they don’t expect. This is Halloween, and you’re out to scare people. If guests expect things and you deliver that, it’s not scary nor does it give them that adrenaline rush they’re looking for. Make sure you do something unique and clever, a little bit over the top, and isn’t just setting up the same rooms everybody has seen. I won’t go into the importance of story or the importance of having the story build and then have some sort of falling action, because you’ve heard me say this way, way, way too often. What I will say is, make sure you get to this audience on a visceral, emotional level. Flip the script, and do something unexpected.

There was an idea we had at Busch Gardens that never quite got off the ground. I’ll throw it out there in case anybody wants to try it someday. Do an upgrade experience where guests are picked up at their house in a hearse and arrive at your haunt in a hearse. If you really want to go there, put them in a coffin. These kinds of things may sound crazy, but there’s a phrase I’ve been using a lot recently: “The shortest path to mediocrity is practicality, so don’t be mediocre.” Raise your highs to an 11 on a scale of 10, and people will remember your haunted attraction with fondness and terror. So, raise the bar.

For this teens-plus age group, it’s okay to be a little bit sexy. Sensuality has always been in horror films and in the haunt industry—and not just backstage in the dressing rooms. You haunters know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s always been part of the genre, so it’s okay to include that.

Halloween Events for Adults

For this demographic, Halloween means a night out. We’re at the midrange, where people are in their thirties, they’ve got a babysitter for the kids, and they’re going out with their friends. They’re going to have a couple cocktails before, they’re probably going to have dinner either before or after visiting your haunt, so you want scare the living crap out of them. Do something they’ll remember. Make it a full experience for them. Don’t just set up some black walls and have a few monsters running around, because that ain’t gonna cut it. Do something over the top. If you do that, if you do something completely strange and unexpected, you’ll create loyalty and they’ll come back year after year after year. If you screw it up, you’ve got one shot and then they’re gone. This is the demographic everybody understands the most.

I’ve mentioned the Vault of Souls over the last three years, and I’ve discovered there’s definitely a market for the more mature hauntgoer. These are folks who want some form of elegant fear. It was a great experience to do the different years of Vault of Souls, and I know there are still people out there who experienced one of the first three years and continue to ask me, “Is it coming back? When is it coming back? How can we do something like this?” There are a few places out there that offer this kind of thing, but it was something that was very, very special. Who knows? I can’t predict the future. We’ll see whether it’s coming back someday in the future. If it does, I hope I’m involved, because it was an awful lot of fun. Did we do everything absolutely right in the Vault of Souls? No, probably not, but we did please an awful lot of guests and gave them an experience they’ve never had anywhere else. So, keep that in mind.

This Group Wants Psychological Fear

The idea here is, if you’re approaching a grown-up, more mature audience, you can raise your price point a little bit, because they’re at a point in their life where they have that income to spend on a posh night out. I always say dial down the gore and startle, because, again, usually by the time people have gotten to that point in their haunted-attraction progression, they’re like, “Yeah, been there done that. Drop doors just give me a headache now. Strobe lights? No.” Psychological fear—things that make them think, things that make them feel something, ghosts, and paranormal—works well with this age, as does giving them something to do or figure out.

Include Food and Cocktails

I’d also strongly recommend that you include food, cocktails, and a place to start and end the night. One of the things that’s grown out of the Vault of Souls is a place called CW’s Gin Joint, which was the last “act” of the Vault of Souls. It was a 1920s gin joint, and it’s now an incredibly well-received restaurant in downtown Tampa.

Now, I’m not taking credit for that in any way, shape, or form. That’s all the Wilson Company—specifically, Caroline Wilson, who stepped in and brought together the most incredible team of bartenders, an executive chef, and invested beaucoup bucks into creating this beautiful environment. It’s unique, and it was that uniqueness that we had that chance to test out in the Vault of Souls, and it continues to be a ridiculously popular restaurant here in Tampa. So, if you have the opportunity to dine at CW’s Gin Joint, do it, but you need a reservation, because they’re full almost every night. This is the kind of thing the grown-up Halloween folks certainly gravitate to.

Decide on Your Target Audience, and Commit to It

You might think I’m going to say, “I think everybody should target this demographic.” No, I’m not going to say that at all. You need to find what’s right for you, what works with your space, your passion, your dollars and cents, and your audience. All I’m going to say is, decide which of these four audiences, which of these four levels, you want to serve, and commit to it.

Commit to it, because you can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t try to create an event that has a kiddy thing here, a tween thing here, an over-the-top teen-plus thing here, and an adult thing here. If you attempt to do this, what’s going to happen is you’re never going to be able to communicate through marketing what your event is all about, so you’ll always be disappointing someone. You may think, “If I’m all things to all people, I’ll have a broader demographic.” No. If you try to be all things to all people, you’re nothing to anyone. You have to decide to be the best haunted Halloween experience for stroller moms and their toddlers that you can possibly be. If you want to go over the top and be bloody and gory, go over the top and be bloody and gory, but don’t try to dumb it down for kids.

What About No-scare Amulets and Lights-on Nights?

People ask me about things like the no-scare amulet. Everyone has their own opinion on these. Basically, this is either a glow stick or a necklace—or some places use wands or amulets—that identifies a child—or even an adult—that chooses not to be scared. My opinion on these is, don’t do them, and here’s why: As somebody who wants to be scared when I come to these events, if I’m in a group with a person who has a no-scare amulet, it makes the actors timid. It makes them not give me the product I want from the experience. It doesn’t give me the scare I’m looking for. The result is, it disappoints the people who are there to be scared.

Then there are things like a kids’ night or a lights-on night. I have mixed feelings about these. I understand why people do it, but I think the biggest concern is that the majority of audience members don’t read. Say you do this at the end of your season. Somebody shows up expecting your full-blown show, and you give them a brighter-light tour to ramp down the fear. If you’ve been a full-scare house through the whole season, you run the risk of people not getting it and thinking, “Well, that was kinda lame.” There are haunts that do this every year, but, like I said, I have mixed feelings. I think you need to make a choice, target your audience, stick to it, and be the best you can.

Instead, Ramp Up the Fear

Instead of dumbing down or pulling back the fear for certain audiences on certain nights or having amulets or necklaces that protect them, I’d suggest going the other route. There’s a haunt here in Florida called Screamageddon. It’s a full-contact haunt if you’re wearing a glow necklace, which means they’re not dumbing down the scare, they’re ramping it up. They’re giving someone an opportunity to be even more involved, more scared. A lot of haunts do lights-out. There’s one haunt in England, I think, where guests go through a totally dark haunt naked on their closing night. That really takes it to the next quirky level. Would I do it? Oh, hell yeah! My biggest fear would be going through the house without my clothes on and finding my clothes are gone when I’m done. A naked-guest haunt is a great talking point, and a great way to get return visitation. They’ve created a haunt that people love, is top notch, and guests have the chance to do something that’s really brag-worthy. You know, “Yes, I went through the haunt in my birthday suit. Yup, and all those actors had to look at me naked.” Now, that’s scary.

I think you should ramp up the fear. Do a flashlight tour the last night. If you’ve got a really detailed haunt, turn all your lighting off and hand people flashlights. Let them go through in the dark, keep all your actors out there, and scare the snot out of them. Raise the bar rather than dumb it down—and, most importantly, if you do that, make sure you communicate everything clearly.

What I’ve been trying to say in this blog is good Halloween is good for Halloween. Good haunts are good for the haunt industry. Whether you’re a kiddy, stroller-mom fantasy haunt; an extreme haunt; or an adult, elegant-fear night out, do it to the best of your ability, and don’t try to be everything to everyone. If you’re laser focused, you’ll be able to make choices based on what’s best for your haunt, not what’s best for your wallet. I promise you, if you start to think that way, you’ll actually lose money.

At a haunt I worked at years ago—and you’ll probably figure out which one when I start telling this story—our guests told us early on, “If you’re going to offer things for my kids, don’t make it a nighttime event. You’re open until midnight or one o’clock, so if you’re going to do stuff that’s scary, do stuff that’s scary, but don’t have the goofy mascot kind of characters roaming around. Make a decision.” Choose your market, stick to your guns, market correctly, and make sure everybody—no matter what age—has something to do, something that’s fun, and a way to celebrate the Halloween season.

To all my listeners and readers, thank you so very, very much for paying attention. If you aren’t a member already, you can become a member of our Facebook group, find us on AScottInTheDark.com or at my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, this is Scott Swenson for A Scott in the Dark saying, rest in peace.

Scott Swenson

by Scott Swenson

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