Guidelines for Haunted Houses


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Because of the numerous requests for room ideas in Haunted Houses -- mostly from groups with no or little budgets, I've decided to offer some practical guidelines here that will help you get started. Next year I will be publishing a book (see above) with more ideas and stories for Haunted Houses, until then you can start with these principles:

1. The Haunted House is Unique

The Haunted House is unique among entertainment venues, it's the only form of entertainment where the audience walks through the set and interacts with the actors and where the plot or story is of no importance. The Haunted House always takes on the personality of the producer. There are countless styles of houses, that's why I won't be giving you specifics -- every time I try, someone says -- "Well, that's not the kind of house we do." Besides, I like to get paid for my ideas, not give them away for free.

2. People want to get Scared

Don't lose sight of this objective. What people really want is an emotional payoff. Each room in your house must provide some kind of emotional payoff. Identify what you want to do in each room and stick to it. Fear is not always the preferred result; for example you want to payoff with suspense, revulsion, surprise, humor, physical threat, sensuality, etc., etc.. When you sit down to brainstorm ideas try to identify how each idea will payoff- if it doesn't payoff drop the idea. For example, this year a friend suggested an elaborate "Aliens" scene with a crashed flying saucer. The problem with this scene is that the payoff is too weak. How is a crash site a threat to me? I'm not afraid of dead aliens. On the other hand, suppose I came across a crashed police van. The back door is open and the prisoners are gone into the woods, where could they be? Are they watching us now? This scene creates suspense.

3. Always use Three-Act Structure

You're not writing a play, but the dynamics are the same. The three acts are the same; 1. Setup 2. Development 3 Climax. Your house should be set up the same way. This is my suggestion.

1. Setup. This is the time for the audience to become prepared to enter the house. Do this while they are waiting in line. Have some of your actors outside and have them work the line. By the time people enter the house they should be emotionally ready to get scared.

2. Development. This is the series of rooms that payoff emotionally every time. A sophisticated room might have its own three acts. We'll discuss room ideas later.

3. Climax. Simply put, save your very best room for last. People will remember your show by how it ends. Once you've given them your best there really isn't much more you can do.

4. The Director and Producer should be two different people.

The Director is the creative part of your team. It's his job to come up with all the great ideas and how to stage them. Choose a director whom you know is very creative, don't worry that he won't know how to do anything, that's the producer's job. The director should say, " I want this and this and this."

The Producer is the person who gets the job done. He's the person who says to the Director, "Sorry you can't have that, or that or that." The Producer worries about the budget and all the technical stuff. He should be practical and good with numbers.

I can't go into detail here about the effectiveness of this kind of arraignment, but trust me, it works.

5. How to get Great Ideas

If you find the right director you will be amazed at how many ideas this creative person can come up with. But if you can't here's a great way to get a ton of ideas that will fit your house. You must organize a brainstorming session; this is how it's done:

First gather five or six very creative people (usually artists, writers and musicians) and one very intelligent pragmatic type (he will keep everyone on track) the Pragmatic is the moderator, he keeps notes and runs the chalk-board.

Step A

Make lists. When you make lists you have two rules. No one must criticize anyone's idea -- you never know, something silly may breed a great idea. Rule two is you must travel fast and hard, ideas should come faster than they can be written down. This will stimulate more and more ideas -- soon they will start to gel into better ideas. Right now you want quantity rather than quality. Don't worry if some ideas stink, just don't get stuck on only a few ideas -- you need a big source pool to draw from. The Pragmatic must keep people on track and moving forward.

Your first task is to make a long list of all "Emotional Payoffs", do this for about twenty minutes.

Next make a long list of all thing that frighten people, again make a long list.

Now make a long list of room ideas. All the previous items will blend and melt into a series of good ideas. People will naturally discuss haunted house rooms they've seen before, but if you brainstorm properly you won't need to copy that which has been done before.

Step B

Go home and sleep on it. All the creative types will understand the importance of this step and won't see this as silly. The non-creatives will see this as silly -- but then they're not creative either.

Step C

Meet again and decide your rooms. Everyone will have several ideas that they are excited about. If they have an idea, put them in charge of executing it. Chances are that no one would be able to match their vision and enthusiasm anyway.

That's it. Good Luck.

Steve Biggs