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The Fright is Right!

Behind the scenes of a half-billion-dollar industry
Published: 
07 June, 2010

In just 40 years, the American haunted attraction industry has developed from a single church tour into a half-a-billion-dollar industry. Read on as Leonard Pickel traces the development of the sector, followed by first hand accounts of two attractions outside the US.

As sensibilities and what society deems as acceptable changes, attraction designers are forced to weave a daunting path through the limits of good taste while trying to create as terrifying an experience as possible within building and fire codes, insurance restrictions and common sense safety of patrons and staff.

The first seasonal October haunted attractions appeared in the United States in the early 1970s as fundraisers for church groups and charitable events. Visitors paid a donation of $3 to $4 to walk through an old house, church meeting room or school classroom decorated with frightening scenes and staffed with volunteers dressed in black robes and white makeup. Some of these events became very popular and it was not long before entrepreneurs realised the profitability of these two to nine-day events.

At first the for-profit haunted attractions donated partial proceeds to charities, but even this gesture quickly died out. Unable to compete with the advertising dollars a for-profit event can pump into a market, the non-profit haunted house has all but disappeared from most cities. Always looking to increase profits, attraction owners started raising their prices and the attraction size. Haunted houses grew to massive become 40-50,000 square feet standalone attractions, but there seemed to be a ceiling of $15 (E12.50) admission. People were not willing to pay more regardless of size.

Stumbling into Halloween in 1973, Knott's Berry Farm in California discovered the popularity of haunted houses and started cashing in on people's love of being frightened. For an amusement park, a Halloween event drive patrons to the property during a month that historically had low attendance and it introduces new people to the park’s amenities; promoting return visits in the summer. However, Knott's did not have a large single area available for their haunted house and instead created multiple attractions around the park. A bumper car building, a large queue line area, or an arcade with the games removed became separate “mazes” filled with creepy sets and ghoulish characters. This multi-element approach worked, smashing through the $15 ticket barrier, and was quickly adopted by other Halloween events. Today, prices for independent haunted attractions range from an average of $8 (€6.70) for a small single element attraction to $40 (€33.50) for a full blown multi-element event while theme park Halloween events range from $40 to as much as $70 (€58.50) for general admission.

Thousands of Screams

Today there are between 2,000 and 3,000 independent haunted events in the United States every October, a lot of them based on farms. Many start up haunted events fail before their third year, but with every failure is a new first time event opening to take its place. Haunting is a business like any other and the failure rate in the first five years exceeds the overall business average of 60%. Even with this high failure rate, some haunted attractions have been able to gain a foothold in their market and some have been rewarded with attendances reaching in excess of 50,000 people (the industry average today is below 15,000 attendees per season).

Throughout its history, there have been haunted attractions that raised the bar in attendance, creativity, detailed realism or pure fright-factor. In the early 1980s Joe Jensen operated Hades Haunted House in Chicago, Illinois. In its prime, the event hosted 50,000 people in just 10 days of operation and due to noise restrictions had to close at 10pm, a record for independent attendance versus hours of operation that stands to this date.

Rocky Point Haunted house in Salt Lake City, Utah, was a massive attraction that not only had movie quality sets, costumes and makeup, but was filled with sets, props and costumes from major motion pictures. Owned by Cydney Neil, this attraction was spotlessly clean and the volunteer acting troupe was second to none.

The Spanish company Monsters International put the United States haunt industry on notice in 1991 with Terror on Church Street in Orlando, Florida. It was an attraction with great sets, great actors typical of an October style haunted house, but this was a year-round haunted operation; a business model that had not been attempted in the States before.

The first haunted event to utilise celebrity appearances to drive attendance was David Bertolino's SpookyWorld near Boston, Massachusetts. What started out as a single haunted hayride evolved into the largest attended, independently owned, multi-element Halloween event in the country before its demise in 2004.

Sadly, each of these legendary attractions went out of business; some due to the retirement of the owner, some to increased restrictions and some due to poor business decisions. However, other attractions have taken up the banner and pushed the art form even further.

Netherworld in Atlanta, Georgia; 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; House of Shock in New Orleans, Louisiana; Erebus in Pontiac, Michigan; the Dent School House in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Bates Hotel and Haunted Hayride near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are leading the haunted industry in high detail, layered themes and amazing actors in great costumes and make-up.

The top United States theme park event is Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, Orlando, with a full time, year-round staff devoted to creating the most imaginative and frightening attractions, and with new and different themes each year.

Halloween in its present form is a truly American holiday, but haunted houses and amusement park Halloween events are appearing around the globe. Ocean Park in Hong Kong offers Halloween Bash, a frightful event designed for adults. Disneyland in Tokyo is offering frightening Halloween events with haunted attractions too intense for children; something that even the Disney parks in the states are not doing.

England seems to be where haunting is getting its strongest foothold. One of the first to see Halloween's potential was Stuart Beare of Tulleys Farm in Sussex, who has been experimenting with various forms of scare entertainment since 1994. The farm's Shocktoberfest event is one of the largest and most elaborate seasonal events in the UK offering both daytime and evening attractions. At Warrington in Cheshire, Spooky World offers attendees a seasonal fright as do Frightmare in Gloucestershire and Farmageddon near Ormskirk, Lancashire. UK amusement parks are also getting in on Halloween. Alton Towers' Scarefest (now Terror at the Towers) and Thorpe Park’s Fright Nights have been operating since 2002, and are credited with kick-starting the trend. Even some of the castles in England are operating haunted events on property, such as Merlin's Warwick Castle, which now boasts a year-round Dungeons attraction, not to mention the recent explosion of year round haunted attractions in London and elsewhere (see ScareCON review, page 22).

Dancing with the Devil

With any type of amusement, there is a fine line between entertainment and insult, and haunting is no exception. People are very easily offended and this can tie the hands of the attraction designer looking for the latest greatest cutting edge scare tactic. For instance, scenes with a hanging have been a touchy subject in the States lately, and beheadings would also be inappropriate for the scary times we live in. Devil worship is a subject that haunt designers usually steer clear of, but the House of Shock in Louisiana took exactly the opposite approach. They embraced the worship of Satan as the theme to their entire event, with 30ft flames shooting off a preshow stage emboldened with a pentagram. Needless to say, the event and its owners received the wrath of everyone …everyone except the visitors who came in huge numbers to see what the all the buzz was about.

As haunt designers look for the next best scare, they are quick to adapt new products and new technologies even if they were not intended for haunting. Alginate used for dental impressions are used to cast human body parts for props. Cromadepth 3D glasses hide actors from unsuspecting patrons. LED lighting provides just enough illumination for what the designer wants to be seen without destroying the suspension of disbelief with a large light fixture. Even computer-generated effects are being used with flat-screen televisions for changing portraits or views out a window. Video projections of live rats or roaches on a wall can creep out even the bravest amongst us, and robotic creatures using computer controlled motions are setting the stage for an incredible future.

The popularity of haunted attractions shows no sign of fading, with more and more large-scale Halloween events continuing to open across the United States and around the world each year. As new technologies are developed, they are quickly adapted or even hacked into a tool for the haunted attraction designer. The industry is safer than it has ever been with more and more attractions being forced to comply with strict restrictions on what can and cannot occur in such occupancies. At the same time subjects once thought to be “taboo” are being explored by haunters looking for the next great scare. Are you ready for Halloween at your attraction?

Leonard Pickel is owner of DOA Haunt Design and Consulting. A 30 year veteran of haunting, he has over 100 haunted attractions to his credit and is also the editor of Haunted Attraction magazine. Leonard can be reached at leonardpickel@gmail.com

Terenzi Horror Nights

Since 2007, Europa-Park in Germany has been scaring its guests each autumn with a month-long fright fest, but it was an American that was responsible for “importing” Halloween into this famous Black Forest theme park. Here Mark Terenzi, creator and co-producer of Terenezi Horror Nights, shares his story.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I was always very excited when Halloween came around. The weather changed and the trees would turn from green to blood red and orange. Trick or treating, bobbing for apples, pumpkin carving, haunted houses and the Salem Witch Trials were all part of the “fun.” I would spend weeks getting an outfit ready for Halloween so we could go door to door asking for candy and being someone else for one night. I guess that’s what lead me to acting and performing years later.

When I was about 16 I heard they were hiring characters for a haunted hayride called Spooky World in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had no idea what I was going to audition for but I didn't care – the name "Spooky World" and the words "live attraction" made my imagination run wild. I worked there for several years, as a make-up artist, a lead actor and even helping build in the summer. I was addicted: the amazing sets, the costumes, the make-up, the screams, the music. I even got to work with some of the horror greats like Robert Englund (Freddy Kruger), Kane Hoder (Jason Voorhees) and Elvira, who I was completely in love with at the time! It was great because of the friendships built backstage; we were a cast of 500 and we were a family.

I then moved to Orlando and got a job at a place called Skull Kingdom. It was open pretty much everyday of the year. Could there be anything greater? When one of my friends took me to Universal for Halloween Horror Nights I was totally blown away; it changed the entire park into a haunted attraction, it was amazing.

Year later I found myself in Germany, enjoying a successful singing career. but I missed Halloween, which was not so big here. I was toying with the idea to start my own haunted attraction, but just didn't know where. In the summer of 2007 I came to Rust to visit Michael Mack at Europa-Park, and we became good friends. I drew a house called "Hells Inn" on a napkin. He loved the idea and, even though it was a risk to do an event like this in a family amusement park, he told me that if I was passionate about it we would do it. Terenzi Horror Nights was born.

We just five months to go, we were challenged with teaching people what an event like this was, knowing most of them has never experienced anything like it before. Most people still knew me as a pop singer!

I thought the greatest opportunity was to go after the thrill seekers who already come to the park for the rollercoastesr, and we knew that we would need about five years to develop a strong fan base. Word of mouth has been the greatest strength we have. If you make a great attraction, people will come, and next time they will bring 30 friends. Michael and I love to standing in the streets of the park and watching people get scared out of their minds and laugh with their friends.

Every year I create new characters, storylines, soundtracks, shows and mazes. The less you know the more terrifying it becomes! I also hired Bill McCoy as my head make-up artist. I had worked with him at Skull Kingdom and to this day have rarely seen make-up of this calibre. This year we will make Terenzi Horror Nights even greater by adding new ideas and trying to fix some of our capacity problems. The Vampire's Club, for example, allows people to party with my vampires ‘til dawn.

We were thrilled to win "Best international Attraction" at the Screamie Awards recently in London, pitted against giants in the industry like Universal Studios, Disney and Busch Gardens, so I guess we must be doing something right. Visit us this October ...if you dare!

Terenzi Horror Nights returns to Europa-Park from October 1 to November 7.

Dracula’s Haunted House

Not all haunted attractions are seasonal events. The Haunted House Experience in Queensland, Australia, scares guests year-round in the tourist hotspot of Surfer’s Paradise. Sales and marketing manager Robyn Phillips explains how the attraction was developed as a spin-off from a successful dinner show

Newman Entertainments currently operates two creepy cabaret dinner shows in Australia, the original haunt in Melbourne and its dark twin, Dracula’s on the Gold Coast in Queensland. These haunted havens dish out their unique brand of “thrillertainment” to a combined seating capacity of 900 diners – or screamers – each night. They are the longest running and most visited dinner theatre operation in the country.

Dracula’s Haunted House, a purpose built, six-storey walk-through attraction, opened in Surfer’s Paradise on the night of Halloween 2008. It combines optical illusions with fun park style “crawl through” tunnels and passages, a mirror maze, vampyre lair, photo lab and a large souvenir shop. We’ve also got some unique and quirky Aussie-style thrills such as the Great White Shark Attack and Deadly Australian Creatures Collection. Let’s face it, Australia has pretty much everything that can sting, bite and maul you to oblivion and the Haunted House has all of them!

As opposed to the dinner shows, Dracula’s Haunted House is designed largely for the international market, with less culturally sensitive content (as opposed to comedy satire). Crammed full of hi-tech gadgets and custom-made, animated creatures, it is a product that requires minimum personnel (just six casual employees). Robotic monsters and a few eccentric staff mean we don’t need a whole hoard of costumed characters. An elaborate video surveillance system monitors the progress of all visitors and provides a high level of high customer safety.

“Operation of a permanent haunt is a complicated,” explains technical director Paul Newman. “Both the cabaret and the walk-through attraction receive constant and relentless upgrades.”

As Dracula’s is a unique attraction with no same-theme competition in the local area, the business doesn’t really conform to any textbook model. We don’t aim to be an extreme fear attraction. We are suitable for the whole family, with optional “Dare Doors” allowing guests to control the thrill factor. We do, however, allow controversial themes to spice things up a notch. A recent example is the new Digestion Tunnel, where visitors crawl through the inside of prime minister Kevin Rudd’s body! Dracula’s venues are an undiluted experience, uniquely Australian, and designed to leave a scar!

Pictured below: Dracula's Haunted House








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