Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scenario: Scarecrow


Style: Shock
Position: Front Porch

RelaxingOkay, I admit this is something more for trick-or-treaters than it is for haunted houses, but I just loved this one when it was pulled on me.

Once my heartrate had dropped, that is.

This works best in a moderately busy neighborhood, where there is a somewhat steady stream of kids, but not so many that the next group can see what happens to the previous one. It's the ultimate in simplicity. On your dimly lit front porch (which was more of a front walkway in my 1950s-era ranch-style neighborhood), there is a chair in which a badly stuffed scarecrow is slumped, straw hat over the face. When the kids walks by, the scarecrow jumps up.

All you need is old clothes, some rope, a hat and some straw, and a person who can hold very, very still.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Scenario: the Dollhouse


The Dollhouse
Style: Creep
Position: Beginning to middle

KernelsDo you remember Toy Story, and the utter creepiness of the mutilated toys? For some reason, we are most disturbed by that paraphernalia which denotes the death of a child... or the death of childhood. For this room, the decor is that of a damaged playroom. Thrift shops or antique stores are the best source for this; if one were to provide mostly dolls that looked as though they were from the last century, this scenario would go very well with a Victorian-style haunted house.

The dolls must be damaged in disturbing ways. Look to the art of Dave McKean (or the interior art of Oingo Boingo's CD Boingo) for examples of how to go about this. One might, for example, remove the eyes of all of the dolls; this has always seemed to many people (including me) to be unutterably creepy. Or one might disassemble the dolls in a manner resembling vivisection. One could make an especially creepy jack-in-the-box by employing a Punch doll, a box, and a spring.

All of the dolls should be distressed and aged; a coating of dust (or whole-wheat flour) will also work well. You can arrange them on equally dusty furniture... or hang them from the ceiling in some ritual manner. If you have a dollhouse to use, arrange the dolls within for some gruesome scene, using fake blood only if you are sure it will not stain.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scenario: Religious Guardians


Religious Guardians
Style: Shock
Position: Middle to end

EyeEverything you read can be fodder for a scenario. In this case, Nightmares and Fairytales has a great sequence with nuns guarding an unspeakable horror that was the inspiration for this room.

What you will need for this is a room with a large door, one that can be made to look imposing. A painted plywood covering can mimic the look of a heavy wooden door, dark with age, particularly if two-by-fours are fastened to it. Don't forget the chains, locks, and other impedimentia that will keep the door from opening more than enough to stick a hand through. For safety's sake, consider a fake wall and door designed so that no one can get an arm caught when the door is slammed, as may happen at some point in the performance. Light the space on the far side with reds and black light, or strobes. Finish decorating the main room with cobwebs and dust and religious paraphernalia, particularly ornate crosses.

The idea is that you have religious figures, monks or nuns, praying to keep the guests of the house safe. Prayers featuring ornate Latin laced with "Vade retro, Satana" ("Get thee behind me, Satan,") are good. If you have a guide, have them wax eloquent about the dark forces behind the door— only to break off as the door starts to get forced open. The religious figures break off their prayers and chanting immediately and try to force the door closed (but not too hard; remember that we don't want to shut the door on anyone's arm!) as red light and fog start to pour out of the opening. Monsterish bits (zombie arms, tentacles, whatever you have on hand) start to force their way around the door.

Whatever it is grabs someone and pulls their arm through. That person starts screaming; another monk or nun runs off to grab a crucifix. If you like, have the victim pull free and display a bloodied arm. Either the religious people lose control and start shouting for the guests to run or have them push the victim through the door— because once the monsters have bloodied you, you will become one of them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scenario: Bayou Witch


The House of the Bayou Witch
Style: Shock
Position: Beginning to middle of house

Feed CornA dilapidated shack, hung about with moss, creepers, and snakes (can't forget the snakes), is the home of an old lady. She has crazy grey hair that sticks out at angles, scruffy and layered old clothes, and stumps out onto the porch to shout warnings at the guests. She tells them that anyone continuing on will certainly die.

Then an alligator snaps out at the people from under the porch.

Technically, this is a very simple trick with a fairly low-tech prop. The alligator is no more than the front half with a mouth on hinges that is set to pop open. The more realistic this looks, the better, but scary is just fine. The prop is on a short rolling cart and the porch should be low enough to keep the mouth closed. While the old lady goes into her spiel, another actor (dressed in black) beneath the unlit porch takes careful note of where the feet are. He rolls the gator out quickly so as to miss any guests, and the prop does all the scare.

Lots of teeth are good.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Scenario: In the Kitchen of Ghoulia Child


In the Kitchen of Ghoulia Child
Style: Shock
Position: First half of house

Cannibal miniature golf
Originally uploaded by angrylambie1

The aforementioned Bayou Brewing Company haunted house had a role that I ended up defining, because I was the only one to truly get into it. This scenario requires two people and some specialized props, and both actors have to be willing to get into the roles because it doesn't work otherwise. The name "Ghoulia Child" was a newspaper columnist's invention; she started out aged and grey but we soon discovered it was much more effective if she were young, perky, and wearing a pretty apron. The chemicals involved can stain, so be careful.

The group enters into a deli. In the case are plaster replicas of horribly punnish foods - ladyfingers, head cheese, face in the pie, and the like. A pretty young woman comes up and starts exclaiming in delight about the customers. After a short spiel, she offers the guests their choice of meat from a head on the platter. She slices into it - blood starts pouring down, the head opens its eyes, and starts screaming. With many apologies, the guests are sent on their way, Miss Child hoping that she'll see them again soon.

The "head on a platter" trick is well known; I won't explain it here except to note that the platter edge should be well-padded and is most effective when hidden with "extras" such as plastic fruit. The guy we had was a towhead blond; with makeup, he looked as if he were plaster too. The butcher knife was, of course, plastic. How did we do the blood? There's a theatrical compound, called A-B blood, which is sold in two bottles. Apart, they're clear. Put them together, there's blood. They are safe to use on the skin but prolonged exposure (such as over the course of several weeks) can cause irritation, so consider putting a piece of fake skin on the forehead (as the most visible place to cut.) Put one chemical on the skin and one on the knife, and wash it off after every group. And make sure the guy can scream - one guy we used didn't do anything, greatly lessening the shock.

As I said above, Ghoulia Child became very perky. People are more disturbed at the happy fun psychopath than the dark, brooding one. In fact, my spiel - which was entirely improvised at the start - was delivered in a bouncy manner, the better to talk over any replies. The spiel, as I remember it, eventually ended up something like this:

"Customers! Oh, it's been so long since I've had" (licks lips) "customers. Come in, come in. Would you like some head cheese? Or face in the pie? I'm afraid my ladyfingers are a bit stale..." (looks at one woman's hands) "but I'm sure I could get some fresher ones if you're so inclined. It's been a while since anyone's been by... Oh! I know! You're just in time, I just got someone out of the oven!" (indicates head on platter) "It was mother's favorite recipe, you know." (reminiscent) "She went so well with it... Well, let's dig in. Would you like light meat or dark?" (Slices head, which opens eyes and starts screaming.) "Oh. Oh dear. He needs a bit more cooking." (group starts leaving) "Do come back sometime. Bring your friends!" (thinks) "Bring your enemies! We'll have a ROAST!"

With something such as this, you don't want a fully prepared script, because guests are unpredictable, up to and including bringing small children into a haunted house which they are obviously unprepared for. (The scene ended up bowlderized more than once because of small children.) Instead, pick an actor who is capable of improvising, because who knows? They might come up with some better puns...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scenario: Haunted Room


Haunted Room
Style: Creep
Position: Anywhere

What Has Become Of the Old Home?It's almost normal. If it weren't for the dust, one could imagine someone walking into the room, turning on the lights, and reading in a chair while listening to the record player. Funny, though: the power is off, but the record is still spinning, and the chair is rocking as though somebody just left... and do I hear whispers?

This is a simple concept. All you do is have a room with a few disturbing elements. If it's a child's bedroom, a broken doll is normally disturbing, as are stuffed animals with spiderwebs on them. A spinning record player, particularly with a broken record, adds to the eeriness of the scene. (You do not need to have any sound coming out of the player; the simple spinning element is enough.)

A ghostly rocker is exceedingly simple. If you know someone who is mechanically inclined, they can make a little motor to rock the chair, but a hidden actor with a length of dark string is enough. (The room should be kept dim regardless.) A simple recording of overlaid whispers* and barely audible music or sounds should be enough to set the stage for a grand shock later on.

*Friesian is a language that is almost the inverse of English: while English is a Germanic language through a French filter, Friesian is a French language through a Germanic filter. I am told that English speakers find Friesian to hover on the edge of understanding since the sound and feel of it is almost identical to English. If you know anyone who speaks it, I'm sure that Friesian whispers would be maddeningly cool.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scenario: Bugs


Praying MantisBugs
Style: Creep
Position: Hallway or in between rooms

Nothing is simpler than this classic bit of creepiness. A dim hallway has clear fishline of varying lengths hanging from the ceiling. The guests can't see them, yet they're getting touches on their faces, light, brushing touches. If there are plastic bugs on the walls and perhaps a hint of moving light, those bugs will seem to move, thoroughly creeping those who cannot stand the thought of bugs.

An alternate and popular alternative is to have a room with a strobe and flourescent dots painted on a black background, along with hanging balls in similar flourescent colors. This is very disorienting and it is possible for an adult in black with flourescent dots to hide in the room and create scares as well.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Scenario: Victorian Parlor


Victorian Parlor
Style: Creep
Position: Beginning

Theater GhostThe antechamber is dark and lit by lanterns or candles (there are many electrical styles available for safety purposes.) The antique-style furniture is dusty or swathed in sheets for storage. The walls are covered in pictures. On closer examination, all of these pictures are "death photos" - pictures of people who have just died. (See "The Others" or several online sources for examples.) There is no heat. There are spiderwebs everywhere. A girl in a Victorian outfit enters, carrying a hand lantern. She is the tour guide.

The purpose of this scenario is to set the stage. This is an abandoned Victorian house; why was it abandoned? The photos of actual dead people on the walls are for atmosphere, because though Victorians found it completely natural to have a photograph of a loved one who had passed away, we look at it as downright creepy. The story can go anywhere from here - are there ghosts? Was there a murder? Is it possible that everyone is trapped?

Most death photos are out of copyright. You can scan them at a library if it has any, but be careful because a published book may have a copyright even if the original image doesn't.

Technical note: If the only pictures you can obtain are digital and at a small resolution, Photoshop has a sweet spot in the algorithm which you can use to make the pictures large enough for your purposes. Go to Image—>Adjust—>Image Size, and change the percentage to 110%. (If you write this to an Action, done by picking Action—>Record and then doing the above steps, you can redo this by simply clicking one button.) Repeat until the picture is big enough; if the resolution is still low, go to Image—>Adjust—>Image Size and unclick the Resample Image button. Change the resolution to 300dpi. You'll notice that the size of the image chages; go back to your action and do it until the size is what you wish it to be. (Hint courtesy of Scott Kelby and his Photoshop tips books.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Scenario: Cemetery


Style: Creep
Position: Entry or outside

Stalking CornIf you have the outdoors area to have it, a cemetery is very effective. Styrofoam headstones are good, as are wooden headstones. If you are really ambitious, or have someone really talented, look to old cemeteries for inspiration for decorations. There should be plenty of dead leaves around, and there are many electric lanterns that can mimic real lanterns quite well. (Please, please, please be very careful if you choose to use real candles.) Fake cobwebs are good, and carefully used dry ice completes the scene.

Any Halloween store can sell you props that will be quite effective, but for pure creep factor, nothing beats a little bit of applied research. Go online and find common first and last names from 14 to 20 years ago, as chances are that you will hit on some quite close to your target audience. Put dates that are just a few days in the future. A teenaged girl who, for example, sees the name of her best friend on a tombstone with a death date just a few days away is going to get freaked out— and you haven't even done anything yet.

An indoor cememtery is, of necessity, quite limited. Consider having a headstone with a face-shaped hole in it, so that an actor with white or stone makeup on can make faces at the guests. (Underlight them for the most effective mood.) Dry ice can also be used, but try asking a local theater if they have a dry ice fog machine. That's the thing that gets the fog crawling across the floor— a very disturbing image.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Haunted Houses: Positioning


Copper JackWhen planning your haunted house, sometimes where is not important as when. I mentioned in the Narrative section that the best haunted houses have a story. Everyone knows (or should know) about story arcs, most wonderfully explained at the link. The idea is that you build tension until the climax, and then release it through the denouement. Admittedly, with a haunted house the relief comes from leaving, but the relief is there all the same.

So it's very important that you don't start off with your biggest scare. Sure, the Devil rising from the depths of Hell, screaming legions of the damned clutched in his talons and fire spouting from his mouth is cool, but what do you do for an encore? There's a reason Dante's Inferno starts at the outside and works in toward the image of Satan, and it isn't theological.

You have to build to your greatest scare. Sometimes this is simple: figure out what your scariest thing is and put it last. Find your not-so-scary things and put them early.

If you can, get your guests dreading your later scares. If you will be chasing them out of the house with a chainsaw-wielding maniac, have copious amounts of fake blood and fragments of newspaper stories around. ("Mysterious Slaying At Cabin!" and the like.) If vampires are your thing, strands of garlic and Gothic crucifixes are good for the decor. But whatever you do, build. A blood-drained corpse is scarier before you meet the monster who drained it; afterward it is not warning but verification.

Another important trick is the "big reveal." A monster that jumps out at someone is better than one waiting at the end of the hall for them to draw near. Place something scary or shocking just around a corner so a guest turns and is suddenly confronted with something horrible.

Position your scares appropriately and you'll make your house a thriller.

Next up: Scenarios!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Haunted Houses: Props


Larry the SkullJust as it is important to have costumes, it is important to have props. Props— short for "properties"— are those bits and pieces that clutter up your rooms, the things you hold, the tools you use. While you can mime a lot of things, you have to have really good actors to do a haunted house without props.

Naturally enough, most people will look to Halloween stores for prop pieces. In general, this is not the best idea as they can be cheesy and expensive. Go ahead and get a few set pieces from the holiday store, but make or find the rest.

A surprisingly good reference for prop spectaculars is Martha Stewart. MS Living has published ideas from your dry ice cauldron to mock hanging moss made from black trashbags. There's step-by-step instructions on the many uses of cheesecloth. Cheesecloth is inexpensive and versatile. Further prop instructions can be found online at Ghosts of Halloween. More cheesecloth!

But you don't always have to start from scratch. Look around your house. Especially look around your tool shed. Take a look at the dollar bin of an antique store. Find something strange and wonderful and disturbing, and figure out how to work it in. Even a perfectly ordinary cellphone can be good if you rig it to ring its absurdly cheery little ring... from the bottom of a well.

There is one problem with props, however, and that is they will get damaged. Don't use your mint-condition heirloom as a prop, and likewise don't use anything that is apt to break. If using an electric tool of any description, find some way to render it harmless. A chainsaw, for instance, is perfectly safe once it's had its chain removed— there's nothing to cut or tear, and in dim light your guests won't notice.

But the most important thing about props is "don't be boring." Anyone can get the crawling hand from the holiday store. It takes imagination to make some old paper and photographs scary, but it's worth the extra effort.

Next up: Positioning

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Haunted Houses: Actors


The Grim Reaper Joins the PartyOkay, you've got a location, and props, and scenarios, and insurance, so now you need the all-important part: the actors. Actors who get into the story are the ones who make a haunted house successful; they engage the guests in ways that mere props alone cannot.

However, finding such wonderful people is a difficult task, especially at prices you can afford. Serious actors know their worth, and a person who is just going through the motions— actors call it "phoning it in"— hammers home the unreality to the guest. Someone who is obviously bored makes a haunted house boring.

How do you get good actors, then?

First of all, expect to audition far more people than you actually use. If you can't bring in enough people to have a choice, you will have a problem. (An exception is if you are part of a theater group who is voluntarily putting on a haunted house, because everyone involved will be acting their hearts out for the house to succeed.)

Secondly, you will have to consider whether volunteers are worth the price. Sometimes a group of apathetic volunteers is more costly in the long run than paid actors. If your house is boring or unenthusiastic, the all-important repeat business simply does not happen.

Thirdly, a large number of the people who want to work in a haunted house will be minors. This can be problematic. Check the labor laws for your area to make sure that any underage employees are properly taken care of in terms of hours, breaks, permits, and pay scale. You may also want to limit their participation to areas where they cannot be cornered by belligerent guests.

And, sad to say, many minors are unaware of the demands of working in a haunted house and absenteeism is common. Carefully screen to make sure you hire reliable teenagers. They do exist, no matter what you think.

Good places to look for haunted house talent are the local community theater groups and colleges. If you can find an improv group, that's gold. Also consider people who have done such things as work at summer camp or who have worked with small children, as they are used to infusing everyday activities with enthusiasm.

As for payment, remember that you get what you pay for. A community haunted house can get away with pizza and sodas as payment, but a professional operation should certainly be paying at least minimum wage, and probably a good bit above that. Haunted houses should be fun for all involved, and because there are hazards that most guests never see, the pay should reflect that.

Next up: Props

Monday, October 06, 2008

Haunted Houses: Guests


Hanging SkeletonThe truth of the matter is that no matter how carefully you plan your haunted house, something is bound to go wrong as soon as the guests appear. It can be as accidental as the guests noticing some problem that you and the rest of the staff managed to completely overlook, or it might be as deliberate as the trashing of the sets that occurred on Halloween at the Bayou Brewing Company's haunted house. Guests can be mirthful or terrified, skeptical or gullible, overprotective or downright dangerous. You have to be aware of the possibilities and how to minimize danger.

First of all, there are two forms of haunted house: controlled and uncontrolled. An uncontrolled house is a bunch of set pieces that guests are allowed to freely wander through. This works pretty well for houses geared towards kids under 12 but can be a preparation for disaster with older groups. The aforementioned Bayou Brewing Company house was uncontrolled; though the maze was set up to push the guests in one direction, anyone who wished to loiter could do so unimpeded, and anyone who wanted to put a foot through a piece of panelling could do so in relative privacy with no fear of getting caught.

A controlled house is one where the guests are led through the house, such as the "Aliens" setup I described earlier. This usually requires a leader and a follower; the follower is specifically charged with keeping the stragglers up and with making sure any children or adults who need to leave suddenly for any reason are escorted to the nearest exit. This has the benefit of reducing vandalism but requires a larger manpower commitment.

In a controlled or uncontrolled environment, one thing must be taken into consideration: You are not allowed to touch the guests. Ever. Not to grab them or to scare them; not to tap them on the shoulder; not to stop them from kicking an antique into pieces. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that in our lawsuit-happy culture, even the slightest touch might prove the fodder for a personal injury lawsuit. Don't give yourself that kind of grief.

However, looming, screaming, growling, and general menace are all allowed. And, naturally, if there is a medical or safety issue, you are allowed to intervene as would any bystander. If you are really concerned about vandalism, consider hiring a security guard who can take care of troublemakers in ways that you cannot.

Of course, there is always the possibility of unintentional damage. A frightened person might run against a wall, or over a prop. The only thing to do in such circumstances is to back off and let the person calm down. If the guest gets hysterical, call for a plainclothes staff member to escort the guest out. (A costumed character might frighten the person more.) This is a rare occurence but one that should be considered.

Above all, be flexible, and react to the guests as much as possible. An interactive haunted house is more interesting than a static museum setup.

Next Up: Actors

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Haunted Houses: Practical Considerations


The Ghost of the Haunted HouseHaunted houses are not, alas, very cheap to put on in practical terms. There is the cost of the location; there is the necessity of obtaining actors; and, in most cases, there are props to be acquired or built. And, of course, there is a need to get guests - usually paying guests - to the haunted house, which means advertising costs.
Rare is the setup which has plenty of money and manpower - usually there is a tradeoff. A well-funded enterprise might have access only to those indifferent, unwilling, or just plain unknowledgeable, or a group of theater students might have the paltry profit from the last student production. A volunteer group might have to put up with bored teens just helping to get required "service" credit.

In general terms then, these will be the probable costs:

  • Location. Unless one of your group is someone with a handy building just sitting around, it is likely that your group will have to rent a suitable building for your haunted house. Warehouses are very popular for these purposes, but be aware that such a building requires excessive construction of interior "walls". An actual building can be used, but be aware that there is a large probability that the location will be damaged over the course of a run, sometimes even deliberately. (More on that later.)
  • Actors. While you might be in a group of friends who think that putting on a haunted house is the coolest thing in the world, chances are that you will need to solicit other people. Obviously, volunteers are cheap, but they vary in quality from sublime to sub-par. Some may even be entirely unreliable. Your best bet is to look for theater students, but be aware that they are saavy and will only work in quality conditions. (If you are unable to provide financial recompense, try to arrange a crediting scheme with the school or university. That way, the students get recompensed in the form of grades and extra credit.) In other words, if you are treating your actors badly, don't be surprised when they stop showing up entirely.

    All paid positions must follow your local business laws. In fact, with certain for-profit haunted houses, you may not be able to accept more than a certain percentage of volunteer help - make sure you know where you stand before you start.
  • Props and Sets. You can't get around the fact that folding chairs and T-shirts and jeans, by themselves, don't make for a very effective scare. Whether it's fishline or a fully automated screaming skeleton, props will cost money and time. If you do haunted houses every year, the props become a sunk cost, getting used year after year, but when you're first starting off they can be large.
  • Insurance. This is the one that nobody thinks about. No matter how many disclaimers a guest may sign, there is still the risk that someone will get hurt— or claim to get hurt— in order to win a suit. Actors also pose a need for insurance; some stunts are dangerous. (Due to the chance of accidental hangings, it is advised that any "hanging corpses" be dummies rather than actors.) Keep yourself safe; if the event is open to the general public, make sure to carry the proper insurance. (Safety precautions can minimize the cost of insurance. Be sure to ask the insurance adjustor about them.)

A haunted house is a major undertaking. Make sure you know what is involved before you start the process.

Next up: Guests

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Haunted Houses: Narrative


Dem Dry BonesThis section could also be called "How to Build a Scare." Most people don't realize how a scare needs to be crafted; the legions of bad horror movies are a testament to that. Relentless attacks on the senses produce stupor, not fright; a true craftsmaster will also prefer to let the audience use imagination to produce a scare rather than showing his hand too early.

Remember Alien, the first movie? The title creature got very little screen time and, in fact, was not evident for the first half of the movie. What was evident was the disquieting elements: the radio gone silent, the skittering noises, the movement caught out of the corner of the eye. When the audience first saw the facehuggers, they were so keyed up that it was far more frightening than if those creatures had been in view from the start.

As with painting, the white space is important. In this case, it is the calm before the storm. Don't be afraid to let your guests have to wait during an early part of the tour, especially if it is in an area geared to produce disquiet. You could have a bloody antechamber with desperate handprints near the exit and a near-constant dripping sound nearby. You could have a coffin with chains around it. You could have a plain room - but with random scratching coming from the other side of the wall. Such a setup not only gets the guests worried but engages their imaginations - what is that sound supposed to be?

Likewise, save your biggest scares for the end. If you've got a killer with a chainsaw at the beginning, don't be surprised when the guests merely shrug at the cartoony witch near the end. The trick is to lull the guests into thinking that everything is normal and then hit them with a shock or a surprise.

For example, to continue with the Aliens theme, above, the entry could be of a typical space station, with a tour guide willing to show them the new state-of-the-art facility. After pointing out a few things in typical tour-guide fashion, he has to communicate with someone else on the team, who does not answer. (Disquiet.) Then a little skittering noise is heard. The tour guide makes a few calming comments but is obviously disturbed himself. As he leads the group into the next room, he realizes that it is in disarray. (More disquiet.) He realizes that something is wrong and he tries to contact someone else. No answer. He instructs the group to stay where they are and then leaves.

After a minute, more skittering sounds are heard, distinctly moving from one side of the room toward another. The lights flicker. Something moves past the door, too fast to be seen. The tour guide's scream is heard, then laser-style shooting or explosions. The tour guide, considerably worse for wear, shows up and instructs the group to follow him. After passing by some destroyed rooms, the tour guide starts indicating that he feels ill. (You could see that one coming.) His shirt starts jumping, and he points the group on. Heavy footsteps are heard behind. The tour guide screams for the group to run. They do, and then the lights go out.

Again, there is a pause while strange noises happen around them. Then a couple of marines show up with flashlights and urge the group to follow them. As they are hurried past a junction, one of the marines is pulled away abruptly, screaming. The group can barely see something, something big. The other marine points them towards the "escape pod" (possibly an elevator), which the group crowds in. The doors take forever to close, during which time the group can almost see something big coming towards them. The marine shoots, but is pulled down. The doors finally close.

For this narrative, the true shape of the alien is never seen. This is especially good if your creature-building skills are suboptimal. The use of dark is important; people fear what they can't see. And leaving the group alone at points leaves them adrift - they don't know what they are supposed to do, and the confusion adds to the sense of fear. By crafting a story from beginning to end, the sense of control rests firmly with the actors, and the fear inspired when the guests are a part of the narrative is increased.

Next up: Practical Considerations

Friday, October 03, 2008

Haunted Houses: Themes


Stalking CornWhen setting up a haunted house, a theme can be your greatest ally in crafting the scare. By insuring that all of the frightening elements have something in common, the actors do not end up by confusing the guests but can instead build on each element into a complete storyline.

A theme does not have to be complicated and can, for example, be built around props or costumes that the group already has. For example, if the actors are primarily drawn from the Society for Creative Anachronism, your theme could be that of a Medieval Torture House, or the Tower of London with all of its attendant ghosts. Drawing on common costume elements available today, one could create a house based on Movie Moster Horror, with Freddy Kreuger, Béla Lugosi's Dracula, and Elvira in attendance. Or if the location is a creepy Victorian-era house, one could, well, do Victorian Horror.

When I was in college, I took part in a haunted house run by a pseudo-Louisiana company called the Bayou Brewing Company. Naturally, the haunted house had swamp-themed elements in it; however, even though it was very well-designed, it did not have a coherent theme. This became a problem later on when the designer left, because the company gentleman in charge did not have the same sense of drama that the designer had; he allowed the various different elements to blend, which not only sapped the tension but caused confusion - the Aliens birth scene does not, for example, go very well with the creepy swamp guy.

If you are running on a tight budget and can only do a haunted house with the different elements on hand, make sure that you spend a lot of time crafting the narrative. I call it a narrative because it is exactly that: a storyline crafted by the actors and the guests together.

Next up: Narrative

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Haunted Houses: Community


FacesHow well do you know your community? Do you know if it's primarily singles or families? Or maybe it's an aging community.

Knowing your market is essential to designing your haunted house. A Mike Meyers Halloween will play well to your young adults but will be given a wide berth by both your young families and your older folk. And planning a loud haunted house next to a nursing home would be, as they say, a Bad Idea. So the first thing you need to do is to figure out your target audience.

The first thing you need to do is figure out how wide your range is going to be. If you're setting up a professional house with a large advertising budget, your target audience will be drawn from a large geographic area. Those kinds of haunted houses need to promise and deliver huge thrills to get the people to visit and return. In fact, that type of haunted house would do well to have variances in the scenarios so as to provide something new on every visit.

But for the most part, your house is likely to be a local affair, and the first thing to do is consider the demographics of your location. If it's kid-centric, with lots of playgrounds and parents with strollers, you'll probably want to design a house for the younger set, with storytelling and minor scares rather than the heavy-duty thrills. If it's teens in the area, you can go a bit stronger. And if you're in the neighborhood of a university or community college, you've hit a sweet spot— both your workers and your guests are likely to come from the college.

The next thing to take into account is the local interests. See what clubs and organizations are popular in the area. A local history club can be a great source of inspiration. Local "ghosts," complete with accurate historical personalities, will add a unique flavor to the proceedings. Or perhaps your area is big on football. Why not have a haunted team?

The most important thing is, of course, to get the community on your side. Don't set your house in a heavily residential area and be loud late into the night. Make sure to provide safe areas outside your house. And figure out concessions you can make if people will be upset with you— it is not done to be the neighborhood bogeyman, even if you have a bogeyman in your house.

Next up: Themes

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Haunted Houses: Introduction


FreddyIn October, thoughts turn to Halloween, and many people celebrate by going to productions known as haunted houses. These can vary from the community production to the Hollywood-produced theme house, but the level of money put into a production is no indication of quality. A so-called amatuer production can pack more punch than a professionally created one; the true indicator of quality is in the level of planning and quality of participators.

There are two basic types of haunted house: the Creep and the Shock. The Creep is a type where little things happen to make the guest uneasy, such as skitterings in the ceiling. A good example of a horror movie where Creep is the major factor is The Others, where the isolation and confusion lead to a sense of dread. The Shock is a more in-your-face kind of horror, where frightening things might jump out at you. A subset of Shock is Gore, where blood and guck rule the day. This is more of the Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday the 13th kind of production. Of course, the best haunted houses partake of both Creep and Shock; a bad haunted house in one that either never elevates the fright level above Creep, or that abuses Shock until the guest is bored with it.

Think of how the movie Alien (the original) delayed showing the alien for as long as possible; the tension was drawn out by using strange noises and half-hidden glimpses. Horror movies of this stripe are a good example of how to construct a haunted house; they have a gradual build to an eventual climax. If one constructs a haunted house in the same manner as one constructs a good story, the house will have a greater impact than a strung together collection of random scenes.

When deciding to produce a haunted house, one should take into consideration the following aspects:
-The location. A haunted house is nothing without a "house", whether that is an actual house, a warehouse, or a community center. The shape of the space that you obtain will have a direct effect on the types of scenes that you are able to produce.
-The actors. The quality of people you have available to you will help determine the level of haunted house you can produce. There was one haunted house I participated in where a large number of high schoolers volunteered to help fulfill community service credit; most of them didn't care about the haunted house and were little more than indifferent actors. The house suffered as a result because there were too many roles that required an active commitment.
-The resources. This includes the amount of money that is available for the house, but this can be offset by willing volunteers and available props.
-The community. Is this a suburban neighborhood where they will bring their kids (even if you specify an age limit)? Then you should take this into account and ensure either a low-key haunted house or a safe area where children can be looked after while their family takes the tour. Is it a teen-heavy area? You might want to go for the gore.

Once you have figured out where, when, and how your haunted house will take place, you will be able to pick your theme, and begin to design your haunted house.

Next up: Community. *NEW*

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Not Dead, Just Busy

Morning Nap

I'll get back to you.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Welcome to the World

Tummy Time

Gareth Edmund Hansen Durbin
May 20th, 2008, 1:23 AM
9 pounds, 14.6 ounces, 20 inches long

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Night Watch Series

The Night Watch Series

Sergei Lukyanenko

Date: 2007   —   Book

Night Watch product page

Day Watch product page

Twilight Watch product page


Fiction, Fantasy (translated)

This Russian series has given birth to a trilogy of European movies that have won great acclaim. It is about the long battle between the forces of the Light and the Dark, in the form of people called the Others. The Others are those who can go into the Twilight, and once they are initiated there, the Twilight draws out which side the Other will be upon. If truth be told, the mental state of the Other at that moment is the guiding factor, so the forces of the Light and the forces of the Dark watch very carefully for potentials, each hoping to initiate a person at the correct time.

Both sides have to be circumspect in their dealings, as a long-held truce is in place to keep both sides in check. Thus the forces of the Light have the Night Watch, to look over the dealings of the Dark, while those of the Dark have the Day Watch, to look over the dealings of the Light. An Other who works for the Night Watch may not turn a person toward the path of good without allowing an Other of the Dark a similar level of intervention. Both sides are watched over by the Inquisition, members of both sides who are alll too aware of the tragedy that an imbalance could cause.

This is backstory. Also part of the setting is the essential distinction between the two forces, that those of the Light truly believe that they are shepherding ordinary humans for an overall better world, while those of the Dark feel as though personal freedom is the most important ideal. It is worth noting that neither side requires attendance, and that the Light is, perhaps, a bit understaffed for the Night Watch, while the Dark has no trouble getting volunteers— or with going through them in a rather callous fashion.

This series primarily centers around the actions of Anton Gorodetsky, a member of the Night Watch who has only been an Other for perhaps seven years, and is thus still fairly human in his attitudes. There are several novellettes in each volume, each one leading to the final confrontation. Lukyanenko is quite clever in setting these confrontations up; none of them are quite what they seem, and all are plotted in a way that suggests mystery rather than dark fantasy. Anton is, in most of these tales, not supposed to be the central character, but he ends up understanding, perhaps, how the intricate machinations of both sides could lead to tragedy if comething goes wrong. He is in the position of the simple man who unravels the truth.

These novels, naturally enough, are set in and around Moscow, but aside from that, and the occasional hints of Russian history dropped in, there is little to confuse an American reader. Much props to the translator for his work on this series. Also do not be fooled by the copyright dates as these books were primarily written before 2002; a few cultural notes might seem strange otherwise.

One more note: these books are marketed as fantasy/horror, but in truth I found nothing in them as dark as, say, Charles De Lint. Certainly nothing on the level of Stephen King. So please, do not avoid them on that account.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Friday, January 04, 2008