They'll scare the crap out of you

"A little commercial haunt that wants to start out, as soon as he's advertising, the fire marshal and the local people are going to be involved because he's out there making a profit and that's what they are looking for," Young says.

Larger haunts tend to conjure up enthusiasm that trickles down.

"They get people interested in going haunting and once people go to the big ones, they are always looking for someplace else to go," Young says. "So, they'll try a small haunt."

Mike Darling gives his troops a pep talk...
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Mike Darling gives his troops a pep talk...
...before unleashing them for the night's activities.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
...before unleashing them for the night's activities.

Pickel says the increase in for-profit houses marked the point at which everything had to get more fantastical. Owners knew that to increase the price, they would have to provide an experience that was scarier and lasted longer than ten or 15 minutes. At the same time, the dynamics of horror were changing.

"When I first got into haunts in 1988, it was a bunch of black walls and bloody props," Fetterly says. Hollywood was making movies with characters such as Freddy Krueger, Jason, Pinhead and Michael Myers which made it easy to see what scared people. Haunters knew gore and chainsaws would be an instant hit. But as movies became more innovative and video games entered the realm, haunters like Fetterly discovered that it was time for a change.

"I remember a couple coming out and saying, 'You know, there was a lot of gore and blood, but it wasn't that scary,'" Fetterly says. People were becoming desensitized in the digital age.

Fetterly went to a trade show similar to HAuNTcon to discover the latest scares. The answer was robots, scary robots. Animatronics became, and still are, an integral part of the haunted house industry. They fill the halls of Screamworld -- a girl in a bed will leap out at a passerby or a werewolf will fly out from a casket -- but none of it's real. Each year animatronics become more and more advanced and easier to use. Fetterly says that most of them are set off by sensors today, but that in the past each robot had to be paired with an actor who could hit its trigger.

As several operators found, however, animatronics alone are not enough. Fetterly got caught up in the wave of animatronics in the '90s. He thought they would replace actors, and decreased his staff.

"That was the wrong thing to do -- two-thirds of the way through the season I'm hiring more actors," Fetterly says. The importance of having actors.

Every haunter says animatronics can't replace the type of scare a live person delivers.

"[Animatronics] are impressive looking, but they're not really that frightening," Pickel says. "But they do do a great job of pulling people's attention away from where the real scare might be." Fetterly agrees and says an actor's ability to react to people differently is what makes him or her the most valuable part of a haunted house experience.

"An actor can adjust to whatever is going on at that moment -- unlike an animatronic -- and then pop out at the right moment and get in your face," Fetterly says.

Makeup, masks and prosthetics have all been upgraded to produce effects similar to those used in the film industry. Scars, deformities and horns seem more realistic and make for a better in-your-face scare.

The illusion of peril is key to a successful haunt. Real danger is another matter entirely. The last thing haunters want is a reputation that people can get hurt or killed at their attractions.

In 1984 at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, eight teenagers entered the park's attraction known as the Haunted Castle and never left. The "castle" was actually a series of connected trailers located on the property. During their walk through, it was reported by The New York Times, someone in the house ignited a lighter to find his way in the dark. The flame made contact with a piece of foam and set the entire attraction on fire. Although others made it out, the eight teenagers were burned alive.

Larry Kirchner, another big name in haunted houses, says a majority of accidents these days happen on haunted hayrides, which are more popular in the northern United States. In 1999 a 13-year-old girl was shot on a hayride at the Horror Woods in Ashville, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Tawyna Key died from a gunshot wound to the head fired by an actor who was supposed to be shooting blanks.

Last year an actor was killed in Lowell, Indiana during a hayride at Norm's Pumpkin Patch. The North West Indiana Times reported that 16-year-old Travis Duncan died after being struck by a tractor-trailer. Duncan was working for his third year at the attraction.

Pickel says the biggest mistake first-time haunters make is forgetting about safety and building codes. They see a line outside a haunt and think building their own would mean instant revenue.

"They'll count the number of kids that they see and multiply that by five hours a night by 30 days by the ticket price and think, 'Man, this guy is making a killing,'" Pickel says. They don't realize that attendance varies from weekend to weekend and don't prepare their houses to handle the fluctuating number of patrons. Pickel adds that most don't have an understanding of capacity or fire regulations.

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