Every autumn, millions of Americans flock to haunted houses, happily willing to pay $20 or $30 to get petrified out of their wits. Scaring people is no amateur game: haunted houses make up a $300 million industry in the U.S. But there are only so many ways you can startle someone effectively (check out some DIY ideas here). So how do big-name haunted houses keep scaring customers year after year?
For answers, we turned to the creative team behind Terror Behind the Walls, a Philadelphia haunted house that’s regularly named one of the nation’s scariest and best. Now in its 24th season, the show uses a combination of animatronics, prosthetic flesh and boils for actors, and sheer surprise to properly terrify each and every visitor. (A Fast Company colleague who visited the attraction years ago describes her experience this way: “my high school boyfriend ended up screaming in the fetal position.”) It doesn’t hurt that this particular haunted house is located inside a building that would be a little spooky even in broad daylight–a decaying 19th-century prison that reportedly drove its inhabitants insane through its use of solitary confinement. Here, six keys to the architecture of terror:
The prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, was built on a radial model of cellblocks that jut out from a central atrium, which the haunted house weaves through. This particular style of prison architecture became popular during the Victorian era, and at the time, was considered fairly humane compared with the open holding pens that served as jails during the 18th century. Influenced by the theory of prison design–designed to allow a single watchman to observe all the prisoners from a central location, making surveillance a constant presence in prisoners’ lives–Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first solitary confinement prisons in America. More then 300 prisons around the world would later be designed around the “Pennsylvania System” pioneered at Eastern State. Whatever humane intentions the designers might have had, it was not a pleasant place to live. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” Charles Dickens wrote of solitary confinement after visiting Eastern State Penitentiary. The prisoners, he wrote, suffered from a “complete derangement of the nervous system.”
The site had its fair share of ghost stories even before it became a haunted house–the Travel Channel once called it “one of the most haunted locations in the world” (though the museum staff at the prison have denied that it’s really haunted). According to the Terror Behind the Walls website, “As early as the 1940s, officers and inmates reported mysterious visions and eerie experiences in the ancient prison. And the ghost sightings have only increased since Eastern State was abandoned in 1971.”
Anything that jars a visitor out of the moment risks ruining the suspension of disbelief that makes a haunted house truly frightening. Terror Behind the Walls faces a unique set of design challenges because it’s housed in a historic prison that dates back to 1829. Not only is it a national landmark that operates as a museum during the day (so no drilling holes into the walls or floors), it also requires a specific type of horror to feel authentic; Dracula might be scary inside a Gothic mansion, but it doesn’t mesh with a haunted prison theme. So the designers try to play off the prison’s existing features. Often, they recreate rooms in the penitentiary, like a haunted hospital that’s modeled after the prison’s real-life decrepit infirmary.
James Travis III, the manager of design services at Eastern State Penitentiary, who serves as the technical director for the show designing haunts, installing animatronics, and building props, describes going into the prison’s hospital and psych ward (off-limits to visitors for safety reasons) and photographing everything to recreate its eerie ambiance. “The beds, the color tones, how the paint is flaking off the walls, the architecture, and the fonts that we use in the prison” all were recreated in the haunted house. “When we go to recreate that attraction, you can evoke what is already scary and intimidating to people,” he says.
Terror Behind the Walls uses a three-pronged approach in designing its labyrinth of horrors: scare, spectacle, and story. “We want to have a balance between the things that scare people, impress and intrigue people, and bring them into the story,” the show’s creative director, Amy Hollaman, says. The 45-minute to hour-long experience at Terror Behind the Walls is designed to combine all of the elements, from actors popping out of the walls and making visitors uncomfortable, to “wow” moments of seeing something totally unreal–like zombies or a 12-foot-tall animatronic insect with glowing eyes–to a narrative that keeps people wanting to find out what will happen next.
Professional fear-mongers have a few different tricks up their sleeves to keep you frightened. Any haunted house’s “bread-and-butter scare,” as Hollaman puts it, is the startle scare, achieved by, say, a wooden panel in the wall dropping to reveal an actor who pops out at you.
The true key to designing a good startle scare is that the visitors don’t see it coming. “A lot of it is distraction, and kind of providing eye candy in the opposite direction of where the scare is going to come from,” Travis says.
There’s also the camouflage scare, which is fairly self-explanatory. You’re walking around the haunted house, looking straight at something–say, a haunted hedgerow–and suddenly, an actor emerges from the shadows, giving you a minor heart attack. And then, of course, there’s the three part scare. “We try to do a bait and switch or some kind of lower-level scare,” Travis explains, which moves people forward. “Then another actor will scare them, and they think they’re done.” But just as they catch their breath, thinking they won’t be scared yet again, a third actor or prop will pop out at them. “A lot of times that will send them on their way screaming,” Travis says.
At the same time, narrative helps visitors navigate the haunted house experience. “There’s one overarching narrative of the visitors that are traveling through the prison where different parts have been taken over by monsters,” Hollaman explains, but that’s not necessarily spelled out for the visitor. Rather, it’s the smaller narratives within the different attractions that serve as a guide. For example, in one section of the haunted house called “the lockdown,” actors reveal that control has been wrested away from the guards, and the inmates are in charge. Under the auspices of helping plan an escape, the guards usher visitors into the machine shop, the next attraction.
“Rhythm has to do with a lot of it,” Travis says of providing a scary experience. He walks through each area of the haunted house repeatedly, imitating a customer’s pace, trying to make sure the timing for everything is just right, that props and actors don’t come screaming out toward the path of the haunted house just a second too early or too late. Terror Behind the Walls has a custom soundtrack, and the design team has to ensure it doesn’t repeat before a customer has moved out of earshot.
However, you can’t control the speed groups of people walk at. There will always be a group that lags, or one that speeds through. And if you see someone in front of you get scared by a zombie stepping out of the darkness, it probably won’t startle you when the same thing happens to you a few seconds later. “We try to hide our scares so even if you’re 10 feet behind the group, you won’t know what’s scaring them,” Travis says.
The easiest way to hide one group from the group behind them is to simply curve the path that people walk, but there are other techniques that can heighten the spook factor. For example, there’s what Travis calls “stuff in face”: chains, netting, or anything else hanging from the ceiling that people physically have to push through. “Not only is that helping block the line of vision, but it’s also providing a tactile sensation,” he says. “It’s one more thing that can draw people into the show.” They also use elements of the set to create more of a maze. “We might put something like a gurney, we might stack some 55-gallon drums that look like they’re oozing toxic waste, those type of things,” he continues.
However, the designers have to balance keeping groups of visitors at a safe distance away from each other with getting them to move through the haunted house reasonably quickly. “There’s a fine line” between getting as many visitors through the attraction as possible, and having the best show possible, Travis explains. (After all, the haunted house is a fundraiser to make money to restore the prison as a museum–more visitors each night means more money for the cause.) That balance can largely be achieved by scaring people a certain way.
“We always try to scare forward to try to keep the flow going,” Travis says. “A lot of times we try to scare further down the path rather than being scared into the wall,” which slows the circulation of traffic through the maze.
Plus, where people instinctively move when they’re frightened can become a safety issue. When designing something to scare visitors, you have to think about how people will react–and what they might jump into if they leaped backward in terror. “You never really know how bad something is going to scare somebody,” Travis explains. “We try to keep the opposite wall clear from any kind of metal props or anything like that.”
Setting an eerie ambiance is key, and there are a few foolproof ways to do it. “We find that changes from a large open space, like a big room with vaulted spaces, to a smaller narrow corridor or hallway” starts evoking fear, Travis says. “Once you start confining people, it really puts them on edge.”
Another reliably frightening combo: fog and flickering low lights. “You get just a little bit of fog to get an ethereal mist in there. It evokes cemeteries and backwoods and fall,” he says. “Flickering lights always seem to bring distress in people, because they think something is going wrong.”
Of course, even the experts sometimes get it wrong. One aspect of this year’s Terror Behind the Walls, a long walk through an empty cellblock, proved to be not as scary as the set designers thought it might be. While the designers of the haunt thought a dark, empty old prison–and all the sounds that come along with it–would be creepy enough, customers complained that they thought the experience was over, and they were merely exiting. The designers’ solution? Add fog.
In 2014, a spooky location and a few actors in zombie makeup are no longer enough to impress on their own. Terror Behind the Walls has hundreds of performers, Hollywood-level special effects, makeup and prosthetics, but the haunted house’s design team is still always trying to think of new ways to scare their audience. Last year, they began an experiment in letting the audience become part of the show: every visitor has the option of an enhanced scare experience, where they consent to be grabbed by performers, taken into back rooms or pulled into dark passageways, and separated from their friends. More than two-thirds of visitors chose the interactive experience last year, signaling that people want to be as much a part of the action as they can be.
“In today’s day and age, it doesn’t seem like anyone wants just a standard experience, where people sit down and are impacted,” Hollaman says. “We’re in a world of engagement, whether [people are] engaging by tweeting about something or taking a selfie, they want to share, they want to tell other people what they’ve done and they want to be part of it.”
This, in turn, impacts how the haunted house is designed. “Instead of saying, ‘How do we want to impact the visitor?’ we thought, ‘What can the visitor do?'”
One day, this desire for interactivity might even translate to virtual reality. In August, a Kickstarter launched to create a haunted house visited exclusively with the help of a virtual reality headset. The Kickstarter failed, and the virtual Halloween experience didn’t happen, but it’s not far off to think that one day, the haunt could be all in our heads.