While the media is proficient in creating real horrors every night on the news, it may or may not be interesting to know that Halloween has become big business in the United States. The holiday has now become a time for big bucks, generating an estimated $5 billion dollars in profits from costumes, candy and commercial haunted houses or ‘spook alleys‘.
The commercial haunting business is a profiting enterprise, with proprietors investing in props, properties, and counting on paid actors and volunteers to create the haunted experience.
Commercial haunted houses are popping up everywhere and they can be anything from the simple homemade project seen at High schools and churches to big money enterprises that need insurance clearances and inspections from fire marshals to make sure the experience is safe.
I remember in high school when one of the clubs I was in needed to raise money for a trip they wanted to go on. There were suggestions to hold a dance, sell things from a catalogue, or just ask for donations.
Finally we all decided on creating a spook alley. Much of what was used for props was already in the drama department. We also asked the woodshop to create caskets and the science department provided Tesla coils for the mad scientist room. We also had a member of the club whose father was a mortician and he provided us with some demo caskets that we used for an area on the orchestra pit where we could lower it below the stage and have vampires rise out them for a creepy affect.
At the end of the one week run we were able to raise $3,000 dollars. Admission was only $3 dollars. Word spread throughout my small town and people were coming in droves to attend.
That was back in 1981.
Today, the small town spook shows have grown into well-organized spectaculars that are either created for charities or for commercial gain.
People love to get scared, but only when there is no physical risk involved. This is a tricky thing for organizers and insurance agents must be consulted and liability has to be assessed along with other possible dangers that come with trying to scare the bejeezus out of a patron.
Every year the cost of fear can run you anywhere from 15 to 20 dollars, all for the adrenaline rush of feeling that bit of uncertainty or anxiousness.
It may be hard to believe but staged haunted experiences as opposed to the real haunted experiences are relatively young. Staged haunted houses started out as not-for-profit ventures by community organizations and charitable group¬s in the 1980s.
By the early 1990s, astute businessmen began opening commercial for-profit haunted houses. Now these spectacular haunted experiences are an important part of the Halloween season.
According to retailer statistics, the average American spends at least $80.00 per family member on Halloween fun. That includes attending a haunted attraction or participating in a haunted activity real or staged. That is second only to Christmas and some are saying that both holidays are beneficial for the retail business.
The industry itself can be broken down into having the high-end retail Halloween attractions to the “mom and pop” private ones. Each one may invest very little to hundreds of thousands of dollars – and in some cases near $1 million dollars – to present a horrifying experience.
Then there are the mega-haunted experiences, year-round haunting experiences and amusement parks like Knott’s Berry Farm that have haunted experiences and the quality varies from place to place and so do themes. Some of these attractions have favorites that they resurrect for repeat customers, while others are constantly reinventing the experiences.
However, before these haunted experience owners can start scaring up customers and revenue, they have to first scare up resources. The haunted house experience may just be a one month affair, but it takes months to plan and for those who are serious about the business, a really good one takes years to get off the ground.
The investment starts with the space. It is recommended that you find a 5,000 square foot warehouse and today that could run you anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000 for the space alone.
That doesn’t account for insurance and permits. The purpose of a well-planned haunted house is to create the illusion of danger, but never actually come close to putting someone in harm’s way.
Insurance, safety equipment and maximum capacity will vary, depending on the city where the haunt is located. Those figures could influence where you can rent or purchase space.
Welcome to the first real headache of the planners. It is not all fun and games when the planners have to invest their money in all of the boring stuff before the fun of putting it together begins.
The fun also has to be monitored. So after the space is found many haunted houses are requires having security cameras installed. If someone gets badly injured in a haunted attraction, it could scare away business from other haunted attractions as well. Injury-related lawsuits could also shut down an attraction.
Haunted attractions have all sorts of props and hardware that could injure customers and employees. Most of the time, haunted house mazes are dark and foggy, increasing the chances for falls or stumbles. There is also money that is spent on flame retardants that are used on the decorations and props as well.
Props like chainsaws and other instruments of fear have to be without blades or dulled and all of that foggy air has to be filtered and monitored constantly for hazardous carbon monoxide levels.
There also has to be a floor plan design that provides safety exits and areas that can be handicapped accessible. The floor design is usually designed like a maze.
It also has to be planned out so they can get as many people through it as possible in the least amount of time; however, that is the complicated part. It can’t move too fast or too slow otherwise the effect is lost on the customers.
The best walk throughs are the ones that last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
The haunted experience is a giant stage play and it relies solely on illusion that is why props for the haunt are essential and actors also have to be the best or the experience falls flat.
The best haunted houses actually believe that the experience should begin while you are waiting in line. That is why actors are hired to play vampires and werewolves or even zombies to warm the crowd up – and in some cases there are minor attractions to contend with even before you reach the ticket booth. That adds to the excitement before you enter. Once again, the experience has to be secured and patrolled for safety.
When you enter you will notice that not only are there actors in the hunted house, but very advanced animatronics that are activated by touch sensors. Blinding strobes, air blasts and loud honks are used to disorient you.
Animatronics and other attractions used in haunted houses are also big business. There are tunnels that can cause optical illusions, rubber zombies that appear real, blood, advanced costuming and other attractions that can cost the creators hundreds of thousands of dollars for great props.
There are actually haunters conventions where special effects are showcased for potential buyers. There is even a Halloween University where potential haunters can learn tips on how to be professional haunters and how to make money on attractions.
There are also tips for haunted house actors on how to be better frighteners.
The primary rule of haunted house acting is to never come in contact with customers, scare quickly and then move on.
Then there is also the discretion of the management as to how extreme the haunted attraction should be. There are many things out there that frighten us all and there are also intense imagery that may not be for everyone.
While many haunted houses can be considered harmless and fun romps for the buck, there are others that have received bad publicity for what has been called offensive or sacrilegious imagery. There is a fine line to decency and the public decides what is offensive and what isn’t. There are however many people who object to images of bondage, images that they see as gratuitously violent or masochistic, sexual or even satanic.
There are some haunted attractions that have taken it to that extreme and have toned it down. Creating haunted experiences have always changed with the attitudes of the public. One year the themes could be about exorcisms, the next it could be vampires and now everyone has a fascination with zombies.
The business man has to keep up with what is scaring people in the pop culture or they could lose their business.
However, there is a saying amongst those who make the haunted experiences. There is no right or wrong way to haunt, however if you don’t entertain the customer there is no word of mouth, no excitement and no money to play anymore.
In order to make a living, you have to make those five weekends in October and sometimes into November work. In that time you need to make at least 20,000 or more to make it profitable. In order for it to be really profitable you have to keep at it for 3 to 5 years.
People are capable of making a living out of scaring people, and every Halloween we see some very fun and scary things offered for our entertainment.
Many of us don’t even think about what goes into every haunted experience, we just know we love them. Hopefully when you hear of a haunted house advertised in your area you will attend and appreciate the labor of love and money that goes into one every year.
I love Halloween and the magic it can produce.
I have experienced both the staged and real haunted experiences and both remind me of how exciting and complex are live are.
The paranormal experience is a remarkable reminder of how finite thinking can be a joyless barrier to infinite possibilities.