The Art of Atmosphere-By David Collier

Atmosphere. Mood. These are the things I feel are key to any successful haunted house. I’ve attended many in my day and I’ve put a few haunts on myself with mixed results.

The bad haunts slammed lots of loud music at me with a couple of “actors” hiding in corners with cans full of coins to scare me. This is getting to be the norm at many haunts and I wish the people putting these things on would be a little more inventive. Don’t get me wrong - there is a place for this “jump and boo” stuff. Just not at every turn.

The good haunts don’t always have to try and scare me. Great effects, sound and lighting will always make me appreciate the time that went into the haunted house, and great actors will just be icing on the cake.
At the end of it all you should ask yourself this: Did I get my money’s worth? Am I satisfied with the presentation? Did they set the proper mood?

Without setting the proper mood, you’re selling your audience short. What do I mean by mood? I’ll give you my two-cents worth.

Lighting. From my film and television background, I know that lighting is key to setting the proper “mood” in your attraction. Don’t just turn on a couple of black lights and think you’re finished. What type of room are you lighting? Color will set different tones in your haunted house. I think that lighting seems to be the last thing on people’s minds when setting up a haunt. Don’t just throw dim light on it and leave it. Think carefully about how it looks with the house lights off. Think about it this way. You have a fairly nice room set up with a mummy theme. What color(s) would set the proper mood. Do you want a desert setting with warm colors or a dark and dank feeling?

Set Design. You don’t have to have elaborate and expensive sets to get your message across, but a couple of “pro” looking props will make your haunt seem more professional and less “slapped together.” Beg or borrow (but don’t steal) anything you can get your hands on that will add to the tone of your haunt. If you’re limited on props, highlight with lighting and sound.

Sound FX. This includes atmospheric sound effects and maybe music (not of the ear-piercing heavy metal variety I’m bombarded with at bad haunts). Pick sound elements that aren’t in your face unless they are a part of your scare. They should be subtle. Sound properly utilized will always add to the “creep” factor in your haunt. Computers make it easy now to create - mix - and burn sound FX CD's for your haunt. Repeating cassette tapes can also help if you want to record a few seconds of a sound and have it play endlessly on a tape player.

Actors. Deciding to use real actors or mechanical effects in your haunt is just a matter of preference (as well as expense). Don’t just put a mask on your neighbor’s kid and expect an Oscar-winning performance. Know who your actors are. Interview them if you can. Good actors will really sell your haunt and bad ones will leave your customers feeling ripped off. If you have the time and resources to create mechanical effects, I would certainly recommend this, especially if people are on short supply.

These are some of the things that I’ve found to create a great haunt in my 20-plus years of experience in the world of haunted attractions. I’ve been to some great haunted house experiences and I’ve been to bad ones. With a little planning, you should be able to produce a fun haunt that will have your customers coming back for more.

This article was originally printed in the book "How to Haunt Your House - Volume 1". The book was distributed by but is no longer available.

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