Gröna Lund’s Best Nightmares

How the Swedish amusement park transformed a dated haunted house into a newly scary experience

by Juliana Gilling

House of Nightmares

In the September edition of Funworld, ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus reveals that the new “Mamma Mia! The Party!” themed restaurant show is coming to Gröna Lund in 2016. This year, the Swedish amusement park unveiled a new attraction that is scaring and delighting visitors in equal measure. Funworld Extra finds out more.

A neon sign flickers ominously above “House of Nightmares,” the new scare attraction at Gröna Lund amusement park on Stockholm’s waterfront. “House of Nightmares” is the latest incarnation for the historic building—originally a theatre which once hosted stars such as Marlene Dietrich. During the 1970s it was rebuilt as “Cinema 2000,” showing high-resolution films on a giant concave screen. Then, in 1991, it became “Spökhuset,” the park’s popular walk-through haunted house. For 2015, it has undergone a full makeover as the “House of Nightmares” at a cost of $3.4 million (€3 million). Around 300 guests an hour—over the age of 13—are now shaking in their shoes within its walls. 

As the new story goes, the Victorian mansion has served as a hideout for Dr. Morphio, who began his career helping people understand and quell their nightmares in 1950s New Orleans. A familiar figure on the carnival and television circuits, Dr. Morphio became the subject of scandal over his questionable practices and fled the USA. He continued his mind-bending experiments in Stockholm, extracting people’s darkest nightmares and bringing their night terrors to life. His “House of Nightmares” was discovered recently by a documentary film crew and the public can now take a peek inside.

House of Nightmares

Guests start in the creepy laboratory where patients are having their worst dreams drained from their brains. From there they tour the mansion, home to a hideous array of nightmares including clowns, spiders, snakes, zombies, chainsaws, and spooky dolls. Actors hide in the darkness, primed to frighten unnerved guests. Animatronic characters and props, Pepper’s Ghost illusions, video projections, and ultraviolet illuminations combine to heighten the dramatic effect. Balconies tilt alarmingly and send shrieking guests out into the daylight all too briefly—in full view of spectators below, which helps to drum up further business. Eventually, should guests not already have run screaming from the building, they will witness the return of the despicable doctor from the dream dimension.

Peter Osbeck, Gröna Lund’s ride manager, and Drew Hunter, vice president of creative design at Sally Corporation, were involved in the project from the start. They explain how the dream became a reality (and not a nightmare).

Peter Osbeck and Drew Hunter at House of Nightmares

How did Gröna Lund and Sally Corporation come to work together on “House of Nightmares”?

Peter Osbeck: Everything I do is about getting the right feeling. That’s what makes a great attraction and a great personal relationship. We thought Sally built and created cool things and I’ve known John Wood [Sally Corporation CEO] for years—he’s a great guy. I have a lot of trust in what he does. He’s also a very good business partner to work with and his staff are excellent. We had a really good project together.

Drew Hunter: Sally Corporation had wanted to work with Gröna Lund for many years. We finally did when we built the enormous animatronic flying dragon at their “Blå Tåget” dark ride, inspired by the imaginative concept design by park artist Joakim Hansen. Based on our work and the wonderful professional relationship we had established with their team, Gröna Lund’s management called us when they wanted to update their haunted walk-through.

What was the brief?

Hunter: Gröna Lund wanted to use their existing haunted house facility, creating a new backstory and improved guest experience throughout. They didn’t want any major route changes, which might result in lengthy, involved and expensive construction. They wanted a scary show, populated with live actors, featuring special effects, dynamic scenics, lighting, and sound. Ultimately, they sought a world-class, highly themed, one-of-a-kind, scream-inducing walk-through attraction. It would be their big park addition and publicity push for 2015.

What kind of visitor experience did you want to deliver?

Hunter: Both Sally and Gröna Lund had the same vision from the start: The show was designed to be scary but also stylish and, above all, fun. We avoided scenes of blood and gore. We wanted guests to have as many opportunities as possible to be terrified, but to exit screaming and laughing.

Rich Hill [senior designer at Sally], John Wood, and I began by travelling to Stockholm to learn as much as we could about the old attraction. We wanted to become familiar with all aspects of the show as well as every square metre of the show building [around 500 square metres] and the park’s dreams for the new one. After a few days on site, we developed six themed concepts we pitched to Peter and the park’s owners [Johan Tidstrand and Mattias Banker]. Those ideas were quickly narrowed down to three. We returned to [Sally headquarters in] Jacksonville, Florida, and expanded on the three concepts with titles, backstories, and lists of possible scenes and gags. Finally, the Gröna Lund management team chose their favourite concept: “The House of Nightmares.”

Osbeck: “House of Nightmares” was a great story. The concept was easy to work with and it could also be changed. Everybody’s had nightmares and there are lots of nightmares out there!

House of Nightmares

How did you approach the re-development?

Osbeck: We are an amusement park for families, so we didn’t want to show any executions, torture, or corpses. Also, you don’t really get scared of blood and gore, you just think, “Whoa, that’s disgusting.” We have the zombie thing but that’s fiction.

The key is to create a strange, scary atmosphere with mystery and music. There are animatronics in there—some of the best I’ve seen—but when you’re walking around and, suddenly, someone jumps out at you, that’s when you get scared. At least 90 percent of our guests get really scared. We have between five and six actors working in “House of Nightmares,” and it was planned for them from the beginning. Since we have live actors and they can move around, it’s never the same experience twice.

In our old haunted house, certain scenes had not been redone for years, but it was still popular and it made us a substantial amount of money every year. The living actors kept it alive. In “House of Nightmares” there are places where it is possible to add new things, which is important. Now the spaces are dark—which is also scary—but after a couple of years we might add something fresh to keep the house up to date.

What influenced the design?

Hunter: We needed a central character for the attraction. Movies and literature are full of mad doctors, and people love their ghastly antics, so we structured the story around this misguided dream doctor. We thought if Dr. Morphio had created all these amazing machines in his secluded mansion, he would have needed to use whatever he could find. Visually, we went with the quasi-steampunk/handyman-gone-wrong style of equipment that a mad scientist might build.

We also use a great deal of video in the attraction. Much of it is influenced by the look of early television programmes. Dr. Morphio hosted a TV show and guests can see what appear to be vintage kinescope clips of that programme.

House of Nightmares

What were the project’s main challenges?

Osbeck: To fit things in, which was very well done by Sally. When you build something new you can plan the house after the effects. Here we had to do it the other way around.

Hunter: Probably the most daunting challenge was to design the new show to fit the existing spaces. We altered the route slightly in several places, but we mainly kept the same route guests experienced for over 20 years. A few major elements from the old show remained; the big formal staircase fit so beautifully into our Grand Hall scene that we left it just as it was.

Our challenge was to make everything appear new and captivating and atmospheric amid the old structure. We installed new lighting, sound, and scenery throughout. Even though the “House of Nightmares” is not a ride, it was extremely challenging from a technical standpoint. Systems were installed to control the animatronics, sound, lighting, video projections, and so much more. We spent many weeks on site in Stockholm working with the technical and construction crews to get all aspects of the attraction right.

Which elements of the attraction are you most pleased with?

Osbeck: The overall feeling that the “House of Nightmares” creates with the actors, the gags, the music, and everything. It’s extremely effective. I’m also very pleased with the facade. I was standing looking at it yesterday and I’m so happy that we were able to do this in-house with Joakim Hansen—it’s of such a high standard. The cast-iron railings are from the U.S.. The sign is real neon because it’s much better than LED. The lamps were custom built by a Swedish blacksmith. The statues are cast in concrete and there’s a fountain. In the garden we have real, scary plants—no nice plants!

I love to do it like that. When I build a themed attraction, I want to use as much authentic material as possible, especially where people get close. If you can afford it, you get a much better feeling. Our owners, Johan and Mattias, think exactly the same way. Fake looks fake. Here, it’s going to be real and it’s going to be well done.

Hunter: The balance of quality scenics, animatronic characters, special effects, video, sound, lighting, and live performers is quite exquisite. And I am thrilled with the original soundtrack musical score specially composed for “House of Nightmares” by Jamie DeFrates.

It’s always a challenge to work in another country. But with the enthusiastic encouragement and collaboration of Peter, in concert with Gröna Lund’s superb management and marketing team, Patrik Ekermann and his park construction and electronics team, Marcus Persson of Kreativ Teknik, the video experts at PRC Digital and CROP in Jacksonville, and all the incredible talent at Sally Corporation, it was a wonderful experience from the project’s beginning to its opening.

House of Nightmares

What tangible impact has “House of Nightmares” had on business this season?

Osbeck: On the park it’s always difficult to pinpoint the impact, but people have been talking a lot about it outside the park. There’s been great interest. The amount of guests in the house has risen quite a lot, so that’s good for business. We are pleased with the investment, both in terms of the publicity and guests’ reactions.

“It’s also important how much money we make on it. It’s the only attraction in the park where you have to pay up front because we don’t want people buying park wristbands and running around in there, time after time. We charge about €6. Some people say, “Why isn’t it included in the wristband?” Well, because we have six live actors in there and they cost a lot of money and it’s still only half the price of a movie ticket. So there are not many complaints on the price.

What’s the one key thing you’d like people to take away from “House of Nightmares”?

Osbeck: A great scare and a good laugh—that’s what it’s all about. The absolute best response is when people come out screaming, laughing, and pointing at each other saying, “Ha, ha, you were so scared in there!” You’ve created a lot of laughs between friends and a great memory.

Hunter: When guests exit the “House of Nightmares” and they are screaming or smiling or laughing—or they are doing all at the same time—then they have been entertained. Each time that happens, all of us at Sally Corporation and Gröna Lund know we have helped create a fun and fright-filled attraction for guests to enjoy for many years to come.

Gröna Lund’s Publicity Prank

Gröna Lund spooked people on the streets of Stockholm with a scary trick to introduce the “House of Nightmares.” An outdoor poster dared people to preview the attraction by scanning a QR code on their mobile phones, leading to a nerve-jangling surprise: