Formulating Fear: Designing Halloween Around the Coronavirus
This article is part of Funworld's series on haunted attractions in the era of COVID-19. Join us to learn more about what haunts will need to consider to operate during the pandemic.
What goes bump in the night can still scare, startle, and surprise in 2020—with several tweaks in reaction to the global pandemic. “Take this situation as an opportunity to improve and challenge yourself to come up with the next best way to keep your guests safely entertained,” says Andrew Curran, president of Practical Imagination, a scenic design company specializing in haunted house design and fabrication.
Now is the time to craft new ways that will promote social distancing, enhanced costume cleanliness, and present appropriate storylines in time for Halloween. “Conventional wisdom disappeared on March 1 ,” says Scott Swenson principal at Scott Swenson Creative Development. “We are inventing new rules.”
Tips for Haunting From the Inside Out
There’s an “evil-lution” taking place in haunted house design that’s not so sinister according to Curran. “People like new and exciting—this is the year to create new and exciting. There is no reason why Halloween walk-though attractions can’t happen this year,” says Curran, who made his first haunted house at age 5 (and later set a tree on fire in the backyard). “I grew up playing haunted house and movie special effects,” he says. Today, Practical Imagination’s clients include large-scale Halloween events at Orlando and Tampa attractions.
“This year, we are coming up with ways to keep the intensity, but maintain distance. I call this ‘The Year of Special Effects,’” says Curran.
He offers these special effects to keep actors and guests safely separated inside haunted houses:
- Use mirrors. With proper placement, mirrors can make actors look like they are close to guests, but in reality, the actor is safely further away.
- Incorporate strong plexiglass. A window-like barrier separates guests from an actor performing their scare tactics. Curran says plexiglass walls are perfect for hospital and jail scenes. “It can’t be a random piece of barrier, but it needs to go with the story,” he says.
- Upgrade sound technology. Through the use of foot pedals that trigger audio effects when depressed, actors can replicate their voice or a scream from a distance. “The actor does not have to be in your face screaming. We place speakers around,” Curran says. “[Operators] need come up with ways to trick their audience with ways that feel their personal space is invaded, but it’s really not.”
Gone this year: gak, a film industry term for props and gear found on a set. “This is looking like a year where those props are off to the sides,” Curran says about décor that previously would be within guest reach or purposely placed in the right of way, where a guest had to push props aside. Offering fewer touch points or scenic soft goods—like routing guests through a closet full of clothing or hanging body parts from above—is out in 2020. “I hate to say it, one of my favorites that has been used in haunts forever, the claustrophobia tunnel, which is basically inflatable walls, is out. Now is the time to put that in the warehouse for a while,” Swenson recommends.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, haunted attraction ScareHouse is designing a new location for this autumn that will incorporate older tricks. “Because of the nature of what we’re dealing with, we’re giving the actors things to slam and bang from a distance,” say Scott Simmons ScareHouse’s creative developer. He says construction resumed in mid-May, taking into account practical lessons learned from visiting the post office and hardware store. Using plastic shields to separate employees from shoppers are tactics ScareHouse is designing into their new space. “Honestly, it sounds like I’m trying to be funny—we’re using the way the grocery stores and hardware stores are moving people as a reference point,” Simmons says. ScareHouse will use animated figures this year, giving the appearance of an actor in close proximity to guests, but in reality, the character is a robot who repeats the same programmed motion.
Outside a haunted house, Swenson says queue lines need to be redesigned to promote social distancing. “You don’t want hundreds upon hundreds of people queueing standing shoulder to shoulder for up to an hour and a half,” Swenson says. One way to avoid that is by gamifying queue lines and creating a smaller attraction before the main attraction. “Instead of everyone standing shoulder to shoulder, you need to create different scenes they need to experience in order to earn the right to enter the haunted attraction,” Swenson says. “That way, you create a way for the guests to socially distance.”
True Characters—And Those to Avoid
As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to be on the forefront of decision-making for the year ahead, there are several themes that might not be well received this Halloween season and beyond. Contagion-, virus-, and pandemic-themed haunted attractions should be avoided, according to Swenson. “It hits way too close to home. We have to realize we are here to entertain—not to offend,” he says. He believes characters that are always in vogue include zombies and clowns, while pirates, vampires, and aliens are now past their prime.
So, what does a haunted attraction do if they’ve already invested in a medical theme and begun fabrication? Curran says now is the time to pivot. “If there is an attraction that is dead set—no pun intended—on doing a hospital or doctor scene, they can change it up to be certain the visitor knows it’s an over-exaggerated situation,” he says. Replacing characters like doctors and nurses with zombies or clowns will alleviate feelings of being insensitive. “You need to do something that appeases the guests so in their mind, you’re not making light of the current situation,” Curran says. In fact, he has one client that had plans for a haunted attraction this fall using an outbreak theme. That’s no longer the case. “We are doing things to be certain the audience does not view it as a topic of the current situation, but instead has a sci-fi zombie twist,” Curran says.
Playing Dress-Up (with PPE)
Operators have the opportunity in 2020 to create costumes and masks for their actors that take precautions into account, according to Swenson, who has designed more than 300 haunted attractions. As the creative mastermind behind Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Howl-O-Scream for the first 15 years of the event, Swenson developed several costumes where personal protection equipment (PPE) could be incorporated. The “Widows Walk” scare zone featured several live actors wearing sweeping hats and veils over their faces. Swenson believes 2020s costumes should borrow a page from “Widows Walk” and feature masks and hats with face shields. “It protects the actor and the guest,” he says, adding this year, all actors should have costumes designed to include gloves.
Materials of the costume are also important, since they should be designed to be washed frequently moving forward. “All too often with haunted attractions, you wear your costume over top of your own clothes, because the costume cannot be washed,” Swenson explains. “Work it into your budget now, so you are not getting halfway into your costume budget and then realize you may have built a better costume that can be laundered, but you now can’t afford to clothe all the actors.”
ScareHouse traditionally has 200 people on staff each Halloween season, with 90 people working at a time. This year, Simmons says he will most likely reduce his staff size, thus helping him save on his costume budget. “Get your plan into shape,” Simmons recommends. “It can be intimidating or rewarding to approach it in a new way.”