Thursday, July 23, 2009

Haunted House Writing Part II

Hello loyal readers. I've let the "Haunted House Writing" post out there for a few days now and there have been some extremely interesting comments and questions. Today let's address some of the queries that were made concerning writing a theatrical haunted house. I've been involved with two during my life time: Lakeside Manor and Gravestone Manor. Not only do the points made here apply to only theatrical haunted houses, but these can also be important elements of any sort of theatre.

As opposed to most other scary venues the scares within a theatrical haunted house come more from technique than the story. Although the writing team at Gravestone Manor puts in an enormous effort to create an awesome and comprehensive story, it is important the story is effectively paired with effects and live actors. If we just brought you into the house and told you the story it would not be as scary as the full-blown theatrical experience. Therefore what actually "gets" the audience is not so much the story, but the way in which the staging of the room manipulates the audience into the perfect scaring opportunity. The story helps to set the stage, tie together, and enhance the haunted house so that the theatrical experience is more complete.

There are two basic principles to remember when designing a haunted house:

1) It's going to be dark. Lighting is perhaps the most important aspect of a haunted house. It helps to set the mood and can be used to direct the audience's attention or reveal an exit. It also serves as the greatest form of distortion ever. Since most of the costumes used at Gravestone Manor are huge latex masks they often do not appear as frightening in full light. But in a dimly lit room, they are only briefly seen which causes just enough of a jolt to spook an audience member. It also allows for the audience member to scare themselves as they paint their own picture as to what the creature really looks like. Also as important is that a fake mask prop must only be seen long enough to cause the scare and then must be quickly removed. The longer the prop or mask is visible, the longer the audience can identify that it is fake and non-threatening and in haunted house settings, this is a bad thing. Low lighting allows for a fake mask to disappear more quickly into the darkness. Also, occasionally it is difficult to build an elaborate set or you simply run out of time. Low lighting can also help to cover the little areas that are "incomplete."

2) Audience Direction. If you can't successfully pull this off, then patrons will leave your attraction saying things like, "it really wasn't that scary." Directing the audience helps to serve two purposes.

The first is that it helps to increase the effectiveness of the scare. Lets say the big effect is to have someone dressed as a clown come bursting through a door. Well if there is only one door in the room the audience is going to stare at that door and think, "I bet somethings going to pop out from that door." Then, when the clown does emerge, its really not that effective because it was anticipated.

Now take the same scenario. The audience is looking at the door, but then there is a clock that chimes to the left, a bottle falls off a table to the right, the doors to a cabinet burst open behind them. The audience is now looking at everything else in the room besides the door. When the turn around to look behind them, the clown enters the room and starts to make his presence known. When the audience turns around, the no longer see a harmless door, but rather a frightening clown that seems to have appeared right before their eyes. I've seen it before and something as simple as this can scare even the most "macho" of football players who all of the sudden hide behind their girlfriends. This exact example is drawn from Gravestone Manor and by the way, here is the clown:

The second think that audience direction assists with is a sense of discomfort. When sounds are heard, lights are seen, and effects are going off, the audience is looking around the entire manor for the next possible scare. Assaulting their senses from all angles makes Gravestone Manor seem more frightening than it really is, because the audience is actually scaring themselves. It really is amazing at how people scare in a group because when one jumps, they all jump.

Lastly, in terms of where the room and effect ideas come from, its really just the product of imagination. Sometimes Gravestone Manor writers just come up with the effect and others help dress the effect with a story. Sometimes if we can't end up building the effect we try to reorder the room so that the story remains in tact so there there isn't a heck of a lot of change. It really is hard to describe because Gravestone Manor has such a wealth of writers, builders, and actors who all contribute to help make Gravestone Manor the "Most Unusual Haunted House Ever."

I hope this helps and was insightful. and thanks to all of those who left comments previously.

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