13 things 13th floor hero

13 Things We Learned From The 13th Floor

The 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver, CO is consistently ranked among the best in the country.  They change it up every year and this season, they moved to a much larger location, so I had to make sure I’d experience the 13th floor this year.  We ended up going on a Monday that was also the first snow of the season, which worked out in our favor – we were in line for less than 20 minutes. This “authentic and surreal experience” typically has a multi-hour wait, so we really lucked out.  Though I haven’t been through this haunt in years and the layout was very different, the incredible props and sets were very much still there and made the experience feel a bit like visiting an old friend.  This Friday the 13th, here are 13 things we can learn from the 13th Floor Haunted House.

#1 – Hype is Everything

There is no one in the Denver area that is not aware of this event.  They invest in billboards, radio ads, and all sorts of media that is likely out of reach for a smaller production or a home haunter, but the lesson is the same: make sure you’re out there.  Get on social media.  Get people talking about you before the attraction even opens with giveaways, surveys, and behind-the-scenes pictures.  Make a promo video, even if it’s shot on your smart phone.  The best haunts get inside their guests’ heads far before they arrive on location.

#2 – Good Things Come In 3’s

The 13th Floor is billed as a triple attraction, but we didn’t know what that meant until we were a third of the way through the haunt and saw a sign notifying us that we were now transitioning into a different realm.  We have talked about clever ways (such as the séance suite) to combine two disparate themes, but these architects chose to throw all subtlety to the wind.  If you are in the position to fully execute more than one fleshed-out idea, then by all means, build them both. I found the 2nd and 3rd sections of the 13th floor to feel extreme similar and would not have been able to distinguish between them without the sign, so really all it takes to have a triple-threat attraction is three signs!

#3 – Sound Effects Are Essential

I will always say lighting is the most important part of any ambiance, horror-related or not, but sound effects can evoke a very visceral response.  The fly-by effect from Wolfie’s Bee scare definitely makes me flinch involuntarily, and a cleverly used sound in the 13th Floor actually made me gag.  They have the most elaborate animatronics of any haunt I’ve ever experienced, and one gargantuan monster early in the first themed section is deeply involved in his task of dismembering a body that looked to have been snatched from an earlier tour group that strayed too close to his lair.  His soundtrack is the expected grumbling and grunting, but the sound I can only describe as “squelchy” that accompanied the gory finale literally made my stomach turn.  Up to that point, we’d really just been admiring the fluidity of his motion and appreciating the elaborate detail of his cave, but that one sound effect pushed it over the edge for our whole group.

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#4 – Lasers + Fog = Win

There are literally endless ways to use fog and light.  The white fog room is still my personal nightmare, but the 13th Floor used fog and lasers to create an effect that completely blew me away.  They employed a laser-show-style laser to create a continuous plane of light parallel to the floor at about waist height.  This, combined with low-hanging fog, completely disguised thigh-level inflated obstacle cushions.  The overall effect was stunning and created a fully immersive swamp-like experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  We immediately knew where the exit was because we were so close to the group in front of us (see #12) but it would have been utterly disorienting if we’d walked in without any clues.

#5 – Work Your Levels

Several scenes in the 13th Floor make you feel like you’re on a village street or at least on a movie set.  The scenes use façade that seem to be 2 stories high, encouraging guests (that aren’t huddled into the back of someone in front of them) to look up.  At least one actor used this to his advantage and created an effective scare simply by appearing at about knee level as we were all gawking up towards the ceiling.  If you have room to extend any scenes vertically above the standard 8’ or so, I definitely recommend it!

#6 – Believe in Your Art

The most disappointing part of the whole night was learning that the 13th Floor does not intend to do any lights-on tours of the attraction after the season ends.  The attention to detail in every aspect, from sets to props to makeup, was breath-taking and several pieces clearly took a great deal of effort.  I am surprised how many details I remember even from our low-light, rushed tour of the attraction.   This drives home the point that Wolfie holds very dear – it is worth the time and energy to go the extra mile in your work. Well-designed haunts are always more than a few walls haphazardly splattered in blood. While some details will go overlooked by 90% of guests, the overall feeling of a detailed haunt will be felt by everyone.

#7 –  Embrace the Classics

While we all love to dream up completely unexpected scenes and scares, don’t shy away from elegantly executing a classic.  They’re classics for a reason.  The 13th Floor used them all – LED “dream” tunnel, hanging bodies, actors appearing from behind picture frames – and they were all effective.  No matter how many times I push past blood-covered mannequins, I am secretly dreading that one will push back.  The frame scare works because somehow people always forget to expect it.  Spinning lights will always mess with our sense of balance. You can still have an amazing haunt that pays homage to classic scare tactics, so go ahead and put up a wall of homemade frames in a hallway you can’t figure out what else to do with.

#8 – Different Strokes for Different Folks

Speaking of the classics, remember that every guest has at least one passive scare that they hate.  Make sure you get as many different ones in your haunt as possible.  One member of our group freaked out at an inflated-wall obstacle hall, one leapt across every grate that looked like it might turn out to be a vibrating grate, and I literally had to stop and steel myself before pushing through a heavy, slimy-looking curtain of bloody meat.  I knew it was fake, of course it was fake, but what if…

#9 – Not Every Scene Needs to be a Bloodbath

Carnage is a simple way to theoretically up the “creepy” factor of any scene, but indiscriminately wandering through your rooms with a paintbrush, flinging red at every wall and prop, can backfire by making your haunt feel homogenous. I was impressed with the 13th Floor’s use of non-blood textures like mud, moss, and ominous looking black stains.  One room after another of blood deadens the effect and causes rooms to blend together, while using unique textures in sequential rooms forces the mind to distinguish between scenes and makes the experience feel longer.  Though a blood-splattered kitchen is a staple for many haunts, I appreciatively recoiled at the bloodshed simply because we’d just been dealing with deranged clowns in a completely blood-free forest, and the bright red was a startling contrast.

#10 – Great Makeup Does Not Great Actors Make

Speaking of deranged clowns, we ran into a surprisingly wide range of actor talent for such a renowned and well-established haunted house.  Some knew exactly how to interact with every type of guest and were fabulous additions to the experience, while others would leap out from a corner at the first person in the group then awkwardly try to get out of our way by retreating back into their (not particularly dark) corner or place against the wall.  The actors were all made up professionally or wearing a great mask (I’d swear we saw Victum Demoan pop out of a frame) but no amount of physical preparation can cover a lack of training.  To be fair, we went rather early in the season, but the experience underscored the importance of actor training and always making sure each character has an escape plan more elaborate than standing against a wall and hissing.

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#11 – Get Them While They’re Flying High

If you’ve done your job, guests will come running out of your house o’ horror on a huge adrenaline high, giddy from all the emotional stimulation.  Strangely, most exits just release guests into the parking lot and do very little to capitalize on the excitement of the moment.  13th Floor was sharing space with the touring Zombie Apocalypse Live attraction, and that entrance was cleverly placed near the exit of the main haunt.  It certainly worked on us – we didn’t want the fun to be over just yet and liked the idea of shooting at zombies to release some of the energy we’d built up in the main attraction.  It doesn’t have to be another attraction that guests see on their way out; a themed photo booth or large branded prop to encourage selfies would work too.

#12 – Avoid the Conga Line at All Costs

This is a complaint we all have about commercial haunts, and it is genuinely difficult to mitigate.  Even though groups were released into the atraction at timed intervals, we had the group of younger teens behind us breathing down our necks before we even got to the 2nd theme.  They were moving faster than average, we were probably moving slower than average, yet we all caught up to the group in front of us before the end as well.  The downsides of the conga line, where large amounts of people end up going through a scene one after the other, are numerous.  Actors have a harder time selecting targeted scare victims, moving props have to reset in front of people rather than between groups, and there is never any mystery about how to move through a scene because you can see the chain in front of you.

I realize that maximizing throughput is important to commercial haunts, but if I’ve waited in line for the experience, I would always wait 10% longer if it meant getting the full effect of the scares and scenes.  Guides can be wonderful for pacing groups through a long house where bunching is more likely to occur, and I would love to see more haunts utilize them to give each group a personalized experience.

#13 – End with a Chainsaw

Like most haunts, the 13th Floor ends with an actor wielding a chainsaw.  This actor was behind a chain-link fence and less effective than others I’ve seen, but there is something about that familiar roar that feels like finale of a fireworks show.  There are plenty of effective final scares, but somehow the chainsaw finale has become such a common theme that most guests can tell they only have to get past this final scene to reach their freedom.  This is ideal, as guests will still come shooting out of the haunt screaming, but they will not have the same disorientation as if they’d been expecting another scene but were actually just unceremoniously deposited in the parking lot.  It seems counterintuitive to use an expected scare as your grand finale, but remember that haunts are supposed to be a fun (albeit terrifying experience).  Sending guests out with a familiar but high-intensity scare can be a great way to make sure they leave happy.

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