The trickiest part of designing compelling scenes and scares in a haunted house is designing for groups of guests rather than individual victims. An actor must decide which member of a group to target with a jump scare, a high-impact scene may only really impress the first member of the group, and the comfort guests find in coagulating into a mass of humans makes each individual harder to scare. Short of sending each through individually there is no way to permanently break groups apart, but using a few well-place split-up scares can give each guest a far more personal haunt experience.
1. Chainsaw Characters
What is it?
While chainsaws border on being overused, especially as a sound effect, they can be remarkably effective in close proximity. If you have an actor that you can trust to consistently make good judgement calls, using a chainsaw-wielding character to physically split groups up is one of the easiest and most effective split-up scares. The judgement calls this actor will need to make are not particularly different from those of any other actor in the haunt, but they will be using a large and heavy prop near guests. They need to be very quick to react if a guest moves towards the blade or otherwise does not behave as expected.
How to Execute
An actor wielding a chainsaw (without the chain, obviously) brings the blade between members of groups that are tightly connected, forcing them to let go of each other’s hands and physically separate.
Image from ScaryForKids.com
What is it?
This is a scare tailored to the seasoned haunted house guest. It isn’t a generic jump scare or actor covered in blood – it is a forced identity disassociation. Have you ever looked in the mirror and not recognized yourself? You know that you are looking at yourself, but something in your mind refuses to acknowledge that it’s actually you? It is a completely terrifying feeling on its own, and makes you feel like you’re starting to lose your mind. In real life, it can be an early sign of depression or PTSD, which may be why we are so sensitive to the effect. In a haunted house, we can force that feeling with clever lighting.
There is a reason kids tell scary stories with a flashlight held under their face – it shows their features in a different, sinister way. Simple up lighting in a narrow passage in a haunt makes people look very different and can create identity disassociation in a group of friends. This only works for people that have their heads up and are intentionally experiencing the house – the whimpering mass of people shuffling through the haunt hunched over and staring at their feet will never notice – but forcing a guest to fail to recognize the friend they came in with, even for a split second, is a gem of a scare worth creating.
How to Execute
I live and die by 5m waterproof RGBW LED strips. They get used everywhere, in haunts and in my daily life, because they can be cut to size and tuned to any color imaginable. Two strips, one near each side of a relatively narrow, short passage without any other scares is ideal. For best results, the lights would be literally under the stream of guests, but the simplest method of execution is just to place the lights along the walls. If the passage seems “innocent”, guests are more likely to look up at one another to check in and experience the disassociation effect. The color of the light depends on your haunt’s theme – red is fine for most ambiances, but does not carry as well. Near-UV blue is a personal favorite because it affects our eyes differently anyway, but can be difficult to direct. Plain old warm white is a decent middle ground and feels appropriate in most themed haunts. With the changeable color strips, you can experiment and choose what is perfect for your application!
3. The Drop Test
Image from Optical Illusions’ Twitter
What is it?
Many scenes and scares in a haunt encourage a group to cling together. It is human instinct to grab onto other people when experiencing a horrific visual or when a “monster” jumps out of a dark corner. Certain physical effects, such as a sudden shift in the floor or a burst of air in the ear, cause people to react defensively. While a burst of air can be avoided by turning your head, something like a drop floor effect causes guests to latch on to whatever sturdy surface they can find – a wall or railing, rather than the hands of members of their group. This can cause horrors beyond the house if a guest suddenly drops the hands of his new girlfriend to protect himself, but that extends beyond our jurisdiction….
How to Execute
A drop floor is a rather advanced effect that will be explored in depth in the future – stay tuned. In a pinch, the next best thing is a vibrating floor. This works best if the group of guests can be guided onto a metal surface such as a slab of grating smoothed into neighboring surfaces with rubber to avoid tripping hazards. A large motor of any sort can be turned into a vibration motor by attaching a weight to one side of the shaft. Mount the body of the motor to the metal floor out of the flow of traffic, add an on/off switch to be operated by an actor, and soak in those screams.
Main image from Cosmopolitan’s Compilation of Haunted House Pictures