My first “real job” had many issues with it, but there was one hugely redeeming factor – the annual charity drive where all the engineers got together to create a gigantic haunted house. We worked on it for months, we put in lots of extra hours, our actual work suffered, and yet no one ever complained. It was just too much fun and too exciting!
I will probably refer to many of the setups and props we did in future posts, but the one that always stands out in my mind involved an electric chair. The chair itself was well built, authentic looking, and had a Jacob’s ladder that looked and sounded awesome despite having nothing to do with electric chairs. Yet, people had a fairly mild response to the chair no matter how much our convict actor would writhe and scream. And I can understand that – none of the guests were on death row, we never grabbed a tour member (even a plant) and forced them into the chair. It was purely observational. It could have been a hangman’s noose, a firing squad, or even a rusty, blood splattered guillotine – just observing an executioner doling out a gruesome punishment to a man in an orange jumpsuit doesn’t produce big scares, because you aren’t the next in line. You don’t relate to the victim.
So, how do you change a generic scene into a horrifically memorable one? You make the victim relatable. Better yet, you make the victim relatable and innocent. We came across this somewhat by accident, but the difference was night and day. Swap out that grizzled, 240 pound death row inmate with scars across his face and a 3 day beard and put in a bride in a pure white wedding dress and just wait for the screams – even the sobs – to start.
Now, the actor we used for the bride was exceptional; she knew how to plead for mercy and her scream bested any shriek from any Hollywood actress by miles. But the pure, innocent bride being sentenced to that electric chair was one of the biggest hits of our haunted houses. We had to put it right at the end because of how it affected people. I can still hear that little girl tearfully asking her Mommy why the bride had to die (and yes, it still makes me smile!) Sure, she was probably a little young to have gone through the haunt, but the scene hit all ages, all genders.
Even now, I am curious as to WHY it worked so well. Was it because a bride is seen as innocent, wearing the universal color of purity – white? Is it because this is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, and instead she’s screaming in agony? Because many girls grow up dreaming of their wedding day, and can’t reconcile this horrible fate? It’s hard to imagine a scenario a bride is taken to the electric chair on her wedding day, nevermind while wearing her wedding gown. All these point back to the same concept – she isn’t supposed to be there.
A bride is a great “innocent victim” choice because she is clearly recognizable and her white dress will stand out strikingly in a largely dingly haunt, but any character that oozes innocence (a nun? A princess? OJ Simpson?) will take your chair from humdrum to horrifying. While babies tend to represent ultimate innocent and a baby-in-an-electric chair scene would REALLY mess with people,that’s a bit extreme for even me! A petite actor, though, is an excellent way to bring the extra-uncomfortable illusion of youth to the already innocent victim.
While the actor playing the innocent victim is the critical component of the scene, you still need to build a chair. That’s not a small task, but it’s not impossible for someone with a table saw and a modicum of building skills. Looking at the well executed (get it?) prop below you see it’s a few 2x4s, 4x4s and 2x8s. Use a little bent metal piping connected to a metal bowl or industrial light (as below) for the piece that rests on the head. Add a few wide leather belts for restraints and you have your electric chair.
It’s nothing fancy, but it’s obvious what it is and what its purpose is. Don’t waste too much time on this – we have seen so many incredible electric chair props turned utterly forgettable by a lame jump-suited dummy or skeleton victim thrown in as an afterthought. This scene is about the main actor, not the chair. Whether your executioner takes the form of a stoic guard doing his solemn duty or a psychotic madman reveling in increasing Old Sparky’s body count, going that extra mile to find your perfect victim can turn a generic prop into a scare station that people will never forget.