You are filled with a special type of dread as you the walk up the last few stairs. These steps lead to the industrial looking building with the over-sized sliding doors that let the stretchers navigate the transition from the comfortable world of normal life to that of the sick and dying. You’re already beaten down, since that important person in your life is a prisoner of this place. You steel yourself for the shock and step inside the hospital.
As the doors open there’s that smell. Hospitals smell unique. It’s not the literal smell of death, but it still is imprinted in your mind as Finality with a capital F. You probably learned it when you were young – maybe visiting a grandparent when they were near the end – and now that mix of cleaning fluids, human waste and unwashed people is the “Hospital Smell”. You wonder if resignation and despair actually have odors themselves.
The lobby just looks and feels like a nondescript office building somewhere, but once you step out of the elevator there is no denying where you are. Those wide corridors, that terrible lighting (why haven’t they moved to LEDs yet?) and the smell are unequivocal. It’s just heavier up here. The pitiful patients shuffling down the corridors in white patterned dressing gowns and those horrible slippers –they even make a hospital sound! You really hate being here – but you can’t NOT come. You know you have to be there.
Hospitals and medical facilities create a visceral reaction in us. Even if you are just stopping in to get routine tests or visit a friend it weighs you down. It just suppresses your spirit and saps your energy. It invaded your soul, that sense of melancholia. Sure, it’s temporary – get back outside and a few hours later you will be restored – but right now, walking down this hospital passageway, you just can’t be your normal self.
It’s not terribly difficult to recreate this experience for a haunted house; the space for a long hallway is the hardest thing to arrange. Harsh, fluorescent lighting is very cheap and easy to install, any big box DIY store has it. Lights have a value called “color temperature” associated with them that describes the tint of the light they produce. For this, you want the “coldest” lamps you can find – they will have the highest numbers, preferably something near 5000K – or even higher if you can find it. This stark and blue-ish light makes the skin look sallow or even unearthly. White walls with handrails and cheap, white industrial flooring completes the scene.
You will have to experiment to get the smell just right. Bleach and ammonia are very distinct, but they are not especially good to breathe in and can actually create deadly gases when mixed with other cleaning chemicals – so as simple and cheap as they are, use caution if choosing these. There are plenty of other cleaning products out there that scream “industrial disinfectant” though – ones that aren’t deadly when mixed wrong! Maybe try adding a very well-worn (and unwashed) T-shirt to the mix. And the other ingredients, I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
You’re almost there. Just sprinkle in some patients in hospital gowns and robes and some face make up and you now have your basic hospital. But why stop at basic? Choosing good actors can reap huge rewards. This is one job where mumbling incoherently to yourself is a plus, and random twitching is cause for promotion. Imagine walking past one of these figures that is just slightly – almost imperceptibly – swaying in the corridor. Maybe they suddenly see you and start shuffling towards you without breaking eye contact…
If you have the extra funds you can get Hospital IV poles for $20 each. A little rubber tubing completes the look. You can get the bags for a few dollars each (search for “IV solution bags”).
Your actors can hold them as they wander the corridor – or even drag them behind them – just secure the rubber tubing high up the arm under the gown where no one can see it. Even cheaper is just the tubing with an inflation needle on the end, dragging on the floor. A little fake blood wouldn’t hurt either.
If you don’t have the space inside your haunt for the corridor, you might be able to use it outside before the entrance, but you definitely need a ceiling on it. This will get people into the right frame of mind. The bright lighting will dilate the guests’ eyes, so when they enter the darkened haunt, they won’t be able to see anything in a dark room – which could be very useful for your initial exhibits.
For those with more space and a desire to escalate the dread and confusion, you could actually feed the corridor around back into itself with cleverly placed turns and the help of a moving wall. A few unmistakable clues in certain places will let the victims know they have been past this exact spot before. A couple of blood stains on the wall, a broken handrail, a desperately scribbled message – be subtle, but not too subtle. Or maybe it’s that one patient who never moves, just sways slowly mumbling to herself that tells them they are trapped in this never-ending hospital corridor.
When you are ready to release your guests into the next scene, you can rig your lights to flicker at the end of the hallway, or even turn off in sequence (possibly with the deafening clunk of an industrial relay), leaving just a blackened corridor. Imagine how unsettling it would be to have to follow these shuffling zombie-like patients as they just disappear into darkness.
This is nothing that hasn’t been used in movies before, but there’s a reason for this – it’s effective. Despite being places to heal and recuperate, hospitals are universally dreaded and associated with death. And those are hospitals without all our nasty surprises and clientele! Plus, movies can’t create that distinct hospital smell like a real haunt can.
If you are looking for other ways to intensify your clients’ brief stay in the hospital, check out “5 sounds to push your medical scenes over the edge” where we explore ways to turn their dread into outright terror with sights unseen.
Main Image credit: Crave Online’s 13 Abandoned Buildings