To Guide or Not to Guide?

That is the question.

For, ‘tis it nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous scare tactics all alone
Or to take arms against a sea of unknown horrors
And by being guided through them, more deeply experience them.

Ay, there’s the rub.

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Guides are actors that adopt a persona anywhere from a stoic security guard to a spastic clown and accompany groups of guests through the haunt.  Of course, the answer does not have to be a complete “yes” or “no”. Personally, I love haunts that take an approach somewhere in the middle where the groups start with a security-guard styled guide that gets violently removed somewhere in the middle of the haunt.  The guard may get attacked by zombies, fall victim to a giant spider lurking in the shadows, or suffer some other unfortunate fate, but not before earnestly urging the rest of the group to go on without them.  This strategy lets a guide accompany a group through enough of the house to gauge if they are likely to cause trouble, gives the guide a chance to ham it up, and adds an element of abandonment that cannot be achieved if the group starts out alone.

Deciding early whether to use guides in your attraction lets you make better design choices on everything from layout to prop placement.  The use of guides changes the feel of a haunt (be if for better or worse) and the appropriateness of them depends on a few key factors.

How Large is Your Investment?

If this is your first year doing a commercial-scale haunt, it probably feels like you’ve put an inordinate amount of money and effort into this attraction.  You may have invested in several thousand-dollar props that you hope to reuse for years to come, or have incredible effects that could be dangerous to a guest that got too close.   The last thing you want is someone getting hurt on the first night and shutting you down, or a rowdy whippersnapper breaking a costly prop.  Wanting all groups to be accompanied by a security guard is perfectly understandable, but unapologetic monitoring can put a damper on the experience.  Several of the largest haunts in the US (like those at Universal Studios) have reviews criticizing the obvious security personnel manning the attraction, claiming that their presence ruins the otherwise immersive experience.  It’s hard to let yourself get caught up in cowering from a deranged doctor when there is a bored man in black snapping his gum behind you.

If you are going to use guides for true security and safety reasons, they need to be thoroughly trained on both how to deal with issues should they arise, and how to be non-intrusive to a group that is truly there to just enjoy and appreciate your haunt. A guide that is not leading the group like a shepherd should instead act as the sheep dog and keep an eye on things from the rear of the group, corralling and directing it and never be the first to enter a scene.

I’m just going to leave this here:

How to deal with actual issues is something that needs to be clearly defined by the haunt management and consistently communicated to every actor.  We will discuss common issues in a future post, but the basic message should always be to put safety first.  No actor should feel guilty about reporting someone that threw a punch at them, and every reasonable effort should be made to keep guests safe by keeping them away from props and other design elements.

 How Good are Your Actors?

Security guards are certainly not the only type of guide that haunts employ.  One of the best haunts I have ever walked through used guides, and it hugely amplified the experience.  Our guide was a fully costumed actor that was unbelievably energetic and seemed to be everywhere at once – sometimes at the front of the group teasing us about moving slowly, sometimes interacting with the other actors in a particular scene, sometimes disappearing only to pop up in a future scene.  She created an emotional bridge between our group (us) and the actors in the haunt (them) by interacting with both freely and moving through the scenes with us.

She also mastered one of my favorite gimmicks – get someone’s name and pass it along.  The second someone said “Come on, Robyt” after I got distracted by an intricate scene, our guide latched on and used my name at every opportunity to share it with the other actors.  I got introduced by name to several terrifying props and actors (“Oh Robyt, won’t you stay and talk with my friend?  He doesn’t bite hard!”) and scenes that typically involved incoherent muttering could get very specific.  The personalization element terrifies those that are already freaked out, and lets those of us that are already having a great time get swept up in a customized experience.

If you are lucky enough to have actors of this caliber (and with this sort of stamina!) at your disposal, then you can absolutely execute an incredible guided haunt.  The tricky part is being sure you have enough of these unicorns to keep guest throughput high every single night.  These high-exertion roles need regular breaks even more than other actors that have gaps between groups in their scenes.  At a minimum, plan for these guides to be “on” no more than 80% of the time.  If you can run 4 simultaneous tours, you need to have at least 5 guides so that each guide can take every 5th tour “off” to drink water, rest their vocal chords, and give themselves a break from all the effects in the haunt.

Going with Guides?

Having house guides, whether of the security or interactive variety, means you can relax security measures on scenes that do not have other actors.  Commercial haunts with prop-only rooms usually install security cameras in these scenes to keep an eye on guests that assume they are alone.  You can also use large-scale props and animatronics closer to the main path with fewer barriers since your guide will keep guests from getting too close.

Even if all your other actors are friends and volunteers, consider hiring professionals for interactive guide roles.  They will play such an important part in your haunt that you cannot afford to have them not show up, and people take their attendance much more seriously when money is on the line.  Volunteers will likely only participate in a few nights each season, so hiring a group of people to be there every night will ensure that things run smoothly.  These people are worth training the most heavily on safety procedure details, how to deal with difficult guests, and even CPR.

Going Guideless?

There is something terrifying about being let lose into a haunt completely alone, and going guideless is the standard path for many haunts.  You will likely want to install security cameras in any rooms that do not always have actors working, and should have staff trained on emergency procedures on-hand behind the scenes.  Help for your actors or a guest should never be more than a few seconds away.

Haunts without formal guides have more flexibility in scene styles and can better employ obstacle rooms like tight tunnels or a white fog room, but should use caution in placing any dangerous props or effects too close to the main path.

Can’t Decide?

If you do not feel strongly either way or are not far enough along in your design to tell whether a guide will help or hurt the experience you are creating, design for a guideless haunt in terms of security and prop placement, but build in tricks for a guide to circumnavigate difficult spaces.  Extra security cameras and effects placed further from the main path will not hurt your haunt, and hidden passages to get around obstacle rooms will make the addition of a guide easy should you require it late in the process.  Whether or not you have guides, make sure as many people as possible are trained on emergency procedures and have at least one on-site security guard on-site at all times.