The Shock & Horror Factor Of “Haunted Houses”
It is said that Halloween originates from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In the 8th century, when All Saints Day was designated to honour all saints, the evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, which later on became Halloween.
Today, the thrill factor of Halloween is what makes this spooky festival a much-loved tradition – apart from the release of horror movies to coincide with the date, immersive haunted attractions are also a huge draw for people who are willing to pay to be frightened out of their wits. Take your pick from endless, bone-chilling scenarios: post-apocalyptic zombie-infested buildings, abandoned hospitals or asylums, or even escaping from a serial killer.
Horror attractions are not a new trend; an article by Smithsonian Magazine states that its origins date back to 19th-century London, when a series of illusions introduced the public to new forms of gruesome entertainment. From Marie Tussaud’s decapitated wax sculptures to graphic depictions of dismemberment at the Grand Guignol theatre, the public’s appetite for horror began in the early days and simply never stopped.
CHASING THE THRILL OF FEAR
Why do we love being scared? Research shows that we feel uncomfortable when our personal space is violated, especially in situations where escape becomes difficult. If your senses are deprived, or if you are alone, you become more alert as your body naturally responds to the possibility of a threat.
According to psychology expert Dr. Christopher Dwyer, when we get scared, our body releases endorphins and dopamine, which results in a biochemical rush. When the feeling of fear subsides, we are left with a pleasure-filled sense of relief and euphoria. If people are able to endure the anxiety and suspense, they get to experience this self-satisfaction at the end. That feeling of not being able to look away, even though your brain tells you otherwise, is why horror movies, roller coasters and extreme sports are so popular.
Frank T. McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College, agrees that the “legend” associated with a haunted attraction makes it even more realistic. “The older a place is, the more likely we are to perceive it as haunted because there’s been much more time for tragic things to have taken place, usually a grisly death or accident. Assuming that the house is no longer occupied amplifies the fear factor, especially with the addition of sudden interruptions to signs of life, like remnants of a half-eaten meal on a table, or clothing laid out on a bed waiting for a homeowner who apparently vanished without warning. Bonus points awarded if the house is conveniently located next to or on top of an old cemetery!”
HARNESSING THE POWER OF SPOOKY SOUND
In an interview with The Atlantic, sociologist and “haunted house” consultant Margee Kerr says that the one thing that consistently freaks everyone out is actually really simple. “It’s just the sound startle. It’s almost impossible not to react to it. A loud air cannon, a blast of sound – you can’t help but jump. If you go through a room and there aren’t any sound effects on, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this person is coming at me with a knife!’ It’s scary, but it’s not disconnecting your thinking. We need the startles to keep that thinking brain offline. Otherwise, it’s just sort of walking through a play.”
Scott Swenson, an industry veteran who runs a company specialising in theme park attractions, live theatre, television and events, explains the role of sound in creating an effecive “haunt”. In his horror-centric podcast, A Scott in the Dark, Swenson says that sound makes a space seem larger and enhances the scares: “We did a haunted house that was set in a subway, and I wanted the sound of a subway throughout the entire house – cars rattling overhead, the trains in the background – because it provided that ambient depth to the environment. Your brain tricks you into thinking you aren’t in a warehouse.” With the addition of an underscore or “music bed”, a haunted attraction becomes more realistic. It also acts as a distraction to any noise outside, like other people waiting in the queue, or the music that’s playing outside (especially if you’re at a fair).
Swenson also explains the importance of point-source audio in drawing attention: “If you use it well, it enhances the scares. You can use it as a distraction to draw people’s attention from one direction – all the guests will be looking at one spot, which gives the actors the opportunity to scare them from the other side of the room. It also makes the room seem real. If there’s a radio in the room, the sound should only be coming from the radio. If you’ve got a blender in a kitchen scene, and there’s a hand sticking out from the top and swirling around, there should be a sound coming from a speaker placed underneath that blender, not from speakers all around the room. If you’ve got a birdcage and you want the sound of birds, make sure the speaker is there.”
Sound designer Marc Straight, whose work is featured in more than 100 scarehouses, explains how he makes the sound effects: “One room I did sound for was a dental room gone wrong. The first thing I did was make an atmosphere layer. For that, I took the sound of a refrigerator, slowed and pitch-dropped it way down until it felt like a pulse. From there, I combined about 30 different saws, drills and screams to make the dental drill sounds. For the bone part, I used an old pencil sharpener and recorded pencils, plastic and thin rocks being ground in it. I also sampled people screaming for an abrasive “interrupt” layer. The end result was uncomfortable enough to make me dislike listening to it.”
To get you in the mood, here are some of the scariest haunted attractions around the world. Be warned; things are going to get gory, so proceed with caution!
JIKYU GENERAL HOSPITAL, JAPAN
Located in Fuji-Q Highland theme park near the base of Mt. Fuji, Jikyu General Hospital is a labyrinth of mazes, trap rooms and dark corners. Dubbed the scariest attraction in Japan, it also holds the Guinness Record as the longest haunted house in the world, with 900 metres of gruesome adventures waiting for the brave-hearted. Inside the hospital, visitors are able to explore freely, making the experience even more realistic. The design is said to be modelled after a real hospital, which became haunted after unsuspecting patients were “sacrificed” as victims of organ theft. To celebrate its 19th anniversary, Jikyu General Hospital now boasts new routes and terrifying rooms, such as the morgue and linen room.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT, USA
Every year, this popular theme park in Orlando transforms into Halloween Horror Nights. Currently in its 30th year, horror fiends flock to the event to see their favourite movies in the flesh. This year’s haunted house line-up includes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Bride of Frankenstein, Beetlejuice and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, to name a few. As the moon rises, the grounds of the park are filled with free-roaming ghouls that will have you running for your lives. Together with the event’s iconic character, Jack the Clown, 29 other monsters from the history of Halloween Horror Nights will also be making a comeback.
TERROR MOUNTAIN, WALES
Outside an abandoned Victorian mine in Aberystwyth is Terror Mountain, a live-action horror attraction. Visitors make their way up the side of a hill as they subject themselves to five different scares: explore an old building with a paranormal vlogger, watch a sacrificial witchcraft ritual, tempt fate with a ouija board, enter a tunnel filled with demons, or escape from a murderous stalker. Whether you’re superstitious or not, each experience is designed to push you beyond your limits.
LOST SOULS ALLEY, POLAND
For expert haunted house visitors, Lost Souls Alley combines the thrill of an escape room with varying levels of difficulty: Pink is the least intense, suitable for teens or lightweights. However, there is a Red version that claims to be 100% pain and fear, and 0% fun, with a completion level of 0% over the past two years. According to the attraction’s website, “pain stimuli is very frequent, and there is close, aggressive physical contact with the staff. It is certain that you will acquire sores, bruises and wounds caused by running away or the crew’s actions. Your clothing might also get wet or ripped.” Worrying disclaimer aside, Lost Souls Alley has actually received positive reviews for its milder versions, with players highly recommending the attraction for its realistic experience.
BUT HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Despite the thrill that comes with visiting these haunted houses, there are times when the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred, like in McKamey Manor’s case. Founded in San Diego by Russ McKamey, the immersive attraction received its fair share of controversy due to its questionable approaches. Apart from having to sign a 40-page waiver and produce a doctor’s note, participants are also required to be in excellent health to join the “show”, which can take up to 6 hours. During this time, they are subjected to both physical and emotional distress using hypnosis and other mind-control techniques.
With people coming out of the house with swollen faces, missing teeth or covered in bruises, a petition was started to put McKamey Manor out of business. To date, the petition on Change.org has collected over 177,000 signatures. In an interview with Lad Bible, McKamey says that majority of the people who visit his attraction love the experience, and come back time and time again to test themselves. However, because of the extreme methods used and the controversies that surround them, he is no stranger to receiving death threats. “I get a lot of hate mail and voice messages on the phone, and it can be a bit worrisome. I try not to think about it, and just kind of go on with what I do and hope they chill out a little bit,” expresses McKamey, who doesn’t charge an entrance fee for the manor, preferring to accept “payment” in the form of dog food for his pets.
Being part of an industry valued at US$300 million comes with its highs and lows. According to an NBC report, a single haunted house attraction can rake in as much as US$3 million during the Halloween season. As the popularity of these immersive horror experiences doesn’t seem to be dwindling anytime soon, it looks like the thrill of fear-chasing will continue to live on.
Cover Credit: Elias Schupmann/Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.