Remember the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog? Remember when John Houseman, the old man by the sea told the captivating tale of April 21st and The Elizabeth Dane? In just 3 minutes, that fire lit, sea side theatre performance set the theme, tone and direction for the film. What an example of storytelling at it's finest.
Since classical Athens in the 6th century BC, vibrant traditions of theatre have flourished in cultures across the world. Haunted house productions are stitched into this communicative art form with an underground, sub genre silhouette. The stories we flesh out should be considered an art form. A creative massacre designed to force feed people their deepest fears. The humanity of our efforts come to fruition when the patrons have survived, gaining either a distraction from, or a feeling of self confidence over the horrors we all deal with on a daily basis. I know this sounds pretty heavy and dramatic, but drama is what we do. Since a strong foundation is needed at the start of anything, the story you want to tell, and theme you want to operate under, should get some serious thought. Once this blueprint choice is made, the rest of your creative decisions should find an easy path to birth. A well thought out theme will allow for a greater suspension of belief and more clarity to the type of experience you want to offer.
I was asked once by someone who wanted to start a haunt if I thought a werewolf theme would be sustainable. My answer was if werewolves are your passion, create that world. For the past several years, zombies have been the mainstream horror trend. A recent boom of escape rooms and more extreme “torture haunts”, such as Mckamey Manor have started to take the spotlight of our industry. Fashion the nightmare you are interested in. We all lend ideas from each other but you must make them your own. The value of the production that you offer will have a better direction and more reality with subject matter you understand and are amorous about.
I remember being a fan in the 90’s when the theatre of pro wrestling started to take a more serious approach to the product it offered. The lines between reality and fiction began to blur. Knowing things were scripted, I was still compelled to watch, searching for the real things that weren’t supposed to happen. This left me wondering what was true and what was faked. That suspension of disbelief is how the haunt experience The Corpse Barn offers is approached. Early on, it was decided that the tale we tell would be one of backwoods murder and mayhem. Our physical location, an old barn surrounded by wilderness helped make this decision. Through all of our upgrades and additions over the years, we have crafted the experience to exist in one world.
There are haunts that plunge you into different worlds from room to room. You may start at a UFO crash sight with alien monsters, and then make your way to a clown room. After that, perhaps you enter a swamp. The incoherence of these mash ups may be a way to fit all common fears into one location, but do not lend themselves well to good story telling. They can jar your experience, reminding you that what you are dealing with is fiction. While people are immersed in The Corpse Barn world, I want them questioning the hazy line of reality and make believe we have created. Will they make it out? Did that “actor” just really hurt themselves? Is this where the urban legend about the crazed employee who actually killed people happened?
Some attractions such as Cedar Point, Niles Scream Park, or Universal Horror Nights, offer multiple haunts, or worlds at one location, but do so in different buildings or areas. Thrill seekers can pick and choose what worlds they want to endure. I have also been to haunts that do the same thing on a smaller scale. They advertise how many ever attractions at one haunt with individual pricing or an all in one price. This idea has been discussed amongst our team several times over the past couple of years as our growth continues and is in the long term plans. It is a great marketing tool to attract more customers, which showcases value and options, two things important in the world today. Staying true to our storytelling the “other haunts” will be natural extremities of our existing theme and story as opposed to several different themes.
Theme can also be embellished by a mythology that can lend itself to establishing key characters. I have seen intricate plots on display for patrons to read before entering, or characters created from back stories and used as figure heads for advertising. Our story is there to give us direction, and we like to drop clues along the way but don’t expose it entirely. This allows room for your imagination, which may be scarier than ours, and affords us the ability to mutate organically.
The clear vision of a strong theme choice and back story will spark electricity into your creation and allow it to become a living breathing piece of theatre. What tale will you tell?