The 90’s saw all but the death of practical special effects as the rise of Computer Generated Imagery took hold of the entertainment industry. Traditional special effects artists were not in high demand. Many of them turned to the haunted house industry to apply their talents. Re-agent was injected, and an already established industry was thrust into a more mainstream focus. Not only was it now easy to purchase realistic foam filled static props and more elaborate Halloween costumes, but animatronics soon took center stage at many haunted attractions. People could now encounter Hollywood style effects at reasonable prices and popularity surged. Companies such as Distortions, Poison Props, and Unit 70 continue to produce realistic static and animated props that can be purchased directly, or through such web stores as hauntedprops.com and frightprops.com.
Infused correctly, these horrific robotic creations can add a modern and disturbing visual flair to your haunt, however if overused, you become less of an experience and more of a museum. Although placed properly, effective startle scares, animatronics should be utilized as a set up or distraction for your scare. I have seen several haunts use them AS THE SCARE, leaving patrons unsatisfied. Once their brain registers the jerky motion often accompanied with robotic ghouls, their safety is regained by the predictableness of the scare. Full scale horror-bots are programmable but still lack fluidity and are limited in their movement. They can also be quite pricy and require additional piping to eliminate the pesky “pst–pst” sound caused by compressed air which is a dead giveaway that what you are witnessing is not real. The lesser expensive electric props are more obtainable with a “Slow Burn” approach to your budget but have even less of a range of motion.
Although animatronics won’t call in sick, nothing can replace the unpredictable atmosphere that a live actor can create. Nothing is scarier that unpredictableness. We all fear the unknown. Live performers can quickly adapt to any situation such as changing or controlling the pace and flow of customers, or filling in other spots if needed. More importantly, they can personalize each haunt goer’s experience. A good actor should be able to intensify or restrain their dialog and action based on how their target is behaving. Live actors can ad lib based on what the customer is wearing, or saying. The Corpse Barn capitalizes on this and thus enjoys the same customers coming back several times each season because their experience is always just a little bit different.
In addition to costing you less than one, another plus to a live actor is the ability to pose as an animatronic. Splatter these types of scares throughout your haunt and no one will know what is real or fake at any given moment, giving you absolute entertainment as well while listening to the frightened masses declare what they think is alive and counterfeit.
Reading reviews, listening to conversations, and talking with haunt goers over the past couple of years, I have concluded that the majority of people who enjoy haunts nowadays have become numb to the over use of animatronics and crave the thrill of being in the middle of the action, not knowing what to expect as opposed to the side watching it unfold then retract. If you choose to incorporate animatronics into your design, stay balanced with your automaton to actor ratio.