The Scary Business Of Running A Haunted House
Haunted house operators say their economic concerns have become greater in recent years, especially as customers demand much more than a guy in a mask who jumps out and says “boo!”
Amusement Consultant and "haunterpreneur" Leonard Pickel has been working in the haunted house industry for decades. He’s seen haunted carwashes and even a haunted chicken ranch. He says the industry cycles between favoring blood-and-gore-based establishments and more cerebral, cinematic experiences, which is the current trend.
“The whole attraction has its own storyline, it has its own set of characters, its own set of monsters, so it’s more like a movie where you’re walking from scene to scene,” Pickel says. “Today when you go to the majority of haunted houses, the elite haunted houses, they feel very much like you’re walking into a set of a movie.”
Jim Slaven, the proprietor of Lafayette’s Evil on Erie haunted house, says people want to feel like they’re in a horror film. However, he says that doesn’t mean they can completely abandon haunted houses’ bread and butter: the so-called “startle scare”:
“I think with any haunted house, it has to be a mixture,” he says. We definitely have our share of those rooms where there will be the startle scare -- where somebody gets you when you least expect it, by jumping into your blind side or saying something when you think it’s pitch dark. But then there’s the creative acting side of it too, and we have them both.”
Pickel says more people are going to haunted houses, and they’re willing to shell out more money for them, too. Indianapolis has at least eight professional haunted houses, and Bloomington has three locations, and they cost anywhere from around $5.00 to upwards of 50 dollars.
But audiences’ increased expectations mean owners have to shell out more money and time to keep customers happy (and terrified).
Pickel says an effective haunted house costs about 30 dollars per square foot to open, and owners should expect to spend two to three bucks in advertising for each person they want to see walk through the door (or run out the other end, screaming).
That means owners can easily spend $250 thousand to open a haunted house.
“The start-up cost is very, very expensive,” Slaven says. “[But] that’s what makes the difference between the old kind of haunt where people hung up sheets and things and the new one and the expectations people have for it to be like a movie.”
After the grand opening, the pressure’s on. Haunts only have a small seasonal window to make money. Pickel says people just don’t want to go to a haunted house when it isn’t fall.
“I opened a haunted house, it was a summer seasonal in Myrtle Beach, SC,” he says. “We were there for seven years and had to beg people to come in.”
Complicating the situation is the fact that many people going into the industry are artists and don’t have a lot of business know-how. Pickel says he sees many quality haunts fail when owners neglect to, for example, spend the requisite amount on advertising.
Both Pickel and Slaven say haunt owners are always chasing the newest and most jarring way to scare people. That means attacking senses other than sight and sound, including touch: Pickel says there’s been a recent movement toward “contact” haunts, in which customers sign waivers for the privilege of being kidnapped or slammed inside a closet.
While visitors to Slaven’s Evil on Erie will be occasionally brushed or grabbed, the haunted house tries to create more of a psychological scare. In many rooms, creepy actors simply stand and stare -- an unnerving experience.
Scare-chasers will also be treated to the smell of gasoline in Evil’s “chainsaw room.” Slaven says proprietors can order scents online that can be attached to a haunted house’s fog machines. In addition to the gas smell, owners can purchase scents such as dirt (for cemeteries) cotton candy (think deranged clowns) and even the smell of a rotting corpse.
Pickel says going all-in is a great strategy.
“The only two complaints I hear from people,” he says,”It that it wasn’t haunted enough, or it wasn’t scary enough.”