DIY: How to Decorate a Haunted House

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haunt combo 2, originally uploaded by Boju.

Before I started doing film props, I was doing Haunted Houses and carnivals. They’re my first love, and I’ve learned a lot of tricks for decorating a great Halloween party or Haunt.

13 Tips for Decorating a Haunted House

1. Figure out your budget. I get a lot of people who think they can set up a haunted house for a few hundred dollars. A haunted house is an interactive environment. You can decorate a Halloween party for a few hundred no sweat, but for a haunt you absolutely need props, actors, lighting, and gimmicks. If you don’t have the budget for a a haunted house, but you want more than just a Halloween party, consider the following – A. a Tunnel of Terror: in attraction in which a small part of a larger party or event is transformed into a haunted tunnel. B. A Sideshow- set up at your Halloween party spaces for an exhibition of oddities with a host, a magician/ card trick table, a fortune teller, seance, and any other unusual performers you might want. If it’s an adult party, sideshows performances can include belly dancers or burlesque dancers as well. Also, renting haunted house props and decor is a great way to cut costs by 50% to 90% and insuring that each year will be completely different.

2. Take a Photo – It’ll last longer. You’ll need a photo op, someplace well lit where photography is encouraged (a lot of haunts are too dark or discourage photography). Preferably the photo op should be clearly pointed out and feature your name, like “Teresa’s Torture Chamber- Halloween 2008.” A souvenir like that gets shown to friends, posted on the internet, and serves as a reminder in coming years of your haunt. That’s great promotion. Popular photo ops include anything the guests can get into, like caskets, electric chairs, stocks, open graves, hearses, etc. Other great photo ops are giant monsters, celebrities, or famous stand ups that guests can pose near.

3. Give them something to talk about. Your haunt needs just one thing that really wows people to become legend, and the best haunt in town.

4.Flow – if your haunt is an attraction, people need to be able to understand where to go next. Try to avoid having guests enter a room and leave through the same door. A good haunt runs like a good carnival dark ride, with guests moving steadily along, visiting each diorama-like scene enjoying the thrills and moving on to the next one.

5. Lighting – randomly flickering lights are the best. I use plasma lamps, flicker boxes or battery powered candles. Strobe lights are migraine inducing and should be used sparingly, only where disorientation, a blow off, or stop motion effect is essential. Randomly flickering lights provide atmosphere, illuminate the area of interest, and prevent the guests eyes from adjusting to the darkness. Light and darkness is key to a haunt.

6. Go with the strengths of your space. If your building is old, go gothic or killer hillbilly. If its modern try mad science or serial killer.

7. Use actors. Make sure they’re outgoing but know where to stop (screaming kids good, crying kids bad). Also make sure they can take a punch. People can react without thinking when spooked. Actors transform Halloween decorations into an attraction. Arm them with safety weapons like a chainsaw without a chain or realistic soft foam axes.

In terms of using “plants” or “shills” with the guests, I’ve found that it often works great. A shills job can be nothing more than starting an infectious laugh, wow, or scream which helps the thrills along and diffuses the “too cool for ghouls” attitude some kids have. Once one person’s screaming it’s not long before everyone’s screaming and having fun. Shills can also be used if a gimmick involves audience participation, but be careful not to do something too transparent. For instance, say you’re doing a magic show, a poor use of a shill would be as the volunteer that picks the card. A good use of a shill would be if the trick should go horribly wrong, like sawing a guest in half and having blood and fire erupting from the box, or collecting info so your “psychic” knows his audience. I saw a haunt where a shill interrupted the performer because the gag going on was “unfunny and offensive” the atmosphere quickly became tense and everyone thought a fight was on the verge of breaking out, but instead the shill pulled off his shirt to reveal a dynamite belt that shot confetti. The whole gag went flawlessly from typical haunt gimmick to something tense and real to a genuine threat to a bizarre comedic release.

8. Stay away from animatronics unless your a geek or a gear head. You know if you are. If you have a hard time hooking up your computer to your printer, get someone technical to run the vortex tunnel and synchronize the robots. Also, tech is expensive, and haunts are dark, chaotic, and sometimes wet places. You’ll need to be able to repair things on the spot or be left with a 3K paperweight.

9. Don’t neglect the details. Things like cobwebs, drapery, bloody plastic, and chains can inexpensively help set a scene. Also set a few surprises just beyond the normal obvious spot of interest. It’s always great when people see different things in a haunt (and it encourages repeat trips). Also subtle “is it or isn’t it part of the show” kind of things can be very unnerving.

10. Mix distraction and surprises. Gather peoples attention on one large piece that seams to be about to do something. While everyone is watching in anticipation, hit them from the side with a totally unexpected gag. I’ve done this trick in a spooky doll room where while a giant doll rises and begins to lurch towards the guests, previously unseen doll people swoop in from the sides.

11. Theme is important. It’s great if you can tie everything together along a common thread.

12. Decorate your food area too. If you have a bar with bottles on display, mix specimen jars between them. Get a brain jello mold and make salmon pate in it to really look like brains. The Dapper Cadaver edible stage blood is actually a delicious butterscotch flavor, so try mixing it into your drinks or over deserts. Pour it over ice cream for what I call a Sundae Bloody Sundae. Add red food coloring to drinks at the blood bar.

13. Go big. If you’re doing a graveyard, remember headstones are at least 4″ thick and average between 2 and 4 feet tall, with monuments as big as 12 feet. Caskets are 80″ long, and cages should be large enough to fit a person in. A lot of Halloween stores sell scaled down merchandise to cut cost. If something looks too small to be real, it’s not going to read as anything but party decor.

Thats 13 Spooky tips for putting together a Haunted House, and keep checking the blog, as there will be plenty more helpful tips coming up.