One of the most iconic ways to celebrate Halloween is to — (you guessed it) — visit a haunted house. These blood-curdling attractions are specifically designed to terrify and tap into our deepest fears. But haunted attractions don’t just pop up overnight; they require an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure visitor safety.
Here’s what it truly takes to set up, run and maintain haunted attractions - one of America’s favorite Halloween pastimes.
The Secrets Behind Haunted Attraction Maintenance
Spooky entertainment isn’t new; people have entertained themselves with scary stories for centuries. And just like ghost stories, haunted attractions exist to scare us and get our adrenaline pumping. Most haunted houses operate for a month or two out of the year, but planning and preparation can take several months (or even an entire year) before the attraction re-opens.
Haunted attractions take countless hours to assemble. This makes sense, as there are many types of equipment that need to be set up before the scares can start. There’s lighting, flooring, walls, fencing, props, animatronics, touch pads, sound systems, fog machines and safety equipment - just to name a few. Here’s a deeper look into the logistics of haunted house setup.
Building a Haunted Layout that Truly Terrifies
The groundwork for a frightening haunted house experience lies in design. Most haunts are designed with twists and turns so guests are unable to anticipate what's coming next. There may also be hiding spots incorporated into the layout, allowing actors to conceal themselves, jump out, scare and stalk unsuspecting visitors.
What visitors may not realize is that even though a haunted house’s layout might feel like a complex maze, it is actually carefully designed to ensure visitors’ safety in the event of an emergency. Most haunted houses are designed with multiple exit points, which can be accessed on the outer edges of the maze. Egress plans not only aid in safety but also help actors move in and out of the haunt with ease.
Incorporating Terrifying Props and Scary Room Themes
Once a floor plan is designed, it’s time to create an atmosphere that leaves guests feeling terrified. There are countless ways to play into people’s fears using AV technology and specially designed structures. Dimmed lighting is used in conjunction with black lights and glow-in-the-dark props. Strobe lights disorient visitors while eerie soundtracks play in the background, building on visitors’ anxiety. Touch pads on the floor trigger air horns and animatronics to give people a sudden jolt. Depending on the design of the facility, guests may even be forced to feel their way through darkened corridors or push aside heavy obstacles to proceed through the attraction.
Avoiding Haunted House Risks and Hazards is Top Priority
Safety is a top priority for haunted house maintenance teams. A well-planned haunted house should create the illusion of danger without posing any real harm or threats to safety. To mitigate risk, haunted attractions will carry appropriate insurance and safety equipment. They’ll also maintain a maximum capacity limit to keep people safe and moving smoothly through the haunt.
Still, haunted house facilities are not immune to potential hazards and threats. Here are five physical risks that haunted house owners and operators must be aware of at all times.
Tripping and Slipping Hazards: A bad injury from a haunted house can deter business, or worse, lead to an injury-related lawsuit. Maintenance must remove any loose cords from walkways, lay appropriate flooring and provide mats in slippery areas.
Flammable Decorations: Smoke and flames in a haunted house could spell disaster. Maintenance personnel must ensure that props, equipment and decorations are kept clear of fire hazards. Fire extinguishers and alarms also must be properly mounted and visible.
Walkway Obstructions: Haunted houses utilize pillars and obstacles to keep visitors engaged and on-edge. However, obstructions mustn’t block exits and escape routes in case of an emergency. Maintenance personnel must frequently review egress plans to ensure guest safety.
Bodily Injuries: Haunted attractions are full of props and hardware that could cause injury to occupants. Paired with a dark environment, these hazards can cause guests to misstep, stumble or fall. Maintenance personnel must search for nails, screws or equipment that could snag on a person or cause injury. Walls must be reinforced so they won’t break or fall if people run into them.
Indoor Air Quality: Faux fog and compressed air are great for creating a frightening atmosphere, but machines can also raise carbon monoxide levels in enclosed spaces. As a result, maintenance personnel must ensure that air is properly filtered in the attraction to keep it safe for breathing.
Complying with Haunted House Safety Regulations and Codes
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has an entire section of their Life Safety Code® book dedicated to safety within haunted attractions (see section 18.104.22.168). Haunted attractions are defined as “special amusement buildings” and may have egress paths that are not always readily apparent due to visual distractions and twisting pathways. Haunts may also contain combustible materials that can fuel a fire. Therefore, haunted attractions must abide by strict code provisions to prevent disaster (see section 20.1.4 of NFPA 1). We’ve summarized a few examples of haunted house code requirements below:
Automatic sprinklers are required for all haunted houses. If the haunted house is mobile or portable, an approved temporary means is permitted to be used for water supply.
Smoke detectors are required for all haunted houses, especially those that operate in low lighting. Smoke detectors must sound an alarm at a constantly attended location on the premises.
The activation of an automatic sprinkler system (or other suppression system) must trigger proper illumination to help occupants exit the haunt, as well as terminate any conflicting sounds or visuals.
In haunted houses where mazes, mirrors or other designs are used to confound the egress path, approved directional exit marking must be provided to aid in emergency evacuation.
Check with your local government and fire department for the most accurate set of safety rules applying to home and professional haunts. To learn more, check the NFPA 101 Frequently Asked Questions page.
An Insider’s Look at Screamin’ Acres Haunted Attraction
During the day, Eugster’s Farm Market in Stoughton, Wisconsin is a bustling, family-owned farm where visitors can pet animals, pick pumpkins, buy locally-grown produce and learn about life on the farm. But once the sun goes down, Eugster’s Farm Market becomes something far more terrifying. It is home to Screamin’ Acres, an award-winning haunted attraction known for its terrifying props, nighttime cornfield trail and talented crew of 95 actors.
Jacob Eugster, owner and operator of Screamin’ Acres, knew from a young age that he wanted to open a haunted attraction at his family’s farm. In 2011, Eugster pursued his entrepreneurial passion and established Screamin’ Acres. Today, the experience consists of four attractions totalling over 24,000 square feet, and has been voted “Best Wisconsin Haunt” four years in a row by Wisconsin Frights.
Eugster says that Screamin’ Acres takes many precautions to ensure the safety of actors and visitors from the moment they arrive to when they leave the haunt.
“Each September, we have routine fire and safety inspections to ensure compliance,” Eugster says. “We want to make sure that everyone is safe and having fun at Screamin’ Acres. We post safety regulations for guests, but we also make sure our actors follow safety best practices. Our team members go through extensive training to learn how to approach a variety of situations in case of an emergency.”
Eugster says that there is an art to incorporating fire/life safety equipment throughout a haunted attraction. He says that this equipment must be easy to locate, especially in dimly lit areas of the haunt, but not so out of place that it detracts from the guests' experience.
“We don’t want to ‘pollute’ the haunt with emergency equipment, but everything needs to be clearly visible and accessible at all times,” Eugster says. “Our fire extinguishers, for example, are strategically placed to make sure they’re readily available, yet don’t visually detract from the experience. We also have a lot of space above our attraction walls, where we’ve installed emergency lights that shine through the burlap ceilings if needed.”
Eugster says that one of the greatest challenges of managing a haunted attraction is moving an appropriate amount of people through the facilities on any given night.
“Forcing too many people through the haunt can cause a variety of issues,” Eugster explains. “Bottlenecking is definitely a problem. But an even greater concern is maintaining safety. Over the years, we’ve determined our cap for how many people we can move through in a night. We also maintain control by limiting the number of tickets sold per day. Installing timed checkpoints has definitely helped regulate flow and keep movement consistent as well.”
Screamin’ Acres uses a variety of cutting edge AV equipment and electronics to add to the terror of the haunt. Eugster says his favorite piece of equipment is their giant rat head prop, which juts out from the wall and spooks unsuspecting haunt-goers as they come around a corner. The prop has mechanical aspects that are manually controlled by a staff member to ensure the safety of the guests. Eugster says human-controlled elements of the haunt are intentional, as they provide perfectly-timed scares and are oftentimes more safe and reliable than electronics.
“Although very rare, we have had AV equipment malfunction on a busy night,” Eugster says. “In our second year, an extension cord got wet on a rainy night and all the breakers shut off. This caused the haunt to lose power for five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever run faster from the ticket area to the breaker panels! Nobody was hurt, but this incident did inspire our ‘Blackout’ event, which people look forward to every year.”
Protect Your Facility Against Safety and Security Risks
Haunted attractions, like any organization, face safety- and security-related risks which, left unchecked, can pose significant harm to visitors, staff, assets and business practices. Is your facility as safe and secure as it could be?
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