If you’re really into Christmas decorating, a visit to a Halloween trade show can be like entering a different world. Take everything you love about the holidays, turn it upside-down and there’s Halloween. After walking the floor of a Halloween show, you’ll probably leave thinking Christmas is in trouble. No need to worry. Christmas isn’t leaving anytime soon, but there’s a lot you can learn from the ‘dark’ side.
Haunt World is one of the big Halloween shows and it’s always in March at a convention center in St. Louis. It’s geared towards the operators of haunted houses and not for the casual, off-the-street Halloweener. It’s pretty easy to see why. It’s $60 just to walk the tradeshow vendor floor. Then there’s the red and it’s everywhere, mainly because there’s so much blood. Thar blood goes well with the severed limbs, flesh eating wolves and never-ending operating tables holding corpses in various degrees of stomach churning disembowelments. Mercy. The attention to detail is quite impressive… though now that I think about it, I don’t have much in real life to compare any of this to. I vaguely remember dissecting a worm in high school and there was certainly no blood.
Then there were the demented looking elves and the beheaded Santa. I had to keep telling myself this might make sense in a haunted house but it wasn’t destined for normal Christmas decorations.
I walked up to a display of a Christmas tree with a big button in front saying ‘press me.’ How could I resist? Smoke starts coming out of the tree and after a few seconds it splits open to reveal Santa inside getting electrocuted. I dunno about these folks…
But, as I thought about it, there are some very talented and creative people working in the Halloween business. You can’t help but be impressed by what they do. Once you look past all the gore and stuff designed to turn your stomach, the technology needed to make zombies walk, lightening strike and monsters fly is no less than amazing.
Haunted houses are based on a series of short gags. Step on a pressure plate and a car horn or air blast might be triggered and sending your heart racing. Break a light beam and a series of pneumatic controlled werewolves could jump from behind a wall. Walk next to a column and a passive infrared detector will know you’re there and start the chainsaw that swings out of the ceiling. All of these effects only last a few seconds and must reset quickly for the next group of people.
The bottom line is haunted houses aren’t what you think. Haunts immerse you into a series of very short shows. Watch the gag for a few seconds, jump/scream/get scared and move on to the next. You’re actually part each mini-show because your scream helps build the anticipation and sense of forbidding with the group behind you. From the haunt operators viewpoint, the more gruesome it is, the more you’ll remember and tell others. Then during Halloween week the more people you can move through your haunted house, the more money you make. Isn’t it amazing how it’s all connected?
What’s the latest trend for the haunts? Food. While waiting in the long line to walk through the house, chances are good you’ll get hungry. Buy some nachos or mini-donuts to calm the nerves and impress your date. Easy money for the haunt operator. I’ll admit and can’t help but wonder if they sell barf bags, too…
Don’t think for a minute running a haunted house is easy. The gags can be very expensive. Insurance costs are substantial, not just for injury but for bad weather preventing people from attending. Don’t forget ticketing, security, advertising, the website and maintenance of all the equipment.
What’s the biggest and most expensive headache for most haunt operators? The staff. You need a lot of humans wearing thick makeup and looking for trouble. A really good zombie might be an awful ax murderer so you’re constantly adjusting when those humans don’t show up for work.
But… I’ll admit I look at Halloween a bit differently than the haunted house operators. It’s a great time to test all those behind-the-scenes components needed for a great Christmas show. Put some lights in your bushes and flash them to Michael Jackson’s Thriller music played in front of your house. When the five year old kid from next door dresses up as Superman and knocks at your door, he’ll be amazed at the flashing lights and the great music. He’ll tell his parents and you’ll be a hero.
The day after Halloween… now we’re talking. May the real decorating begin!
Looking for the magic that makes the Halloween gags work? Checkout the following vendors. Click the links and you’ll be impressed.