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George Ledo
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The following is a series of excerpts from Chapter 2 of a book I'm working on, discussing how to create your own haunted attraction using professional theater and movie techniques, but on a reasonable budget. I'm sharing it here in the hope that it will be fun to read and generate some ideas for this coming Halloween season. However, please keep in mind that this material is copyrighted. It is not in the public domain. You are free to use the ideas presented here, but not to copy or otherwise distribute the excerpts themselves. If you would like to share this with someone else, please provide a link back to this article. Enjoy!

Entire contents Copyright © 2007 George F. Ledo. All rights reserved.


Chapter 2: Theming and the Storyline

Theming is what will make your haunted house stand out from the others—it will turn it into a complete, clear, fun experience for your guests rather than being just another “house decorated for Halloween.” A storyline is what will tie the theme together and create interesting little scenes that work as part of an overall idea.

What the heck is “theming?”

Think of visiting a Navy ship, a working factory, a castle or old mansion, or even the treatment room at your dentist’s office. All these places were designed for a specific purpose and look like what they are. Everywhere you go in the ship, for instance, you see part of a ship. There’s no doubt in your mind that you’re in a ship.

Theming, as a design tool, is what creates the illusion that you are actually in one of these places. When we go to a theme park and visit, for instance, the ET ride, or Terminator, or Disney’s Haunted Mansion, we feel that we are in the forest, or the lab, or the haunted house, as opposed to being in a generic space decorated with movie posters, action figures, and cutouts.

In this book, I am using the term “theming” in the sense of “creating an illusion.”

Decoration, on the other hand, tends to be more superficial. We’ve all seen restaurants decorated as South Seas islands, or fishing ports, or country stores. Generally, these have decorative items hanging on the wall or from the ceiling — the Tiki gods, or the fishing net with the glass floats, or the barrels and farm implements — that suggest the type of place it’s supposed to be. The space itself, however, is usually generic and could be re-decorated simply by removing the props and replacing them with something else.

A space decorated as a South Sea Island village reminds us of a village, but doesn’t create the illusion that we’re really there.

For the purpose of creating a haunted house, either way works fine, and there is no absolute, clear dividing line between theming and decoration. Although this book focuses on theming, your project doesn’t have to be strictly one or the other: it’s really just a matter of how much time and money you want to invest. And, unless you have very deep pockets and lots of time before Halloween, there’s no point in trying to turn your home into a medieval castle or the spaceship from Alien.

An important issue, whichever way you go, is to pick one idea and make sure everything fits into it. Don’t just pick items at random because you like them. It’s very easy to start out with, say, a Victorian theme, but then to find a little knickknack that “just has to be there” although it’s not Victorian, or (even worse) to decide to hang last year’s Halloween skeleton or Frankenstein cutout in the corner. The little things that don’t fit in—that are noticeable because they stand out—are the ones that will destroy your illusion faster than anything else.

Another important issue to consider is who will see your haunted house. In other words, who’s your audience? If you’re haunting your house for Halloween, chances are your audience will be your friends and their families—adults as well as kids. So, you’ll want to have a mix of things that are attractive to all these people. A witch, for instance, could be scary to little kids, but the older ones will think she (or he?) is a joke, and the adults may well be indifferent. If your audience is primarily little kids, your approach will be different than if you’re having a party for your medical office, in which case you could do a mad doctor’s house, with a lot of body parts treated as inside jokes.

Inside jokes, incidentally, are good for creating audience interest. The Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein was a parody of the original Frankenstein movies, and the story was a lot funnier if we were familiar with the movies. Pull from your own experience, from things your guests will understand, from current movies, from sports, from the tabloids, from computer programs. Just—please—keep it in good taste: there are lots of genuinely fun things to pick from without resorting to gore and grossness.

So let’s look at some ideas for haunted houses.

The standard haunted house

Okay, let’s start here: the good ol’ haunted house we remember as kids, complete with run-down front yard, dead trees, maybe a few gravestones here and there, dark windows, and so on. For some reason most of these houses are usually depicted as Victorian, although a few are Tudor mansions. We enter and are confronted with cobwebs, dark corners, creepy oil paintings, furniture draped in white sheets, and so on.

And here’s the difference between theming and decoration. The real haunted house didn’t have a witch cutout in the window, or carved pumpkins, or a three-foot green cardboard Frankenstein monster, or any of the usual Halloween items. It was just an old house, either empty or decorated as a residence by whoever the owners were many years ago.

If you happen to have a Victorian or Tudor house, you’re halfway there. But you can also create the illusion of a haunted one-story ranch-style house, or a raised ranch, or a colonial, or a post-modern house, or an apartment, or a mobile home.

If you have a front yard, the visitor’s experience will start when they approach your house, so you’ll want to dress it up. On the other hand, if you have an apartment, the experience will probably start when they arrive at your door and maybe see the yellow warning tape, or the “condemned” sign, or something similar. Get the most out of the approach to your house: “hook” them right away and pull them in.

But even the standard haunted house needs a story: Whose house is it? Why is it haunted? What happened? Who is haunting it? What does the ghost want? It’s far more interesting to visit a haunted house where every room has a little story to go with it (who was sitting in that armchair, and why are the stake and mallet on the table next to it?), than to visit a dark house loaded with unrelated props and scary effects.

The storyline

There’s really no difference between a storyline for a haunted house and a storyline in any form of literature. Good stories have always been based on strong, compelling characters who want something and have to go through a series of obstacles to get it. Whether they get it or not, and how they cope with their quest, is what makes the story a drama, a tragedy, a comedy, an adventure, or any other genre.

In its simplest form — in the context of a ghost story — a ghost is simply the spirit of a departed person who has come back to complete some unfinished business. The business could be revenge, or warning someone, or delivering a message, or anything else. But, like any other character in a story, the ghost is there because he or she wants something.

This “want” is what’s referred to in literature as the motivation. The stronger that motivation is, and the more the readers can identify with the character and “feel” his or her motivation, the better the story will be. In recent times, think of the Harry Potter series.

Here are a few quick ideas to get you started on a storyline. Most have been done before in one form or another, but they still work and allow for further variation. And they can be a lot of fun:

a) Great-uncle Canute Cashinbags died suddenly and nobody can find his will. So the lawyers, Dewey Fleecem and Howe, hired a medium, I.C. Oddaside, to contact the uncle. But Gertie Golddiger, Canute’s dead girlfriend from the 1930’s, doesn’t want the will found because she knows what’s in it. So Canute’s ghost is in a battle with Gertie’s.

This one will need a “séance room” (remember Whoopi Goldberg’s office in Ghost?), maybe a painting of the uncle and a photo of Gertie, a few special effects, and possibly some clues as to where the will is hidden.

b) This one has been done in several movies, but it still works. If you happen to have a friend who’s a magician, or are willing to hire one, you can invite him or her to play the grandson or granddaughter of Alexander Willmann, Magician Extraordinaire, who died many years ago and left a house full of magic equipment. For some reason, the equipment has now taken on a life of its own; maybe he’s bored and wants to get back into performing. A dark house full of magic props and illusions can be a lot of fun, although the magician who owns them will of course put some restrictions on how the equipment is handled.

c) Your house is located exactly over the spot where Edelbert McWhammerty was hanged. Edelbert was a rebel during a war (Revolutionary, Civil, 1812, Mexican, or any other), and keeps coming back to plead his case and work for the cause. We still see him walking around or—as a shadow—actually on the gallows.

Remember, in the case of people who were executed, they do not necessarily have to be criminals; a patriot or Robin-Hood-type can be a likable character and add some whimsy and humor to your project. Read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Highwayman for a great portrayal of a heroic bad guy. Or, better yet, listen to Loreena McKennitt’s song rendition of the poem in her CD The Book of Secrets.

Each of these ideas—and lots more—can be the start of a theming project for a “standard” haunted house using your own home, and what you already have, as the basic setting. But keep in mind that great writers don’t just go with their first idea. They revise, clean up, adjust, think, expound, shorten, and generally polish their work as they go.

Stephen King wrote about this process in his book On Writing, and, many years previously, Ernest Hemingway himself said it very bluntly: “The first draft of anything is ****.”

Of course, he didn’t use the asterisks.

The monster’s house

Vampires, the Frankenstein monster, the werewolf, and all those other Hollywood ghouls have been used so much that they have become clichés, cartoon characters often found on cakes and cereal boxes. A lot of the recent vampire movies have been little more than vehicles for special effects, tankfuls of stage blood, and church interiors. But there’s still hope for these guys.

Interestingly, Bram Stoker’s original Count Dracula was very much a three-dimensional character, an old Hungarian nobleman with a long history, pride in his country, plans for the future, and a deep longing for peace. How different from the typical movie vampire who only exists to chase people and bite necks. Anne Rice has taken the vampire to new dimensions in her books, with stories that get away from the usual Hollywood stuff and look at vampires in a fresh way.

What if the vampire were, for instance, a doctor who invited us to a costume party? How would a vampire who just happens to make a living (so to speak) as a doctor approach a Halloween party? What kind of a doctor would he or she be: a heart surgeon, a forensic pathologist, a hematologist? What office hours would he or she have? What would the house look like? What type of food and drink would be served at the party? What type of music?

Or what if the vampire is a lawyer? Or a bus driver, an airline pilot, a chemistry teacher, a computer programmer, a telemarketer? These, and more, offer good possibilities for a fresh approach to a vampire theme.

The mad doctor

No pun intended, but this idea has been done to death. The mad doctor or scientist, the insane asylum, torture devices, the guy in the straitjacket, and so forth, are also a cliché. So what could we do to revive and refresh this theme?

One of my biggest issues with this “mad doctor” theme is that there’s generally no “supernatural” element: it’s just a mad doctor doing weird things. To me, a haunted house needs ghosts or similar critters. There have been a couple of recent movies that tried to work around this, but they also relied heavily on special effects that are not possible in a typical house.

So maybe the solution is to turn things around and do something unexpected. For instance, we’ve heard the old joke about doctors burying their mistakes. So let’s get creative, toss away the preconceptions, and think out loud.

Maybe our doctor has a houseful of dead patients still waiting their turn in the exam room, each one with a story to tell. The young receptionist (and it could certainly be a male receptionist!) doesn’t understand that the patients are dead, and keeps arguing with them about their bills, or about how long they’ve been waiting. The doctor, an ancient but very clean-cut Dr. Kildare type (although it could be a female doctor!) is so loony that he’s always trying out new contraptions on the patients, ignoring the fact that they’re dead.

Maybe, to make things more interesting, we can add a drug-company salesperson and an insurance company lawyer.

Obviously, this will take some work (remember Hemingway’s comment about first drafts), but, once again, the idea is to not take anything for granted.

Set dressing

Feel free to use what you already have. A lot of familiar household items look different in a dark room and can be very effective in theming or decorating your haunted house. For instance:

a) Sheets covering furniture, paintings, and other items. We’ve all seen this in the movies when a character visits an old house, but it’s even more effective when it’s right in your face. When I was growing up, my church had several life-size statues, draped to keep the dust off, stored in the belfry, and they were downright spooky even with the lights on. Now, you may ask, what’s a kid doing in a church belfry? That’s a whole other story…

b) Pictures hanging crooked. Don’t overdo this, but it’s effective. A trick I like is to take an old painting of a lady wearing lace or soft drapery and apply a bit of the same (or a similar) fabric to the painting so it hangs down below the frame, like the character was coming out of the frame. Hair can work the same way.

c) Piled up, dusty books are an old standby, especially old thick ones like medical textbooks, law books, or unabridged dictionaries. Used-book stores sometimes sell these at a discount (“by the yard”), or you can borrow them. Old editions of Books in Print, Literary Market Place, and other library reference books are often tossed out when the new editions come in, and they tend to be nice and thick.

If you do use old books, you can stack them with the pages facing out instead of the spines. And mix them up: an encyclopedia, no matter how old and dusty, still looks like an encyclopedia. Break up the set and mix the books in with others to create some visual variety.

d) A bunch of pillows, loosely arranged to look like they could be a body, can fill up an otherwise empty corner, lit only by a blue night light nearby. The trick here is to arrange them so they look like just a bunch of pillows… but what’s that thing that looks like a hand… and is that a pair of pants underneath?

e) A pile of old trunks and suitcases, with clothes and stuff piled around, can create a nice atmosphere in a dark corner of the basement.

The transition space

An interesting technique used in theme parks is to create a buffer zone, or transition space, between the street and the actual attraction. This is a very effective way to pull guests into the story.

For instance, in Universal Studios’ ET ride, we do not go directly from the street to the bike ride. We start in the queue line, then move into the building where we begin to see snippets from the story (and innocently give our name to the host), then pass into a forest where we wait some more while viewing characters from the story, an finally get on the bikes. All this preliminary stuff is there to make us forget the world outside and allow ourselves to focus on the story and the illusion.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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