Creating the Experience
Walk into the entry hall and the lights go out. Then you hear the deafening thunder as a lightning bolt flashes. A zombie pops out from nowhere. You have wandered into the Haunted Hotel.
It's best if your haunted house has a general theme to tie everything together. Is it a true haunted house with ghosts? Or is it a mad scientist's laboratory with a Frankenstein creation? Mixing themes is not recommended. The entire experience should center on a single theme or story to keep the guest engaged in what’s going on.
In a classic spooky mansion, the only residents are ghosts, so try to make the place look old and neglected. Throw sheets over the chairs and furniture and put up some fake cobwebs to suggest that the human owners have abandoned the house. Hang all the pictures at crooked angles and fill some vases with long-dead flowers.
Another classic look is a graveyard with a picket fence. This scene affords all kinds of possible animated scares including heads popping out from behind gravestones and bodies popping out of caskets. You can also include the archetypal black cats and rats.>
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Once you have a theme, you should lay out how your guests will move through the haunted house. You should have props and scenery in each room that tells a story, and each room should also have a focal point that draws the guest's eye toward it. This can serve one of two purposes. The first is to draw attention to it in preparation for some scary activity directly associated with the object. The other, of course, is to draw attention away from something else in the room that will scare your guest by surprise.
One common technique is to always scare from behind. This has a bigger scare effect and also tends to keep people moving forward through the house or maze.
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Sound is the most important element of the haunted experience. You can prove this to yourself by walking through a haunted house with your hands over your ears. Without the sound, the experience is obviously much less thrilling.
You need two kinds of sound for a complete haunted experience. First, you need background or ambient sound. This can be a number of different sounds including outdoor sounds (wind, crickets, hooting owls, etc.), thunder and lightning, low wailing and laughter, footsteps, and any other sound fits the theme of your house. This ambient sound should play continuously to help create anticipation in your guests.
Sounds like this can be recorded and stored on a CD or an MP3 player. Stand-alone MP3 players are preferable since they are "solid state", meaning it can't be damaged or lost like a CD. Some MP3 players are triggerable, so the sound doesn't play until an event happens (such as motion is detected or a switch-mat is stepped on).
There are several places that sell speakers that look like rocks. These are excellent ways to get sound into a graveyard without being noticed. You even can place them around the haunt area to get a "surround sound" effect.
The second kinds of sounds are direct scare sounds that are usually timed with a prop action such as when a guest has something jumping, grabbing, or blowing at him. Usually a speaker is located near the prop so the sound appears to orginate from it as it is deploying. Computer speakers are an inexpensive way to get amplified sound for your prop. They are also easy to connect and are already in an enclosure so you don't have to find a place to mount them. If necessary, you can use a spare stereo receiver or commercial amplifier to get more power.
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You can make your prop move in several ways. While each option has its own advantages and disadvantages, you can use commercially available digital control boards to control and synchronize whatever methods you choose to precisely time your effects with sound and lighting.
- Pneumatics: Pneumatics involve the use of air to move pistons and cylinders. Pneumatics can be very fast and strong and are often used to make bodies jump from caskets or heads pop-up from behind gravestones. Pneumatic props are a great way to get maximum scare. The down side of pneumatics includes added hardware complications and having to have an air supply (compressor) and air hose running to your props.
- Air Blast: One of the simplest and most effective props is a simple air blast. This can be as simple as an air hose with an electrically controlled valve to blast an unsuspecting patron with a shot of air to the back of the neck.
- Motors and Solenoids: Motors and solenoids are a good way to get movement using electricity instead of air. Motors can be used to rotate things or to shake things with cams.
- Servos: Servos are useful for small or repetitive movements. You can use servos to move the eyes in a skull, for example.
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Light is the third facet of a good haunted house or prop. Using various lighting effects can add a lot to an otherwise dull haunted house.
Light can be used to create an eerie atmosphere or to disorient and scare the guests. One of the more disorienting types of light is the strobe. A dark room with a flashing light and scary sounds is a perfect setup for an eventual jumping skeleton.
Black lights are also somewhat disorienting, although not as much as a strobe. A black-lit room gives an eerie feeling and can sometimes even be amusing.
Blue or green lights give an eerie feel to a room — especially if they’re constantly changing brightness. Flickering chandelier lights are a classic haunted house effect. This can be accomplished using an occasional flicker effect of a number of commercial light controllers. You can also simulate fluctuating electricity with occasional brief blackouts.
LEDs in the eyes of props are common. They give an eerie glow. LEDs come in many colors, but red is probably the cheapest and scariest. There's nothing worse than scary red flickering eyes!
X10 controlled lighting is a simple and convenient way to change light levels in a room, and it can be permanently left in place to use everyday. There are many X10 controllers that can control X10 lighting in an entire house, continually varying the brightness to make the house look haunted.
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Fog machines are a great addition to enhance any spooky scene. Fog rolling out over gravestones, for instance, is a classic effect.
Fog machines work by heating a fluid into a vapor. They must be plugged in constantly to keep the heating element hot. Most fog machines come with a manual hand-held switch that causes the machine to emit fog. When the switch is pressed, the machine sprays fog. Many also have an optional timer that releases fog automatically.
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Here are a number of projects that can be built using Animated Lighting's series of controllers:
Scary Doorbell: Use the Digital Controller to detect when the doorbell is pressed and you can play knocking sounds and footsteps on an MP3 player before the door is answered.
Air Cannon: Using a Digital Controller (or a switch mat) to detect when a person is at the front door, a valve can be opened to startle the guest with a compressed air blast.
Pop-Up Heads: When a guest is detected, a pneumatic activated head pops up from behind a gravestone shrieking a hideous laugh. This project would use a Digital Controller to detect when to trigger and activate the valve controlling the pneumatic cylinder. It would use an MP3 player to create the sound.
Casket Jumper: This project uses pneumatic cylinders to launch a corpse from a casket. It could use a Digital Controller and an MP3 player.
Talking Skeletons: This project has two skeletons talking with one another. An MP3 player would be used to create the effect of the sound coming from the skull that is talking at a particular moment. A Servo controller would be used to control the skeleton's mouth movements.
Eye-Popping Skull: This project would use two servos or two pneumatic actuators to make the eyes pop out of a skull — kind of like a cartoon character.
Jumping Coffee Table: Using pneumatic cylinders, you can create a haunted coffee table that jumps off the floor. A Digital Controller would be used to control the cylinder action.
Rocking Tombstone: A rocking tombstone can be created with servos moving the tombstone.
Haunted Rocking Chair: A haunted rocking chair can be created with a small servo invisibly moving the chair. A Servo Controller Board would move the servo. A Digital Controller board could also be used to sense the chair's motion and move the servo at precisely the right time.
Thrashing Books: Using pneumatic cylinders, you can create a haunted bookcase where the books jump out of position like you see in many horror movies. Each book would be connected to a cylinder and be pushed out and pulled back quickly. A Digital Controller board would control the cylinder firing order and speed.
Drop Panel: This is the classic dropping panel with a scary face behind it. A non-descript panel in a wall is easily overlooked until a guest approaches. This is easily done with a pneumatic cylinder pulling a sliding door open to reveal a ghoulish ghoul behind it. This could also be a picture.
Thrashing Doors: Two cabinet doors are attached to pneumatic cylinders so they can be open and closed quickly and loudly.
The Crate: A wooden crate with "BEWARE" stenciled on the outside sits idle until a guest triggers the action. The crate begins to shake violently and someone inside yells to get out. Suddenly, the top pops open revealing a scary monster. Pneumatic cylinders controlled by a Digital Controller are used to shake the crate and pop the lid. An MP3 player takes care of the sound effects.