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Museum Design

Haunt Design: Art or Science?

By Leonard Pickel

For those of you how do not know, my first career (before Haunt designer, magazine publisher and convention organizer) was in Architecture. This schooling and professional experience gives me a slightly different approach when it comes to Haunted House design.

An Architect is an interesting mixture of juxtaposed vocations; that of the practical Scientist and of the whimsical Artist. What the Architect creates on paper will someday be built so, it must be both functional and pleasing to the eye; spectacular and different, yet based in the reality of budgets and accounting.

As the Scientist I try to break down the complicated aspects of haunting into its basic elements, so that the interaction of these elements, when placed into working formulas, can be studied and understood. Plywood + Black Paint = Dark Hallway. Group of Patrons / Chainsaw = Butt impressions in the sheetrock!

The definition of Scare: (skâr) Verb: To strike with sudden fear or alarm. Synonym: frighten.

One of the best explanations of scare categories I have ever heard was developed by my dear friend John Burton. They are:

Visible scare – I saw what was going to scare me and it did.
Invisible scare – I never saw it coming till it was too late! And the combination of the two,
Visible/invisible scare – I saw the bath tub, but I did not expect it to jump up and chase me out of the room.

If you know any Architects, you will notice that they speak a lot about “experiencing” a building. A professor once told me, “As you walk into the room, it should open up… to like a flower!” I am still not sure exactly what that had to do with the laundry mat I was designing for his class, but then he said “as you design the space, think about what you want the viewer to see, hear and feel, and in what order.”

With that in mind, I would add to these 3 desired effects to add to the Haunting experience:

Impress – Realistic Sets, High Detail, Animatronics
Entertain – Backstory, Dialog, Humor
Frighten – Startle, Psyche Out, Unexpected

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Haunting is more like cooking than math, in that is not an exact science, and the recipe for scaring someone is always seasoned to taste. In the hands of an experienced Haunt design, three tombstones and a coffin might make a great scare, but even when you have the perfect ingredients, not everyone will like what you put on the menu.

Leonard Pickel is Owner of Hauntrepreneurs(R), a Dark Design and Consulting Firm, Founder of Haunted Attraction Magazine, Owner and Creator of the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention, (HAuNTcon), Partner of Findahaunt.com Haunted Attraction locater. Leonard is available for consulting, Haunt design, permit drawings and lectures, (like the one above). Contact him at 972-951-5100 or via email at hauntcon@gmail.com