These Scare Factories are Packed with AV: Inside Haunted House Technology

Published: 2017-10-30

Scaring the heck out of you is big business.

America Haunts, a self-selected association of haunted-house attractions, estimates that there are over 1,200 haunted attractions charging admission fees to their events, many of which are open year round, as well as over 300 amusement facilities producing some sort of Halloween or haunted house event such as an amusement park or family fun center.

The typical “haunt” attracts about 8,000 visitors during high season around Halloween, who pay an average of $15 to enter.

Revenue estimates range as high as $800 million and more, which is believable in a business ecosphere around Halloween, when over $7 billion dollars is spent yearly on treats, costumes, activities and events in the United States alone.

Approximately 90 percent of all households with children will participate in some kind of Halloween activity, according to the Haunted House Association, another trade group.

The group estimates that the thousands of operators spend upwards of $50 million annually on their haunted house technology installations, and more of that each year goes towards AV technology.

“People want more than just some automated props and sound from a looped CD,” observes Don Nolan, president and CEO of Entertainment Sciences Group. The company developed Venue Magic AV technology, a show-control system that integrates audio, video, animatronics and DMX lighting management widely used in the haunted house technology business.

Nolan says the typical haunt visitor has become more sophisticated, just by being surrounded by scarier things brought to life through movies and television. As a result, haunted house technology has to stay a step or two ahead, using AV technology systems to increase the scare factor and linking them to what’s currently waiting to jump out of the cultural closet.[related]

That was vampires for the earlier part of the century, with the emphasis switching to zombies more recently, thanks to television series The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead, and films like Patient Zero. Chainsaws and psychopaths appearing on life-sized screens are perennials; skeletons, not so much anymore.

The important thing, he says, is to make each visitor feel like they will be the next victim. Light beams and other motion sensors are used extensively to avoid making scares predictable by running shows on loops and to keep the action tied to the visitor’s progress through the haunt.

“When you have a girl hanging by a hook in a meat locker, you want her eyes to meet yours just as you encounter her,” he explains, with just hint of Freddy Krueger in his delivery. Sound is also critical, and like the rest of the world in recent years, there has been a pronounced emphasis on LFE, with more subwoofers being deployed.

They’re used in a cinematic fashion, as they are in the movies, “to create tension and a sense of dread,” he says. “The intent isn’t so much to hear it as to feel it.”

AV Technology Provides Spooky Sound

Audio is also often the main element in the haunts that JD Systems, a New York City integrator, has worked on over the years.

While there is a sizable baseline of permanent haunts that operate during various stretches of time throughout the year — Valentines Day is another manufactured holiday popular with scaremongers — the majority are temporary ones, pop-ups that appear in the weeks before Halloween and are gone like ghosts a few days later.

“Every year, they open them in whatever spaces they can find,” says Jak Daragjati, DJ Systems’ owner. “So we’re putting temporary AV technology into places like abandoned warehouses.” (Serendipitously, those kinds of spaces only add to the effect of a haunt, though they’re getting harder to find in the area’s rush of gentrification. “Last year’s empty factory is now a luxury condo building where you can buy a $20 latte,” Daragjati laments. “Now that’s scary.”)

He tends to use minimal video in his haunts, simply because video introduces a brightness that’s inimical to the intended effects.

haunted house technology, AV technology

Photo courtesty GraveSend Inn. Haunted House technology often involves gratuitous use of projection and lighting control.


“The one fear almost everyone has is a fear of the dark, so we work with that,” he explains. However, he’s using more LED lighting in recent years. Most of those lights are battery-powered Chauvet fixtures, which are recharged during the mornings when the haunts are usually closed and which help minimize the need for cables, which can spoil visitors’ necessary suspension of disbelief in the narrative, or cause them to trip in the dark.

At the same time, more of the lead-in and on-site marketing and advertising for haunts is being done with digital signage, such as the Brightsign units JD Systems deploys outside for temporary haunts and the commercial LG displays in lobbies that run previews of the haunt experience.

But most of the emphasis is on sound. Some of that is general background sound design intended to subtly unnerve visitors, and some is directly linked to other effects, such as a howl that accompanies a blast from a fogger. What they share are full-range speakers, such as the JBL PRX800 series JD Systems often deploys.

Hi-Res Sound is Crucial to the Scare

These WiFi-enabled speakers can also be used wirelessly, and are able to be controlled through a smartphone app. Those are used in a haunt’s larger open spaces; in narrow hallways, Daragjati uses Vue Audiotechnik speakers. In all cases, he prefers to use multiple smaller speakers versus fewer larger ones.

“You want to avoid giving people a sense of where a sound is coming from,” he explains. “One way to do that is to avoid direct sound and place speakers so you maximize reflections.”

Daragjati points out that while 4K video resolution might be overkill for a dimly lit haunt, high-resolution sound is essential to reinforce the venue’s fundamental illusion.

“When a character sneaking up behind you is supposed to be stepping on a fallen tree branch, the crackle sound that makes has to be extremely realistic, and also not  clearly generic sound effect,” he says.

Visceral effects like sound, fog and wind have become essential in haunts to demand the attention of Millennial visitors who have grown jaded about what can be
done on a video screen with CG. “We’re using AV technology and effects to stimulate all of their senses, not just sight,” he says.

haunted house technology, AV technology

Ghoul School: Haunted House Technology on Campus

College-age kids are a major cohort of haunt audiences, but at the New York City College of Technology, they actually built one.

The Gravesend Inn, named for a neighborhood nearby the Brooklyn school, was started in 1999 as a small project to engage technology students. It’s since grown into a multi-room haunt, attracting over 5,000 visitors a year, and has become a bit of a benchmark in the business.

For instance, it was one of the first users of any kind to integrate a Dante network for audio signal transport, putting in their first Dante network nearly seven years ago. Members of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES) have made the Gravesend Inn a regular stop on their venue tours.

“I view it as an obligation that we, as a school, push the envelope on the haunted house technology,” states John Huntington, Professor of Entertainment Technology at the college. “For instance, we’ve been using managed networks here for teaching for a while — even Disney wasn’t using managed networks until about two years ago. And we have a much larger budget than most mom-and- pop haunts, so we have an obligation to show how the technology can used effectively.”

The school’s haunt has gone through several iterations of AV systems over the years. New this year is the move of all the venue’s playback video effects over to Brightsign HD223 players that run on microSD cards, which Huntington says at $350 are priced right for budget haunts but are made for 24/7 heavy-duty digital signage applications. They’re controlled using Brightsign’s Brightauthor program.

“You create a number of ‘states,’ which are then linked together,” he explains. “You can then publish this code, with the media, to the box over the network, and the box has a very good network implementation, with default gateway, which we need in this application. The video, which is 1080p, is managed through a Medialon show and event control system. That’s all on a managed network with 24 Cisco switches and seven separate VLANs.”

The highly networked nature of the venue’s media fits well with the high-end sound systems in the Gravesend Inn. These include Meyer Sound and EAW
loudspeakers, all connected on the Dante network through Yamaha Ro8-D 8-channel output racks and mixed through a Yamaha DM1000 console. “Mixed,” however, is a
misnomer, according to Sam Kusnetz, a veteran theatrical sound and system designer who also manages the audio for the Gravesend Inn.

“We’re really just using the DM1000 for its Dante interface card, so that we can have a point on the network we can use as a paging system, and as a back up, in case
of a system failure,” he explains. Instead, each speaker on the system is a destination for the various sounds, which reside on a Mac computer running QLab control software that handles the audio playback. Sounds are activated by motion and other sensors, and are triggered by OSC signals from the Medialon show-control system.

haunted house technology, AV technology

This Gravesend Inn scene is an excellent example of how important lighting control is to haunted house technology.

Rather than actual mixing, Kusnetz says he’s positioned the speakers so that each one covers a specific event within the venue’s narrative.

“Essentially, the visitors are doing their own crossfades as they move from one location to another,” he says. And over the Dante network, Kusnetz can also group speakers together for global applications; for instance, several speakers in one of the rooms will each have a particular purpose, but they can all also be used to play an atmospheric effect for the entire room.

No Escape from Haunted House Technology

Don Nolan says the same Moore’s Law effect that’s making more sophisticated AV technology systems more widely accessible and affordable in typical integration verticals like corporate and education are also helping seasonal pop-up haunts better able to compete with the established ones. “It’s pretty amazing what a mom-and- pop haunt can achieve now, thanks to some cool AV technology,” he says.

That’s also part of what’s driving the rise in the number of “escape rooms” — venues that “trap” visitors in a confined space such as a house and offer them clues to solve the puzzle that will let them out. Nolan traces the advent of escape-room venues to the 2014 movie The Purge: Anarchy, the sequel to the 2013 original. The film’s promotional campaign employed a pair of 50-foot expando trailers that mimicked the escape motifs of the movies, the forerunners of escape-themed venues now proliferating.

These are becoming a lucrative secondary business that allow some haunts that might have just closed up shop after Halloween to operate year-round, creating another market for AV technology manufacturers and integrators. “TransWorld, the biggest trade show in the haunt business, now has an entire section devoted to escape rooms,” notes Nolan.

Halloween is also becoming more of an international phenomenon. Entertainment Sciences Group, which has installed its Venue Magic software in haunts in Argentina and elsewhere in the Americas, is currently programming several of the more than one-dozen haunted houses in Chimelong Paradise, in Guangzhou, Guangdong, the largest amusement park in China.

“Westernized haunts are becoming very popular in China, but there and everywhere else, we have to be aware of the local culture around the afterlife,” he explains. “But once you allow for that, there’s no limit as to what you can do. They love to be scared, just like us.”

Click here to see a slideshow of images showing haunted house technology at its spookiest.

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