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A Super Alternative Way to Create a Haunt
By Mark Cline

"Create a successful Haunted Attraction with no start-up money! Impossible you say? I've done it!"

I have seen many "Haunted Houses" open and then close forever after their first year, with lots of money invested in props, but no imagination invested at all. This may be professional suicide for me because I make my living developing and selling large props for Haunted Attractions, but I had to prove my theory that a "back-to-basics" Haunt would make money. My mission was to deliberately advertise no black lights, no fog machines, and no rubber monsters, just you and "it" alone in the woods. Thus was born the "Scare Witch Experience."

So, how is it possible to start a successful Haunt with no money? First and most importantly, use your imagination, not someone else's. Be original in your approach, and think fear. Aside from all the corpses who rise from their coffins or monsters who jump out at you (or one of the biggest fears I experienced in a Haunted House - the fear that I just spent 40 bucks for my family to walk through an elaborate prop museum with bored "actors" who think yelling "BOO!" is going to send me screaming into the night), you must ask yourself, what is the basis of fear itself? The answer, I believe, is the fear of being lost. Allow me to explain how I have used this, before going into how I created a whole attraction around it &emdash; with no money.

Do you remember the terror of turning around in the supermarket as a child to find your mom or dad nowhere in sight? That empty, sick feeling overwhelming you as the icy grip of fear rushes into your body from all sides, triggering an immediate wail or cry. Though the supermarket is filled with other people, you are alone - lost - drowned with fear. This is the premise on which I planned to base my Haunt.

The Blair Witch Project movie was made for $60,000.00 and grossed over $170 million. Why? It was original in its concept and made you feel just as "lost" as the actors. First you must understand how this fear can make people feel. Then the challenge is how to recreate it. This is what I call fun fear. It is something you anticipate because you have paid for it, and because you have paid for it you want to be taken to the extreme without going over the line. You want the wits scared out of you, but still want to feel safe - like being reminded as a child, "it's only a movie."

Borrowing from, but not imitating, The Blair Witch Project was perfect for planning the "Scare Witch Experience." I found a healthy set of woods just outside the town of Lexington, Virginia, behind a bowling alley. It was a place everyone knew, and was already zoned for business. My wife, Sherry, and I made a deal with the landowner and parking arrangements were established. All we had to do was clear a trail and lay out the "show."

Since we were outdoors, building codes and sprinkler systems did not apply, and even more money was saved by not buying any props. Not only were thousands of dollars saved, the worry of theft or vandalism during the day vanished. It was now my challenge to create a fantastic Haunt from nothing; a blank canvas on which to paint a psychological horror. This is where it all hinged - good guides and a good storyline. I do not like to call Haunted Attraction workers actors because most of them are not. My Haunt required convincing guides who carried the only source of light in the woods, a flashlight with very "weak" batteries. It was up to the guides and a few people scattered in the pitch-black woods (making sounds and never being seen) to create the fear. When the patrons are halfway through the woods, at a point of no return, the guide acts as if he himself is lost and informs the group that he wants to scout out a path by himself, but he will be right back to get them. He leaves them alone in the total darkness, without the flashlight. Remember . . . alone in the supermarket.

When he does not come right back as promised, the group gets fidgety and tense. Folks, this is the moment you live for as a Haunter. You have them at your total mercy. After an uncomfortable amount of time, the guide doubles back and creeps up on his group from behind. As leaves rustle, the group is in a near panic, certain that something horrible is about to happen. Remember, they are "lost." They have no light - where are they going to go other than the safety of the group? Corralled like nervous sheep waiting for a wolf to pounce on one of their numbers, each person tries to find his way to the coveted middle-of-the-group. The guide stumbles from the woods right on the heels of the group with the flashlight to his face and yells, "Run, it's right behind me!" The group follows the flashlight as the guide leads, at double pace, to a temporary "safe" clearing.

The "Scare Witch Experience" lasted about 18 minutes for each group and was unlike anything they had expected. It was sort of like an adult version of "snipe hunting." Very few props were needed, one small slate tombstone, stick sculptures hanging in the trees, a scarecrow, and an old out-house were all I needed. These were all homemade from materials I already had stacked up behind the studio. Props that could have been stolen or vandalized with little trouble, but were not appealing enough for either.

All our publicity posters, brochures and ads were obtained on 30-day terms. After only a two-week run the guides and the bills were all paid with a 1/3 profit to show for it. And that is how to do a successful Haunt with no money!

Mark Cline is the owner of Enchanted Castle Studios in Natural Bridge, Virginia. He can be reached at 504-291-2353

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