haunted house library

Bookmark and Share

Home > Haunter's Lbrary > Haunt Scares, Designs & Effects > Designing with Light & Shadow

Designing with Light & Shadow
By Bobbie Weiner


I read Haunted Attraction Magazine to glean tips and ideas from the big boys of terror for use in my own attraction. I do not have a trailer full of props, or a turnkey haunted house with oodles of cool stuff. I do, however, like to scare people with my own low budget visions of the macabre… And I bet I am not alone. A low-budget haunt does not have to mean low entertainment value. Some basic elements can add more quality to your attraction than that $5,000 animation. Incorporating a better use of light and shadow is one of these simple aspects of haunting. Many attractions rely too much on the premise of "Do not be afraid of the dark. Be afraid of what is in it," and are simply too dark. Darkness works well in some places; in others, it does not. "Surprise" is what a lot of Haunters mistake for a good scare, and how can we blame them? We learned that "shock" is a great thrill in the movies. The stupid cat jumping out instead of the monster still makes us shriek. Why? Because the tension has already been spoon-fed to the audience, so by the time our feline friend shows up on the scene, we are ready to jump at anything. What many Haunters never realize is that "shock" is not the thrill; it is the pay off of well-placed tension.

The characters found in many haunts stem from the images set forth in horror movies. An attraction may benefit by incorporating characters like Jason or Mike Meyers simply because of the millions of dollars spent by the franchises who developed them. People automatically recognize these guys and then their imagination takes off, filling in the gaps only the mind can fill. This does an adequate job, but in most cases, it is 90% shock and 10% tension. It is short lived and quickly forgotten, and therein lies the problem. It also can cause serious legal issues stemming from copyright infringement. However, the same type of "scare" elements used in movies can be employed to create an equally effective attraction if you can learn how to separate the "Chill Factor" from the movie character.

Alfred Hitchcock was a genius at creating tension, or suspense. He stated that if you have a scene where a bomb is under a table and nobody knows about it, then it suddenly explodes; you have ten seconds of fear and chaos. However, if you show the audience the bomb two minutes before it goes off, you can create two full minutes of tension and finish it off with absolute mayhem. The audience has been given key information about what is coming and they are powerless to do anything about it. Obviously, movies can do things a live haunt cannot, but similar methods can be used in a Haunted Attraction to let the patron see what is coming and provide more of a pay off than just jumping out of the dark.

The best examples of light and shadow usage can be found in old black and white movies. A simple trip to the video store can yield a plethora of ideas not found in any "how to" videos. The directors of these older movies knew color was not an option to them, only shades of gray. Red blood and green ooze are products only color movies cash in on. Black and white movies needed to more subtle. They capitalized on images that lacked color. Back lit forms with glowing eyes, statues of gargoyles, even shadows cast by normal objects such as the light through window blinds. Sometimes depicting a murder by the progression of shadows cast by a blinking neon sign, leaving the imagination to fill in the gory details.

Many people believe that light can be detrimental to the effectiveness of a prop, especially on a modest budget. In full light, a wooden box painted to look like a coffin could end up only looking like a painted wooden box; but adding light to a scene does not always mean adding more detail. It should only enhance the mood. All of us have put a flashlight pointed up, directly under our faces to cast a creepy shadow when telling a ghost story. The face is more visible than it would be in the dark, but the difference is the point of view is now controlled with the direction of a single light. People now see only what you want them to see. When the haunter controls the view by deciding when and where to use light, they can then direct or misdirect the audience any way they want.

A light on a giant spider web and a trapped victim whooping and hollering will attract the patron's attention, but the web and the victim are only the bait. The audience knows there must be a spider around somewhere. They are now primed for a good scare. They have been misdirected into thinking the action will happen by the web, and never see the elephant-sized spider who was moved into place right behind them and is about to let them have it. A low growl accompanied by glowing eyes, and the backlit spider is practically on top of them. It is too late now to do anything but react. The payoff in this example is much bigger than it would be from just placing the spider by the web, and the scare lasts longer. Most importantly, the patrons will remember it.

Most Haunted Attraction scenes do not require bright floodlights, but you do need just enough light to let the audience see what is coming. When possible, the light can be incorporated right into the scene itself. A red or green light and a fog machine can provide an unnatural glow to an open grave. Fog in a graveyard setting will refract lighting hidden behind headstones, spreading the glow around. A cannibal scene can be livened up a with orange flickering light under the cooking pot and a green light and fogger inside of the pot. The low voltage lighting used to illuminate walkways is a really easy way to let people know something is coming up. It works best in a traveling scene where the same ghouls follow the patrons through a large section of the haunt, driving them forward to the next scene. In a chase scene, back light the set with floodlights, obscuring the face of the pursuer(s) and partially blinding the patrons. Toxic Waste scenes are just begging for all types of odd colored glowing lights. Actors carrying lamps or lanterns can have a "bone chilling" affect. The light bobbles along the forested path almost out of sight of the patrons, foreshadowing what is about to happen.

These examples use only simple lighting techniques. Strobe lights, twisting light images, and lasers can also make things much more interesting. Just remember, light and shadow should compliment a scene and not detract from it. Too much can wash away the scare, but not enough and the patron will miss it altogether.

Owner of "Cadaver Café" in Sparta, NJ, David Heck is a seasoned yard haunter, specializing in interactive haunts that require actors, rather than automated props. His attention to the subtleties of what makes a great haunt has caused increases in growth and support among its visitors each year. 2002 will be his first attempt at a large-scale haunted hayride, at Heaven-Hill Farm in Vernon NJ. He can be reached via email at ewiggin@eclipse.net, or by phone at 973-903-3597.

Back to Top

Home > Haunter's Lbrary > Haunt Scares, Designs & Effects > Designing with Light & Shadow

haunted house trade magazine