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Modeling a Haunted House Room Design
By Randy Powell


When designing a Haunted House, many people utilize drawings to help them plan the layout, visualize the concept, and estimate material requirements. However, for complex 3-dimensional or mechanical designs, a scale model is a very useful tool. In addition to helping with material estimates, a model will give you the opportunity to test mechanical and lighting effects. It will also allow you to view the set from the patrons' point of view, albeit on a smaller scale, to test sight lines and viewing angles (and it's fun, too!).

Recently we decided to build a 1:12 scale model to test the concept of the design of a room, and how it might be built. The set dimensions are based on a standard 4-foot square base grid. The footprint for this room is 4 units (4' each) long, by 2 units (4' each) wide for a 16' L x 8' W space.  The set height is 16' tall, (4 units). At 1:12 scale, 1"=12" or 1'. This makes our finished model 16" long, 8" wide, and 16" tall.

The key element to a good scare is to immerse the patrons in the effect, rather than having them walk by a tableau or display. In this example, the room is designed as a hallway alongside a staircase, and has two interactive scares. Patrons first enter the hallway through the entrance doorway, where they find themselves facing the staircase. Below the steps, an actor/operator pulls a lanyard that causes a scream to come from a speaker mounted behind the door at the top of the steps. Simultaneously, the door flies open allowing a decapitated body to fall out and a severed head to roll down the stairway and come to rest at the feet of the patrons.

As the patrons catch their breath, the same actor with a bloody axe then jumps out of a "secret" door below the steps to retrieve his "toy" (the severed head), and chases the patrons out the exit. The staging provides a "misdirection" scare, a second scare, and interactivity with the severed head and "monster" which heightens the perceived threat to the patrons.

Requiring only a single actor/operator for a two-stage scare makes this an economical gag. A single lanyard pull triggers the first effect. Then the actor jumps out from below the steps. Resetting the gag is quick and easy. After retrieving the head from amongst the patrons (which is part of the act) and retreating under the steps through his "secret" door, the operator uses a second lanyard to pull the body back up into the cocked position and a third to close and latch the door. He then replaces the head in the launcher platform.

A less complicated version of this gag could replace the dummy with three or four decapitated heads rolling down the steps and a multiple scream sound effect from the speaker. This version would however create more work in the retrieval phase for the actor. The obligatory chainsaw variation might use a recorded sound from the speaker, followed by the monster firing up a real chainsaw (minus chain, of course) beneath the steps and jumping out.

In this design, the stairway railing serves both aesthetic and safety functions. It contains the falling body and directs the head down a safe path to the feet of the patrons. It is important, however, that the patrons be kept off the stairway. This could be done by placing a velvet rope or other physical barrier across the lowest step. However, a psychological barrier, such as dressing the steps as broken and rotted through or covered with wet blood would be a preferable way to inhibit access.

The main prop elements for this set include: an articulated headless dummy with clothing, a severed head, and a costume and axe for the "monster." The set will also be dressed with additional props, such as paintings, cobwebs, and ornamental lighting. A speaker mounted up high behind the door at the top of the stairs will make the scream appear to come from an upper floor.

A wooden or PVC armature with hinged joints hidden in the dummy will allow it to fall like a real body. Foam, hot-glued to the armature and sculpted with a matte knife and Surform® tool, will give the body a realistic shape, pliability, and will protect the armature from damage. Realistic latex hand and neck stump appliances will be attached, and the body will then be costumed and appropriately bloodied.

The dummy's feet will attach to a platform, hinged at the front, which tilts forward allowing the dummy to fall out of the doorway onto the top portion of the stairs, but not travel down the steps. The head, however, will be loosely placed on the same platform and be "launched" down the stairway to end up on the floor at the feet of the patrons. While the head is made of latex over soft foam, it will be launched from the platform versus being placed on the dummy's neck, so that it does not bounce over the stairway railing and hit a patron in the face.

The "secret" doorway under the stairs will be dressed so that it is not obvious to the patrons. However, it will have a peephole for the "monster"/operator. This assures that the entry of the "monster" will be a shocking secondary surprise to the initial gag. The door will be designed to open inward, under the steps, so that no patron will be struck by it.

The first step of the design process was to develop the concept and create floor plans and elevation drawings. The main considerations for this gag included: patron and cast safety, the footprint of the room, the vertical space required, patrons' viewing angles, and the mechanics and reset cycle for its operation.

If you look closely at the model photos, you will see that a one-foot square grid has been drawn on the floor, and that most flat areas have lines delineating 4 x 8 foot panels. Dimensions have been written on many surfaces as a quick reference. With the lines drawn on the model, a count of the 4 x 8 foot panels required for the set was easy to make. This approach determined which walls would be shared with other sets, how the wall bracing could be oriented, and it pointed out that costs could be reduced by using drywall or other materials for the walls above first level or away from patrons and actors. The model was also used to demonstrate the concept to our design review group and will be used for reference when sub-assembly construction begins this summer.

Tools and materials used to build the model included a triangle, an architect's scale, a clear ruler, metal ruler, matte knife with snap-off type blades, pliers, wide masking tape, metal paper clips, rubber bands, white glue, fishing line, a pencil, a hobby knife, a binder clip, matte board, foamcore, and tracing paper with a grid.

I prefer to use an X-ACTO® #16 blade in my hobby knife, as opposed to the standard #11. The #16 is easier to use for cutting mostly straight lines. Snap-off type matte knife blades, which can be extended out, make cutting through thick elements, such as multiple layers of foamcore, much easier.

Of the construction materials, foamcore is the most versatile. It is a lightweight board made of rigid foam with a paper or plastic facing on both sides. It comes in various sizes and thicknesses, and is easy to cut while being surprisingly strong for its weight. It may be more difficult to find than the other items mentioned, but should be available at your local art supply store.

At 1:12 scale, matte board is much thicker than plywood, but 3/16ths inch foamcore approximates the thickness of a 4" thick panel. The grid paper is a tracing vellum, which allows elements to be drawn on the paper and aligned on top of other items. It also permits a design to be easily flipped and retraced for mirrored elements.

The primary adhesive used was white glue. It sets up quickly and makes a solid bond to the paper-based construction materials that I used. Temporarily taping the seams and corners together with the wide masking tape will hold the pieces together until the glue had sufficiently set. In a few cases, I used rubber bands or binder clips to clamp things together, especially when laminating materials.

Mechanically, the model operates similarly to how the full-scale set will. The three "lanyards" are lengths of monofilament fishing line. One lanyard triggers the effect and two are used to reset it. The door actually flies open, the body falls over, and the head rolls down the steps. However, a number of concessions to scale had to be made. These included the use of a rubber band at the base of the door (versus a spring at the top) to make it fly open and the lack of a tiny self-latching mechanism to shut the door. The binder clip used to secure the dummy platform to the top of the steps also helps tip it forward when the door opens. Appropriate hardware will be used in the full-sized set.

The rudimentary dummy is made of matte board, tissue, masking tape, and paperclips. Monofilament fishing line is attached to the back of the model to simulate the cord that will be used to pull the dummy back up into the reset position after each performance.

Although the model was not dressed and decorated (i.e. filled with scale props and realistically painted), with the top on, it allows the room to be viewed through the doorways, just as the patrons will see it.

As expected, creating the model brought to light a number of design issues to be considered for the actual set. First was the decapitated head - when originally tested, with the head placed atop the dummy, it bounced over the railing a number of times. So as a safety precaution, despite a tendency for the dummy to fall onto the head and trap it, it was decided that the head would instead be launched from the platform to which the dummy is attached. The model also made it evident that the operator will need a step to reach up and place the head on the platform, which is eight feet off of the floor. And since the area under and behind the steps will be dark, a different type handle will be used on each lanyard to help the actor/operator distinguish them.

Scenes of a Haunted House can be more complicated than most people think, and some may have trouble visualizing a design concept from floor plans or sketches. While constructing a scale model of a room design may seem like a lot of extra work, it is well worth the time and effort for complicated sets you plan to build. The ability to estimate material requirements, experiment with lighting effects, identify sightline problems or mechanical issues and test solutions of the design prior to construction, saves a great deal of time and money. It will also help you explain hard-to-visualize concepts to carpenters and set decorators. And finally, building a model can just plain be lots of fun! Before long you will have your very own "demented doll-house."


Randy Powell is a multimedia artist and video producer in the aerospace industry. In addition to his "day job,"  he has provided professional Haunted House design and fabrication services on a consulting basis since the early 1990s. He can be reached at: pixelartisan@aol.com

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