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Housing Your Attraction: Trialers Vs. Tents
By Leonard Pickel, Member


One of the most difficult pieces of the Haunting puzzle to find is a location for the event. Searching for a building of adequate size that fits the budget, is in a good part of town with high visibility, plenty of parking, a haunted look and an owner willing to rent to you is a daunting task. Frustrated in the search for the perfect location, many haunters have been forced to be more creative and think outside of the normal structure. Haunted hayrides, haunted outdoor trails, open air mazes, and even ghost tours have become a viable alternative to haunting a building, but bad weather can be devastating to a fully outdoor Haunt. Two covered alternatives that some haunters are turning to are semi-trailers and temporary tents.

Some Haunters swear by using trailers for a Haunted House and would never consider using a tent Haunt. Others are sold on the tent concept and would never dream of haunting in a trailer. Some of this is personal preference, but what are the pros and cons of using semi-box trailers versus a tent for a Haunted Attraction, and which is the right decision for your event?

Is finding the perfect building with the right look, a sprinkler system, plenty of parking, room for expansion, a rent payment you can afford, and in the right part of town proving to be a difficult task? Join the club! Even if you did find such a property, the owner is more likely to let it sit vacant than rent it to a Haunter. Years ago I was deep into rent negotiations on a building in Dallas and drove by the location, only to see a bulldozer knocking down the last wall of the structure!

Be it a bust or booming economy, a building is second only to funding as the hardest piece of the haunting puzzle to find, and for many of us it's a year-round search! As a volunteer for the Dallas March of Dimes Haunted House, this difficulty of finding a proper location drove the organization to look for alternatives to a building. Borrowing from a sister March of Dimes Chapter in San Antonio, Texas, it was announced that the 1983 Dallas Haunt would be built in a parking lot under a tent. As chairman of the event I was in charge of designing the attraction to fit under the 40' x 60' big top.

Buying or Leasing a Tent
Since our Haunt was non-profit, that first tent we used was donated to the event. A great deal if you can find it, but as we discovered, free is not always perfect. For one thing, the tent was white with yellow stripes; not exactly scary looking. It was also an older, warn out tent that needed patching (It needed even more patching once we were through with it, but more on that later).

When you start looking into tents to Haunt, you will find two main types of "membrane" structures: frame tents and pole tents. Frame tents are clear span and do not have center poles holding up the tent material, but are much more expensive than pole tents. Pole tents have poles at about 10' on center around the perimeter of the tent and every 20' on center down the ridge. If the tent is more then 40' deep, then an additional row of poles may be required half way between the ridge and the side wall on both sides of the ridge. I prefer the 40' tent for Haunted Attraction design; anything wider makes the egress distances difficult to comply with. Also, the center pole of a 40' tent will be around 20' tall. The wider the tent, the taller and more sought the center pole will have to be, making storage and transportation a problem. The larger the tent, the more likely you will want someone else set it up, (unless you have elephants at your disposal)! Having someone else set up the tent will remove some of the liability and you can rely on the fact that your tent will be assembled properly and will be safe to inhabit.

You can rent or buy a tent from various companies both local and nationwide. After you have leased a tent for the time required to build, operate and strike the Haunted Attraction, you may be better of buying it. A 40' x 100' pole tent can be purchased new for between $??? and $???.

One thing that I learned the first year that I used a tent is that the typical pole tent has a 7' tall side wall; 12 inches shorter than our walls were at the time. I had already planned to provide an egress corridor around the perimeter of the Haunt plan, but even with this buffer, the top of the 8' panels pressed against the fabric of the tent. Then I learned that a tent moves constantly with the breeze, and anything touching the tent soon wears a hole in the vinyl. We spent a lot of time cutting carpet pieces to place between the tent and the panels to keep from shredding the tent. When you buy a tent you can order taller sidewalls, and I recommend an 8' 6" height to make sure the panels clear the lights and everything inside. This also allows you to run panels from the attraction out to a façade without interfering with the tent or notching the panels.

The first tent Haunt I designed did not have a façade, but it was quickly evident that we needed something to make the tent look more like a rickety old Haunted House rather than a brand new circus tent. Buy year two we had a 2-story Psycho-looking façade in front of the tent; a wall mural or old wooden stockade fence works well to hide any tent that is visible adjacent to the façade.

Color and Material
Flammability of the tent material will be of great interest to the building/fire department, and even though every tent manufactured today must be flame retardant, you will need a certificate from the manufacturer to prove this. I only use vinyl tents, as canvas tents are much heavier, harder to take care of and come in fewer colors.

As I mentioned, my first tent haunt had a yellow and white striped top; not very scary and hard to theme unless you are doing a psycho circus. If you buy a tent, the color options are endless. Your first thought for the color of tent to purchase might be black, and while a dark color on the inside of the tent is great for keeping the light wash down to a minimum, a black tent can be very hot for the construction crew. Black also seems to disappear in the dark of night, and I like for people to see the size of the attraction when they are considering buying a ticket. A black tent is also very hard to rent out in the off- season, and harder to sell in the event that you do someday find that perfect building. Over the years of tent Haunting, I have come to prefer a vinyl that is white on the outside of the tent and royal blue on the inside (they also come in white/black, if black is a must). The blue does a decent job of not reflecting the stage lights and the white exterior catches any lighting effects that I shine on it.

There is also a product called a "black out" tent. These are designed to keep all light from entering the tent, even in full daylight. The black out is done with either a thicker tent material or a separate inner drape. Unless your location has strong overhead lighting that you need to block out, a black out tent is an added cost that is not necessary.

When looking for a location, I recommend a parking lot rather than a vacant field. Putting the tent on grass or dirt will be a mess when (not if) it rains. Grass will not hold up long to thousands of people walking on the same path, and once the grass is gone, dust will be a major problem. If you have to put the Haunt on bare ground, put down a subfloor of plywood. In either case, look at the slope of the land and pick a high spot for the tent. Some parking lots are designed to hold water for a while after a rain. Look for a place where the water will flow away from the Haunt and not through it. To help keep the panel bottoms in place, I recommend that you lay indoor/outdoor carpet under the attraction wall panels. Carpet also gives the rooms a feeling of being inside a house much more than asphalt and parking lot striping.

The Layout
The next thing I learned about a 40' x 60' tent is that it is not exactly square or exactly 40' x 60'. In fact, if you are not very careful erecting the tent, it can be quite crooked and too small. Once you decide where your tent should sit, use a chalkline to mark the extents of the structure. Then measure out on each side of the tent line the height of the sidewalls and chalk the line where the stakes go. It is this stake line that will make the tent straight and the right size. You may want to hire a tent company to erect the tent for you, but it is not that hard to do after you see it done once. A rented jack hammer, without the chisel, is a must for the stake driving.

One good thing about a tent is that the walls are vinyl, and exits can be placed anywhere they are needed. I try to place the façade of the Haunt on the long side of the tent for the appearance of size, and then enter and exit the patrons through the façade. No ramps are needed, unless your design calls for raised walkways.

Walls and Rooms
Because you want to keep the length of time you are paying rent to a minimum, I suggest that you build the Haunt in a modular panelized form before you erect the tent. The more you can build offsite, the more time onsite you will have to set dress the Haunt. The panels allow you to change the attraction each time that you set it up, so that each year it will be fresh and different. A 4,000 square foot pre-built Haunt can be set up in 7 days with a 5 man crew.

With modular panels, the rooms of your attraction can be any size and any shape. Room placement can be such that the backstage actor areas are combined, allowing one actor to scare the same group more than one time, making it seem like you have more actors than you do.

You can provide electricity for the attraction via a generator (very noisy) or a temporary power pole. The metered power pole is run off the existing city power lines and can be placed at your location for less than the rental fee of a generator, then you pay a power usage fee like everyone else. You will need at least 2 circuits on the pole; one circuit for the stage lights and one for the emergency lights. If the emergency lighting and exit signs were on the same circuit as the stage lights, the batteries would engage each time you turned off the show lights (very hard on the batteries). If you are using a generator, keeping the emergency lights from coming on when you turn off the generator is a problem. You may have to add a switch inline to the battery on each fixture. An additional circuit may be desired for house or work lights, and another for a compressor (which may be 220 volts). To get power to each light fixture, you will need to build an electrical harness. Like a giant umbilical cord for the Haunt, the harness places electrical outlets within reach of the cords from each light fixture, eliminating the need for extension cords. I use a 12-3 SO cord to build the harness; Romex is not allowed for commercial installations and not designed for exposed use, and flex conduit develops shorts after you bend it a few times. A licensed electrician should put the harness together.

Tents and Codes
By building and fire code any "Special Amusement" building is required to had an "automated fire suppression system," and this includes a tent. However, as with many codes regulating the Haunted Attraction Industry, the enforcement of this sprinkler requirement is all over the board. There is also a size exemption for any attraction less than 1,000 square feet, but this does not always mean that you can get away with a grouping of 999 square foot attractions and tunnels connecting them.

It is my personal belief that when the code writers decided that all covered Haunted Attractions should have sprinklers, they never imagined that someone would try to put one in a tent. If they had, common sense would have dictated they an exemption for these "membrane" structures. For one thing, it is smoke that kills people, not fire. A smoke detection system is designed for early warning and to saves lives. On the other hand, a sprinkler system is designed to fight the fire and to save property. A tent is required to be 50' away from any vehicle or other structure, and as long as the smoke detection sounds the alarm and the attraction is evacuated of personnel, I think we could live with the Haunt burning to the ground. I am not convinced that there would ever be enough heat built up in a tent fire to activate a sprinkler head before the tent melted away and let all smoke and heat out of the structure.

Using these arguments, I have been successful in having the sprinkler requirement waved in each case that I have been allowed to arguer my position in appeal.

When November arrives, it is time to put the attraction away until next September. You could haul everything to a storage space, but to keep from having to load and unload every time I move the Haunt, I pack it all in semi-trailers (see the Buying Trailers article in this issue).

Another thing that I realized when I started dealing with tent haunts is how expensive storage is. The panels that we built for the 1983 March of Dimes Haunt were built like a standard wall with 2x4 studs and plywood, making a 4" +/- thick panel. These were hard to carry and took up a lot of storage space. In 1984 we took all of the panels apart and turned the 2x4s flat between 2 sheets of plywood to create a 2" thick wall panel. Now we could store 2 panels in the same space as we stored only one before, and with some tight packing we were able to cram a 4,000 square foot Haunt into one 54' semi-trailer and still have room for the tent.

Advantages of Haunting in Tents
For me the main advantages of using a tent for a Haunt are flexibility and size! I have a wide open canvas (pardon the pun) to work with while designing the attraction, 40' deep by however wide I choose. No 8' ceilings and no existing walls to deal with other than the poles. Rooms can be any size and any shape, and I can arrange the scares in the space so that one actor can scare the same group several times, which decreases the number of total actors that I need to hire and pay. I can use the height in the center of the tent to locate a security catwalk, or create taller than 8' rooms for dramatic effect. I can get a great deal of patron pathway in a very compact space, and with the modular panels, I can have a brand new floor plan each time I set up the attraction.

No solution is without its drawbacks and a tent is not perfect. For one thing, a tent is not waterproof. Delicate electrical equipment should be protected, and ground fault breakers should be used. Water tends to flow under the tent as well, so keep electrical equipment and power lines off the floor. Another problem with rain is that it will collect on a poorly tensioned (or set up) tent. Soon, large water balloons build up on the poor drainage areas and can stretch the tent so that it will never drain again. A 2x4 or push broom should be kept handy to lift the tent and dump the water. Just make sure no one is standing near the edge of the tent at the time.

Another problem with a tent is wind. A tent is like a giant airfoil or wing, and by design, a strong breeze will lift the poles of a tent well off the ground (Note: Do not do anything that would stop the poles from rising. The poles are lightly attached to the tent and must be allowed to rise and fall. Holding them down will rip the poles from the tent and the vinyl will shred itself on the exposed spikes). This lifting effect means that the tent also needs to be held down securely. The most common way is with stakes driven into the ground. This may or may not be a big problem when discussing location rent. An asphalt parking surface can easily be repaired, but the property owner may not want to damage his new paving. If the parking lot is concrete, you would have to drill the stake holes. One alternative to stakes are the "Ecology Blocks." These are very heavy concrete blocks or water filled tanks that weigh down the tent rather than attaching it to the ground.

The biggest drawback to a tent Haunt is security. Anything with a vinyl top can be broken into with as little as a pocket knife. In the old days, I would lock the perimeter emergency exit doors, put a big padlock on the entrance and exit door, and that seemed to work. Most crooks are cowards and a loop tape recoding of a dog barking from the middle of the tent would make them look for another target; a motion detector and digital playback of a chainsaw would help to expel anyone who got all the way inside. For some locations a rented chain link fence might also be a worthy investment.

I still search year-round for that most illusive piece of the haunting puzzle; the perfect Haunt building with gothic windows, sprinklers, highway visibility, plenty of parking, and free rent. In the meantime I will continue to Haunt in the most flexible, affordable alternative to a building that I have found: a tent!

Leonard Pickel is editor of Haunted Attraction Magazine and founder of the International Association of Haunted Attractions (IAHA). He can be reached at editor@Hauntedattraction.com or by phone at 704-366-0875.

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