By Leonard Pickel, editor of Haunted Attraction Magazine
I am sure that you are tugging at the reins, eager to start scaring people! Right! Well before we get too far down the road, there is one aspect of haunting that is more important than where you are going to hide the guy with the chainsaw, and that is Safety! There is no faster way to being forbidden from ever haunting again than to get an actor or guest hurt, or to burn to down the building. If you know the simple guidelines for making your attraction safe, before you start building, it will save you time, frustration, and lessen the chance of getting someone injured.
There are two important safety issues to think about when you design the layout of your haunt - Fire and Egress! On May 11, 1984, a fire started in a haunted attraction in a popular amusement park in New Jersey. When the fire was finally put out, 8 young people had lost their lives needlessly, due to poor planning and poor choice of materials.
Always design your haunt for the worst possible situation, and the worst thing that could happen at your attraction is a fire. The best way to make sure that this never happens is to make sure everything in the attraction as flame proof as possible. All wood or lumber used in the haunt should be covered with gypsum board (sheetrock), or painted with a flame retardant paint, (this includes the lumber inside of an unfinished garage), or sprayed with a flame retardant chemical. Smoke detectors in strategic locations in the space are a must!
Styrofoam (white bead board, and blue or pink foam insulation), and foam rubber are very flammable and should be avoided all together. If you do use them, they must be coated with something that will not burn. Styrofoam can be covered with a mixture of sheetrock mud and latex paint (know as Monster Mud), to provide a hard non-flammable surface, and foam rubber can be covered with a non-flammable cloth (such as duvetyn) dipped in watered down white glue.
Plastic cannot be flame treated, because the chemical will not penetrate the smooth surface, and there is nothing for it to cling to. Plastic sheeting, especially the thick black plastic (called visquene) sold at most lumberyards is very hazardous, and is not to be used at all. Not only is this material highly flammable, but it also drips molten burning plastic and releases a toxic gas when on fire. Use non-flammable black plastic sheeting available through convention supply companies, or flame treated black cloth instead.
There are only a few ways that a fire could get started in your attraction. The two main ways are a guest or actor bringing it in (in the form of a lit candle, burning cigarette or lighter) or from and electrical source. Make sure all of your actors realize that open flame is not allowed in the haunt. You can stop guests from bringing a lit cigarette into the attraction with "No Smoking by order of the Fire Marshal" signs, and by watching at the entrance. You can keep guests from using lighters in the attraction; by giving them enough light to see where they are going. Make sure your actors know to watch for the flickering light given off by lighters and that they tell the guests to put them out!
Before you begin to design the haunt layout, take a look at your space and take note of where the electrical outlets are. Then try to plan your layout so that it places the power needs, near the existing outlets. If you need power in places where there is none, make plans to add these outlets before you start building in the space. Extension cords should be avoided and only use the heavy-duty grounded cords, (the smaller brown or white house hold cords can overheat and cause a fire). Make sure that when the electrical is in place that all electrical cords are out of the pathways, and out of reach of the guests. I recommend that you run any new electrical on the ceiling of the space, using grounded heavy gauge SO type cable or hard conduit, run to 4-plex outlets on their own 20 amp dedicated circuits. Be sure not to overload the electrical system. You should not plug more than 6 things into any one outlet, and electrical strips with circuit breakers in them are recommended.
If there is an emergency in your attraction, how will you get your guests and your actors out of the building safely? How will they know where to go in case of a fire? It only takes seconds for a fire to build enough smoke to be dangerous, and how people will "egress" (exit path) from the space should be planned in advance. First, make sure that the space you want to haunt has at least two different exits on opposite ends. A lit exit sign at both of these doors is highly suggested. The doors must be non latching or have "panic hardware," (a bar that unlatches the door when pushed on) and the doors must "open in the direction of travel" (swing outward from the attraction). Both of these doors must be unlocked, or made not to latch, anytime there are people in the space.
Directional exit signs are an important part of getting the guests out of the space in an emergency. You can buy non-flammable plastic signs at the hardware store. Place these 6-8 inches off of the ground throughout the attraction pointing to the nearest exit, so that they can be seen when the room fills the ceiling with smoke. By walking through the haunt backwards when placing these signs, you can put them in places that are less noticeable to your guests.
Taking the time to make everything in the haunt as flame retardant as possible, we keep the fire from having anything to burn. By paying close attention to the electrical, and by keeping open flame out of the haunt, we decrease the opportunity for the fire to be introduced in the first place. And by providing proper means of egress from the space, even if there was a fire, everyone inside would be able to get out safely. None of us wants to get anyone hurt, and by following the safety guidelines, your haunted house will not only be the scariest in town, but also the safest.
Leonard Pickel is editor of Haunted Attraction Magazine, the premier publication for the dark amusement industry. He can be reached at 704-366-0875, or by email at Leonard@hauntedattraction.com. Check out his web site at www.hauntedattraction.com.