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Haunted Thoughts — Musings from the world of scare attraction design

Updated: Apr 11

Part 1: A tale of the brothers Why and When

Talking about scare attractions and Halloween starts with the two initial questions, everyone is (and should be) asking themselves. And to stick with a bit of a brothers Grimm analogy, we are going to name our siblings Why and When. But since the weather outside currently is so warm and nice for this time of year, let’s start with When first.

Brother When: There’s still so much time… or is there?

It’s April. The days are getting longer, the sun shows itself more often — life is getting brighter again. In short, it’s the perfect time to plan ahead for darker times. Or in other words: Time to get crackin’ for Halloween season!

The veterans in the industry will be quick to add: “What? You’re starting NOW? It’s about damn time!”. And they are right! On our two main projects for 2024, work has already started back in December and we are just now kicking into high gear.

However, in some circles, the notion that there’s still plenty of time to get everything organised until Halloween seems to be very much alive. More than once over the past few years have I been asked some time in August whether I could still plan a Halloween attraction for an amusement park with my team — to be ready in time for October — the same year of course. And as honoured as it makes you feel when people think of you with such an enquiry, the disappointment that follows upon the inevitable “Sorry” to the request is painful for both sides. As a rule of thumb for us, all capacities are fully allocated by the mid July at the latest, travels are booked, orders are placed with subcontractors and props, masks and builds are well in progress. Anything that has not been planned for by this time has only a very slim chance of becoming a reality for the coming season. And there it was again, the problem with the day only having 24 hours and the week only offering 7 days to schedule things.

Budget availabilities can also be a challenge in certain situations. With some companies, fiscal years deviate from the calendar year and the new budgets become available way too late to be put to use. The Halloween industry, especially prop and mask manufacturers, are often not in a position to finance whole production runs in advance, as everything is usually hand made in small batches. Also, there are the sad stories of customers never heard from again once they received their goods so you can’t really blame them for being a bit cautious (and yes I do know that this goes both ways but that’s a different story for another time). That’s why vendors usually require some form of advance payment for each order, either in part or in full. Ideally, your budget for Halloween should already be factored in the previous year in order to give you enough flexibility to make decisions whenever you need to (ie. right around March for the Halloween and Haunted Attractions show in St Louis or even the previous year for the IAAPA Expo in November).

Recruiting and training actors also requires more and more lead time these days. The times in which scare actors came flocking towards Halloween event operators seem to be over in this post-pandemic world we find ourselves in— at least in continental Europe. But I will dedicate a separate article to this topic soon.

So, is When now the lesser of the two brothers because he’s just about timing while the big question as to why one should be doing this in the first place has not even been adressed? No. But he certainly is the annoying teenager that is constantly telling you to get off your a*** and get going while at the same time throwing “Oh shiny! Look over there”- topics for procrastination your way because, well, there are still six more month to go until season opening.

Brother Why: What on earth am I doing here?

A good Halloween event is demanding and requires many creative minds to make it a reality. Scaring people professionally is more than just jumping out of a corner and going “Boo!”, it can become a very complex project very quickly. This also makes Halloween a very expensive event to produce and operate. You can’t really expect to invest a minimal amount of money and be on the same level as the big players are. A budget with a six figure sum is reached quicker than you can smash a pumpkin. Only few event operators (I’m mostly referring to the continental European haunters scene here, the landscape in the UK and the US is very different) actually come out with an even or positive balance sheet at the end of the first seasons. If you do some serious number crunching once the season is over and are being really brutally honest in your calculations, you might arrive at the conclusion that it’s not really worth it.

Halloween is definitely not a “get-rich-quick” event. Certainly, if you belong to the top tier who are already making money with the event itself, congratulations to you. You are already doing a fantastic job. But how long did it take you to get there? For everyone else the question remains: Why should I invest so much money and effort in a Halloween event at my theme park or tourist destination? The answers you seek are mostly “longtail marketing” and “customer retention”! In short, it can do a lot of good for the attractiveness of your destination and brand.

Let’s think about what else happens in the entertainment industry in autumn? Usually there are a lot less offerings than during the summer months (e.g. open air concerts and street festivals, holidays, etc.) but it’s also slower compared to winter (e.g. theatre, concerts, skiing holidays, etc.). However, your guests who had a good time during the Halloween event or have heard about it (be it through social media or friends, acquaintances, etc.) are more likely to remember it the following spring and therefore become repeat/return visitors — and not just for Halloween. You are basically targeting different interest groups and encourage them to visit you more often. Your name will be much more present in peoples minds than without a big event in autumn. That being said, some themeparks are doing absolutely fine without a Halloween event as they chose to do something else entirely. However, that takes even more effort and money to establish as you will first need to explain to your potential customers what your event actually is. With Halloween, everyone kind of knows what to expect. You should however make clear what age group you are targetting in order to avoid nasty talks with angry parents… (been there, done that).

But how long does it take to establish a good Halloween event? I don’t think there is an set-in-stone timeframe for this. It sometimes simply takes a bit of time to find your audience and yourself - your very own style. Over the first few years of a new event, in many cases, the totals under your balance sheet will be written with a thick red Sharpie. But that’s okay. Because Halloween is a marathon, not a sprint. It is, strictly speaking, one of the most established forms of immersive theatre out there in the wild. And with “immersive” seemingly being the new trend, you’re spot on in your planning. One word of warning though when using the term “immersive” in marketing: Use it wisely! So many events are being billed as immersive these days when they are not even conceptually true to the word. It's painful to fall victim to “anticappointment” when you have oversold and underdelivered with your event (not gonna do a Willy Wonka joke now … no no no). Sometimes it is totally ok to try to be as immersive as possible but stay away from buzzword marketing. Honesty in marketing is becoming more any more appreciated again in my perception, especially with younger audiences. Convince people with what you actually do, not with what you say you do.

So, after all, you have taken the plunge and decided to do Halloween. Over the years, supply and demand will become increasingly harmonised. The creatives know what works for their individual audiences (and yes, there is such a thing as regional scare-preference), the operations guys know how much capacity is needed and the same goes for F & B — btw. a revenue stream not to be underestimated. 

And the guests? They also know what to expect from you. Are both sides always right? Certainly not. But the path is paved. And if you don’t deter from said path, there is a very good chance that one day soon, instead of a red Sharpie, you’ll be able to pull out a black one and cross through that minus at the front of your total. And then you will know that it was all worth it. Because Halloween is just terribly fun (pun totally intended).

PS: This is hopefully gonna evolve into a series. So watch out for new articles every now and then.

Images: Chocolate factory, uhm, Midjourney


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