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My Experience with Designing a Large Haunted House
Designing a Large Haunted House was a Wonderful Experience
My experiences with designing a large Haunted House (so named Haunted Hall) during my career as a Recreation Supervisor for the City of Rocklin in California was a memorable one. If anyone would have asked me "Did you ever think you could put on such a big event?" I would have said "No!". But I did, for eight years. As you can tell, this was a few years back now, but I do remember it well.
The City of Rocklin as an historic building called the Finnish Temperance Hall that was one of the original buildings built when the town of Rocklin was established in 1893. When I moved to Rocklin with my sons and was hired by the Recreation Department, Finn Hall had been restored and used as a rental venue. It was also used by our department for all types of special events.
After several years of working for the Recreation Department, we decided to try a Haunted House for the community and it was a hit! We used this beautiful historic building to transform it into a "Haunted Hall" and it was a huge success for many years. I had the pleasure of being selected to head up this project for 8 years.
I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences with designing a Haunted House and take some ideas for your own Haunted venture.
Photo courtesy of the Placer Herald, Rocklin's Hometown Newspaper
Finnish Temperance Hall Rocklin, California
Haunted House - Advance Planning
The first step I took in designing our Haunted Hall was about six months in advance. Planning ahead is crucial in putting on a successful, large special event. I still use this strategy today. I start with a timeline six months out down to the day of the event and hours. Next I will come up with a theme for this year's Haunted Hall since my goal was to make sure the maze and scary turns were different each year.
Since residents would return year after year, I did not want them to expect what was "around the corner". I would draw up a floor plan of the maze or the placement of the portable walls that I had made especially for this event. Over the next few months, I would return to the floor plan just to make sure I was satisfied with the design and enlist our maintenance crew to build any additional props that I may need. Those included bridges, coffins, doors and windows.
This diagram shown below is a sample of the floor plans that I would draw up each year.
How to Start Designing a Haunted House - With lots of imagination and creativity!
Skeleton Bones in a Bag
A Haunted House or Graveyard is not complete without skulls and skeleton bones. I recommend buying several bags of bones, you will need them!
Ideas for Haunted House Themes
How to Find Haunted House Themes
My Haunted Hall themes were designed with a theatrical idea in mind. I found working with a theme such as the Addam's Family, Ghost Pirates, Classic Monsters and more gave me a base to work on. A good theme gave me costume ideas, set design ideas and character ideas. It also keeps the residents coming back each year since they know it will be different in many ways.
The Addams Family theme was my favorite with this photo showing myself as Morticia, our It Tech as Gomez, our Secretary as Mama, a tall Recreation Leader as Lurch, my coworker's daughter as Wednesday and my son as Pugsley. We had a lot of fun with this set and theme. Not shown in this group photo was Cousin It, Uncle Fester, and a few other scary characters.
Photo courtesy of Placer Herald newspaper
More Theme Ideas!
Edgar Allen Poe
Zombies and the Living Dead
Aliens & the War of Worlds
Scary Grimm Stories
Haunted Fairy Tales
Any Stephen King Novel
Horror Classic Movies
Classic horror movies give you great ideas for themes, costumes, props and decor plus they are just fun to watch! Don't forget the popcorn!
Steps to Set up a Haunted House
The steps in setting up a Haunted House for the public are important. The first thing you will want to do if doing a large Haunted House where you are charging a fee and inviting the public is to check with your city's policies and codes regarding this type of event. I had it made because I worked for the city and this was a City sponsored event.
I involved the fire department to make sure the completed Haunted Hall was completely fire-proofed with fire retardant materials. It was inspected by our Fire Marshall prior to opening night. In all the years of operation, the Haunted Hall did not have any incidents.
- Order supplies such as fire-retardant flooring in black. We used the material that was put down under road asphalt. Also order lots of rolls of black butcher paper, large black plastic tablecloths, lights and bulbs, spider webbing, props needed for your theme and black curtain streamers.
- Start collecting costumes from local second-hand stores or yard sales for your characters. I had tour guides which dressed up in black or red blazers so we had a closet full of blazers and jackets in all sizes.. They were not as scary as the characters in the Haunted Hall. The second floor of Finn Hall was full of theatrical props and costumes.
- Two days prior to the opening night, our maintenance staff rolled out the flooring. Then they delivered and set up the large wooden walls that we made just for this event. The men also brought in any props such as coffins, bridges, tables and chairs that were needed for the theme.
- Staff and volunteers were scheduled to staple the black paper to the walls, covering all sides. We even covered the windows in black so no outside lighting would come through. The goal is to make the hall as black and dark as possible.
- After covering everything in black, they decorated everywhere with spider webbing, bugs, rats and skeleton bones. I made grave stones with foam painted in granite paint. This is the fun part where your imagination can just go wild.
- Once all the decorations are in place, the maintenance men would come back and spray everything in a fire retardant chemical.
- With the help of the Artist in Resident and Drama Instructor, we would set up the lighting and test it out. It was important not to have the lighting hit the guests directly in their eyes to blind them.
- The Fire Marshall would come and test the props, walls and floor to make sure it would be safe. One last run through will all the character actors and tour guides. Now we are ready to open.
Fog creates a great effect!
This machine is much safer than dry ice for the fog effect. I had several of these machines strategically placed throughout the hall.
Haunted Hall Characters
How to Find Volunteers for a Haunted House
My Haunted Hall volunteers were found from several groups in our city. The main group was taken from our community's theatrical group. Our Artist in Residence volunteer would teach classes on Haunted makeup, costuming and screams. The age range of this drama group was 12 years old to adult. I would need anywhere from 25 to 30 volunteers to work inside the Haunted Hall and at least 10 more to lead groups of residents through the maze. Each would be given a flashlight to hold on the ground for safety.
The high school and college age students were great. They have lots of energy and a special flare for this type of event. Besides the Haunted Hall character classes, I would conduct a meeting prior to the opening night of the Haunted Hall to go over the basic rules necessary to run a successful Haunted House. As much as you want everyone to have fun, they cannot get out-of-hand.
At the close of the second night, I would throw these energetic characters a pizza party. We would turn on the overhead lights of the hall and let them start collecting props to the stage area and tear down the black paper on the walls.
Photo courtesy of Placer Herald newspaper
Haunted Hall Opening Night
The Actual Haunted Event
Haunted Hall ran for two nights prior to Halloween, October 29 and 30. So for 8 years I celebrated my birthday at the Haunted Hall! How many can say that? Haunted Hall opened at 5 pm and stayed open until 8 pm. It was recommended for children ages 5 years and up. I felt with the strobe lights, loud screams, scary settings and monsters jumping out at you that younger children wouldn't be recommended. Years ago the ticket prices were only $3 per person! A bargain for all that scary fun.
The line was known to grow around the block. I had the idea to put large screen TV's outside and play old monster films such as Frankenstein to entertain the crowd while they waited for their turn to enter the Haunted Hall. I also put on Halloween music such as the Purple People Eater, Monster Mash, etc. Once the guests exited the side door to the parking lot, they each were given a "treat" bag of goodies from local businesses to take home with them.
Photo by Placer Herald newspaper