• Type: Whitepaper
  • Topics: Video; Live Events; Lighting; Control Systems;
  • Date: October 2015

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

Haunted HouseThe estimated 2,000-plus commercial “haunted attractions” — the industry term for the spook houses that crop up around Halloween — are big business. Revenue estimates range as high as $800 million or more, which is perfectly believable when you consider that more than $7 billion dollars is spent yearly on Halloween treats, costumes, activities and events in the United States alone, where approximately 90 percent of all households with children will participate in some kind of Halloween activity, according to the Haunted House Association.

So it’s also not surprising that the business of scaring customers is turning increasingly to AV and automation systems as these haunted attractions compete with each other. By some estimates, the existing AV infrastructure for haunted houses in the U.S. is worth $100 million. And haunted houses are no longer just competing with each other every fall—they’re competing with other event venues throughout the year.

“The competition has become huge and audio and video — and in particular control systems — are playing a big part in that competition,” says Ray Kent, Managing Principal at Sustainable Technologies Group, an AVL and systems design consultancy in Cleveland, as well as an avid “haunt’ aficionado and designer.

Kent points out how sophisticated AV solutions, including projection mapping and multichannel audio, have become easier to program and more affordable to buy. They’re also more accessible, aggregated by a growing number of sector-specific dealers, such as AtmosFX, which offers projection and LCD content; FrightProps, which markets pneumatic, hydraulic and electrical effects; and VenueMagic, which creates show-control software. Such dedicated AV and effects systems, used in conjunction with more consumer systems, such as Microsoft’s Kinect, Kent says, have upped the technical ante for even the most modest local house of horror.

“What the big kids like Disney have been doing for years, now the local Kiwanis Club can get the same effect and impact,” says Kent.

On The High End

But what all this technology is also doing, Kent adds, is creating a kind of arms race at the upper echelons of the industry — one that could ultimately make Halloween an evergreen vertical for the AV industry, like K-12 or corporate AV. He says as more animatronics and control systems are used — for scare effects and to manipulate the flow of patrons through haunts — issues around complex systems design and operation, as well as legal liability, could make more haunt operators look to seasoned AV professionals to step in.

“Having someone on the team who understands the challenges of ‘whole-haunt’ systems — namely the three Rs of repeatability, ruggedness, and reliability – can be an asset,” Kent says.

Jennifer Braverman, president of the haunt vertical’s largest trade show, Transworld’s Halloween and Attractions Show, is aware of the InfoComm Show and she agrees there’s an overlap between the two, representing an opportunity for AVL manufacturers and their resellers.

“A big part of growth now is in special effects, and that’s using a lot of lighting and sound,” Braverman says. “Halloween is a $7 billion business, but other technology companies don’t always see it or understand it.”

The level of AV technology that some of the larger, more sophisticated haunts attain puts some of them in a league with Broadway theaters, an analogy that Dark Hour, a Dallas-area haunt, proclaims. The 47,000-square-foot former Sports Authority big-box store has installed a QSC KLA line array sound system for the main stage and a QSC Q-SYS network to distribute audio and control data. It has also deployed Epson Powerlite projectors and Samsung commercial-grade LCD displays; LED lighting from vendors including ETCMartin and Chauvet; and a Savant control system for HVAC, lighting and security management.

Blood Manor has also attained that level of AVL sophistication, but through an additional layer of complexity, operating in the event capital of the world: Manhattan. “New Yorkers are very easily jaded and they want something new all the time,” says haunt president Mike Rodriguez.

As a result, Blood Manor’s show is revamped each year and Rodriguez says AVL plays a bigger role each season. This year he added lasers and pinpoint LEDs in a combination designed to disorient patrons. “That’s the kind of effect that we used to use fog and mirrors to achieve,” he says. “And LEDs are now dimmable, which lets us do more with them.”

Blood Manor’s audio now also includes subwoofers and self-powered speakers, which allows more of them to be deployed throughout the attraction because they’re no longer tethered to amplifiers in a central rack room. This distributed sound helps contribute to a near-cinematic level of design. “We can have more speakers everywhere, and we’re using layered audio with lots of undertones,” Rodriguez says. “We can create a realistic feeling of dread.”

The AVL is also used to support Blood Manor’s corps (or should we say “corpse”?) of actors, one thing New York City has no shortage of. “The actors are the real scare,” says Rodriguez. “They’re Broadway-level professionals, but the audio and video make them bigger than life.”

The haunt industry in general, however, remains a largely mom-and-pop business, and looking through some of its online technology catalogs is more like a stroll through a Michael’s arts and crafts store than a visit to an AVI-SPL warehouse. But, says Larry Kirchner, owner of The Darkness  haunt in St. Louis and a designer of other haunts globally, declining technology prices are driving more of spookdom’s middle class deeper into sophisticated AV. LCD screens keep getting cheaper — The Darkness uses more than 100 32- to 80-inch screens. But, Kirchner points out, so are devices like the BrightSign media player, which only a couple of years ago was barely known outside the digital signage industry. Projection mapping remains a bit too complex for many haunt operators, he says, and the cramped quarters in many of them make projection difficult to pull off. But, Kirchner says, “Some version of it is coming.”

John Eslich, owner of the Factory of Terror in Canton, Ohio, agrees. He’s considering projection mapping for the entrance to his long, meandering haunt, which stays open year-round, catering to other holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, and available for corporate rentals. “Mapping has come down in price, like everything else,” he says. “It lets us change the mood, the tone of a venue and set the mood for whatever it is during different seasons.”

The Shape of Things To Come

Ray Kent expects that haunts will move even deeper into AV technology in coming years, and that progression will follow a similar arc to what AV professionals are already seeing from other trends, including BYOD.

“More of the control is going to shift to smartphones and tablets,” he predicts. These will also give parents the opportunity to watch from afar what their kids are experiencing, which could raise their confidence level and the haunt’s box office receipts. Integrating BYOD into haunts parallels its convergence with event production and would also make them more attractive to event producers, Kent suggests.

Night-vision lenses and live streaming may also play a role in future haunts, both to generate buzz and create a content archive for future use. Networked show control could also help with maintenance, such as alerting operators that a trick has broken down or a screen has been damaged.

Overall, enhanced competition in a business where some venues generate millions of dollars in a six-week window means every haunt producer will be looking harder for the next big scare. That’s an AV opportunity worth sinking your fangs into.

Editor's note: The haunts mentioned in this story make awesome use of AV and lighting technology. Many also depict simulated gore. If readers choose to explore their offerings online, viewer discretion is advised.