There’s a ton of gimmicky websites out there that try to sell you the secrets of how you can make your own haunted house or haunted attraction (and make a gazillion dollars). I would like to share with you some real, first-hand knowledge I gained through the 10+ years I worked on haunted houses. I’m doing this completely free, simply to benefit all the haunted houses and haunted attractions out there, to hopefully make them that much better. I learned a lot along the way. There are so many things you never think about until you start putting things together. I hope what I share with you here will help steer you clear of the many pitfalls of the business.
Haunted houses are never as easy as you think, or think about the second time, or ever.
Before you take on the task of creating your own haunt, whether it be for some kind of small club as a fundraiser, or a giant, multi-maze attraction, I’d like to warn you that there are two main things you will need that you will never have enough of; time and money. Be ready to spend much more of those than you think you will right now. Hopefully, what I can share with you, will help mitigate that issue. There is one other thing you will need at all times to get you through it; an absolute love for scaring the hell out of people. This is isn’t absolutely everything to consider, but these are the main “not so fun” things you should be on top of before starting in on your own haunt:
- Non-profit/Charity partners
- City Ordinances, Permits, Fire Safety & Inspection
- Obtaining Materials/Construction
- Alternate Profit Sources
- Be ready to do it better next time
This is probably the most obvious one. You need to secure a good location for your haunt that can not only accommodate your attraction, itself but also offer plenty of room for parking and be easy to find when driving there. I used a small meeting hall in the middle of town a few times then eventually used the town’s fairgrounds. A perfect place would be anything like that, right next to an interstate. Pick a familiar place, close or in town that is easy for people to find and if you can, keep that same location each year. On the inside, ideally, it should be a large open building with lots of grounded electrical outlets everywhere, no leaks in the roof, and have decent bathrooms available for your actors. You should check the breaker box, make sure things look sound and make sure you have plenty of breakers. Here’s where I can’t stress enough the importance of finding a good licensed electrician to help you out. You probably will not be able to afford to pay them (at least not for everything) so that’s where the charitable part comes in, they either need to be a good friend that will help out in the name of your partnered non-profit or try to find a local company that could become a sponsor, in trade. As much as you can, use their expertise to ensure you don’t have any electrical risks or problems. Also make sure you have restrooms for your patrons, outside of your haunt. Hopefully, those may already be part of the facility or you will need to think about renting portable toilets.
Here’s the part you will certainly need to take advantage of if you don’t want to spend an absolute fortune for everything. If you can bankroll a full commercial haunt, go for it! I was never able to go that route, although it was my plan to get there eventually. I’ve talked to a couple of owners of large local, commercial haunts that have been around for many years. Interestingly, they said they were just barely able to break even each year and they still had to live off a “day job”- they really just did it for the fun.
Working with non-profit organizations can save you a ton!
So to save yourself on money, find one or several charities that you can partner with. In my case, I partnered with the local community theater and high school drama departments for actors. We had a contract where they would get a portion of the presale and door tickets. The presale was a great deal for them. They sold a 2-for-the-price-of-one ticket and got to keep a portion right off the top. I also invited any other local fund-raising non-profits to sell presale tickets. I also teamed up with the local youth center, where they built a hay maze for little kids. They got to keep whatever they made on the maze and also sold presale tickets to my haunted house. In some earlier years of the haunt, I teamed up with a local high school building trade class to help with construction. The added benefit of getting multiple groups in the community involved is that you will get the word out about your haunt.
Of course, besides trying to save on costs, you are still going to need some serious capital to pay for your haunt. You should do all you can to get as much stuff for free, but the one thing that you won’t get free (at least not enough) is advertising. You need some local business to sponsor your event. Pretty much every dollar I got from my sponsors went right back into advertising. I had to bankroll the rest of my costs myself and crossed my fingers that I would recoup the funds from the haunt’s ticket sales. This was certainly NOT the way I wanted it to go. I would have loved to have been able to sell more sponsorships. This is one of those areas I know I should have done better on. Perhaps the better approach on this one is to find a good advertising firm to help you, but watch out, ad firms are notoriously shady. If you can get them to help you sell the sponsorships and handle your advertising on a commission from the sale of those sponsorships, then at least it’s no money out of your pocket. There’s also a tremendous added benefit of not having to deal with coming up with all of your own promotional materials and managing everything that goes with that. I probably spent half of my own time on sponsorships and promotion, instead of more time building my haunt. Don’t do that.
This may not be the case for you, but I was fortunate enough to already have my own production company, specializing in commercial video production. My day-job was making local TV commercials, but I also did a lot of graphic design, web sites, and other similar types of digital media. I made all of the promotional materials for my haunt; the sponsor packets, the TV spots, the radio spots, the signage, etc. This gave me a ton of creative control and saved me some money, which was great, but again it robbed me of a lot of valuable time that I could have spent on the haunt, itself.
As I mentioned before, I spent almost all the money I got from my sponsors on air-time for the local radio and TV commercials. I learned that radio got me a much better response. One year I spent about $1000 on radio and $4000 on TV. The next year I inverted that, spending $4000 on radio and $1000 on TV. My attendance went up roughly 50%. Of course, there were other factors that made that attendance rise, but I think the majority of that huge increase was that radio was much more effective.
Now it’s all about the millennials and their Facebook & YouTube
That was almost 20 years ago and now advertising is completely different. If I were doing the same haunt this year, I would be spending almost all of my advertising budget on Facebook, Google, & YouTube ads. This one is kind of a no-brainer. Your main demographic for a haunted attraction is teens and millennials. They have their eyeballs glued to their smartphones 24-7. You obviously need to have a constant social media presence, a good web site (specifically designed for mobile, no Adobe Flash) and be offering coupons. I would highly recommend using Groupon and sell tickets directly online (at a discount). All that said, I think buying a little bit of time on local radio might go a long way (maybe even a remote) especially if you have a local radio station that plays music that your demographic listens to.
Insurance is an absolute necessity and can cost you a lot more than you might expect. Most places that you can rent will usually expect you to carry a million dollar liability policy, during your operating hours. This can cost $1000 to $3000, or more, depending on the size of your haunt/event and how many days you are open. Even if your haunt is small, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT open to the public without this one covered. Check with your local county laws and city ordinances, as well to know for sure what is required. One way you can save some money here is if the location your haunt occupies is owned by one of the charities you partner with. In many cases, their own liability insurance can cover you, but make sure to check with their insurance to be absolutely certain you are covered. The last thing you want is for someone to get hurt in any way and not have insurance to take care of their injuries, or worse yet, come after you and everyone involved with a lawsuit.
Security is another necessity to which how much can vary greatly, depending on how big your haunt/event is. On some smaller haunted houses I did, we managed to have some off-duty officers volunteer their time. On larger haunts, I had to hire a security company. In all cases, I still had to have a good number of backstage personnel on radios (with earpieces), keeping an eye on things, simply to observe and report. (If you are lucky, you may be able to trade some security services for sponsorship.)I have a bit of a pet peeve on seeing security inside the haunt, by the way. It takes away from the experience in such horrible way if every 15 feet, your patrons see some guy in a bright yellow t-shirt that says SECURITY (actually seen that done). Understandably, that makes for a good deterrent but I don’t think it’s worth it. I found having black curtains all over my mazes that my security could watch from, was plenty effective. They could always step out to make their presence known if they spotted potential trouble makers.
You will always have troublemakers; be ready.
A lot of larger attractions use video surveillance. I think as cheap as you can get a security camera setup these days, even for smaller haunted houses, that’s a very smart way to go to help watch out for troublemakers and protect yourself and your actors. I can’t tell you how many times I had to pull a group out of a haunt that was deliberately destroying our props, hitting our actors, etc. Every time (and I mean every time), without fail, the group would lie about the incident and often even go as far as to try to accuse our actors of harming them. If you ever have anyone get combative in that situation, you will want to be sure to have trained, adequate muscle to help you get them out of your haunt as quickly as possible. When you do have to pull a group out, it’s always best to never discuss the situation as to why until you are away from everyone else in a safe location where you can have them exit the property. If you have video and the incident is serious enough, you may choose to press charges. Certainly posting signs that you will prosecute as a deterrent, is a great idea. You’ll have to post that they are being recorded anyway, so why not? Also, don’t forget about security when no one is at the haunt! I have had some very minor thefts occur. It almost never happened during construction (we often built morning and night, almost 24-7) but we did have some incidents where thieves broke in when the place was locked up in the middle of the night, between openings. Cameras would be good in that situation, but you may have to result to some 24-hour security, as well.
City Ordinances, Permits, Fire Safety & Inspection
Before you do anything, you need to make sure your haunt will be in compliance with state laws, local county laws, and city ordinances. Making a few phone calls to your local city hall can get you a lot of quick answers, but you need to check with local officials to make certain you are in compliance. There are some specific laws that regulate haunted attractions, and of course, those laws vary from state to state, county to county, and even by city. It’s entirely possible that your town has outlawed temporary walk-through attractions.
Fire safety is everything
In California, the state my attraction was in, there was some regulations that were mostly related to fire safety, as they still are today. The most recent of those regulations can be found through the California Building Code site and the ICC website specifically. Many of these rules in the California code are taken from the national guidelines, so your state’s regulations will likely be very similar. There is a lot to read through but some of the important basics are this:
- Submit a site plan showing your maze(s) floor plan and where everything like exits, fire extinguishers, electrical shut-offs, escape routes, etc. would be needed to be known for fire safety.
- All decorative materials (anything fabric or cloth-like) must be either inherently fire retardant or sprayed adequately with fire retardant.
- No open flame inside (no real candles)
- A sufficient number of working smoke & fire alarms, fire extinguishers, and no smoking signs must be present.
- All extension cords must be UL listed (grounded plug).
- Only use UL listed power strips (with a built in breaker), kept off the floor, & never have one power strip plugged into another, you must run another cord from the receptacle.
- You must have a fire inspection, prior to opening, but after all construction.
- It’s not listed in the link above but you need to have a minimum walkway width of 36″ anywhere in your maze (your local ordinance minimum width may be more).
Find a fire marshal
It’s a good idea to find a fire marshal at your local fire department and have a talk with them long before you even start putting your haunted house together. They will likely have a guideline document of some kind already made for you to read through. (Orange County has a nice one.) My fire marshal was always especially concerned with any kind of fabric used and how my electrical was run. Just a grounded extension cord is not always good enough. Make sure you have a heavy enough gauged wire for the length and load you are running.
Notify the police
Besides what’s going on inside, make sure you have any permits covered for the noise you are making on the outside. I had to get a permit to amplify on the weekends because my city required it for anything making loud noises in the city limits, past 10PM. The amplification permit was filed with the police department. Although not required, it was a great thing to keep a dialog with the local police to let them know about my event. They often came by during my event and during construction to check on things. Their presence always went a long way to deter criminal activity.
Be sure you cover everything you can!
Once, I was faced with a permit catastrophe that cost me a lot of money when the dates of my event were not properly submitted to the city. In my town, there is a simple public event form that you have to submit several weeks before your event, in order to avoid paying a $400/day fee to operate. Even though I had submitted my event, something was left incomplete on the form and it was never approved. No city official bothered to notify me, of course, but luckily I found out about it before it was too late (I think I remember calling, asking about something else when it came up). I had to go to the next city council meeting and beg them for an exception which graciously, they did. I thought I was out of the woods. Unfortunately, I trusted the same city official, that helped me with the form in the first place to fill out the dates for the event. She inadvertently filled in the previous year’s dates, which were 2 days less! I still had to pay the city $800 for those days, plus hire extra security to be compliant with the added regulation that other type of operating permit required. I have to tell you, it almost felt like the city was actually trying to shake me down. My advice is to have all of these types of things in order, WAY before you do anything else. Do all that you can to be best friends with your local fire department, police department, and city government.
Use a good calendar app (Outlook is still my favorite) and put everything you can think of in it. Make sure you place all of your permit deadlines in it and mark them in red! Try to make deadlines for yourself for the months and weeks leading up to your opening. Ideally, you can be working on a lot of things, months ahead of time. Schedule time for when you are going to work on a particular effect, prop, etc. and make a deadline for it. I got to the point where I was planning and building new effects and props, right after the last haunted house was over. You are also going to need to make sure you have all of your actors scheduled correctly for each night and each shift. I did what I could to hand this off to the partner charity that was handling the actors, but I often had to cover this myself, as well. Make sure you have everyone’s contact info and a copy of the actor schedule on you (or in your phone somehow).
Again, if you can get sponsors for your event, this is where you can save a ton. Get a hold of roofing companies especially, early on (like months ahead, if possible). Often they will be tearing out old roofs with OSB and various paneling. It won’t be any good for permanent construction, but it can make for great materials for temporary walls. Once I scored a ton of 12″ thick 4’x8′ Styrofoam insulation panels. I was able to use them to make all sorts of props and stone wall features. My local lumber yard allowed me to buy culled 2x3s and 2x4s at a huge discount. I want to say I got about 60-80 8′ 2x3s for just $100. Many of them were bowed and had to be cut down, but for a lot of the temporary structures we were putting together, they didn’t always have to be straight.
Don’t be afraid to ask for ANYTHING
If you are really lucky, you may be able to get a construction company to provide materials and labor in trade for sponsorship. Over the years I had lumber yards, roofers, contractors, plastering companies, and other types of builders trade out and donate a lot. It’s sometimes amazing what you can get if you just ask. Some of the things you build will probably have to be metal, so you’ll either need to be good with metalworking or partner with someone who is. I can weld and fabricate things myself, but I often used the help of friends and family who had their own shops that could build a lot of the custom items I needed. I had a local shop teacher build a full-scale cemetery gate. My father and uncle built a rotating tunnel and bridge out of their shop. I’ve seen those go for $10,000+ online. We were able to build it for under $1000 of materials.
Alternate Profit Sources
Here’s something you should definitely be thinking about, early on. You should remember that you are going to have a lot of people coming to your haunt and they will probably spend money on more than just admission. Here are a few things you should think about having around for your patrons to buy, outside of the haunt:
- Food & Drink vendors and/or food trucks
- Glow sticks, glow necklaces and other light up toys (These are super cheap to buy and you can mark them WAY up!)
- Halloween related merchandise
- Pumpkins (I sold these leading up to the opening. I made a little bit but found it was a good way to help promote my event.)
- T-Shirts (Also give away t-shirts early on, as part of a contest to win a VIP ticket package, $15 per entry.)
- In-haunt scare photos
- Carnival Rides (if you have space)
Be sure to plan for the time and labor it will take to tear-down, clean, and store everything. You are probably not going to be able to just keep everything in the garage so have a lot and/or building that you can rent the rest of the year, to store your stuff for next year’s haunt. Ideally, you might have a secure fenced-in area that you can get in trade, again from one of your sponsors. You could build a temporary shed out of some of your materials to store items that you will need to keep out of the weather in said lot, but a real storage shed or separate storage unit will obviously be best. Whatever the cost of this storage, be sure that you have that planned out and figured into your costs of your haunt.
Be ready to do it better next time
It’s very difficult to do because you will be so busy, but do all you can to take the time to document everything you can during the whole process. If you can’t write it down, take a video with your phone, or at least a picture. The more you can go back, after the event and go over the things that went wrong, the better. You will be exhausted, but the best time to make notes of the most important things that you won’t want to forget for next time will be freshest in your mind, right after the last day. Probably the easiest way to keep from missing stuff is to make your own private video blog of sorts on your phone. Force yourself to review all of those clips, right after the haunt is over and write out a couple of pages of bullet point things to remember/improve.
Disclaimer: This is simply advice on making haunted houses, it’s nothing official or legally authoritative. Anything you do in creating your own haunted house, haunted attraction, or the like is entirely your responsibility. TheFright.com is not liable for anything you chose to do with this information. Use it at your own risk. Read our terms and conditions, as well.