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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
Note: This is a repost of an old tutorial whose links to pictures were broken with the software update at HF.

Gurus of interior design follow basic rules in designing a great room. Christopher Lowell came out with a blockbuster book called the Seven Layers of Design. In haunting, we also use basic rules to make a room truly scary. Let’s call them Seven Layers of SCARE:

This is a room at The Darkness, a professional haunt in St. Louis considered to be one of the best in its immersive, detailed haunt rooms. I love how you feel like you are looking at the outside of a gas station but really, you are inside a building. Think of the Seven Layers of Scare as one layer on top of the other. You build one and then the other. Looking at this picture you can see many of these layers in play.

One - Art direction and/or Theme: The most critical layer and probably the one many haunts desperately need but don’t have. Have you ever gone through a haunt and one room is chainsaws, the next is gothic mansion, autopsy room, insane asylum, clowns and then… zombies! Picking a cohesive art direction (theme) sets your haunt’s foundation. When you use a consistent art direction it helps you keep the design elements unified and tells a story. If not, you may end up with a mish-mash of random things in the room and your mind. The art direction keeps you focused on the goal.

Two - Walls, Ceilings and Floors: The first area to decorate is the perimeter of the room. Wall design is the most important. It tells the viewer where they are. A garage (brickwork), a boiler room (rusty pipes), a mansion (peeling wallpaper). To convey the message even more, you can also decorate the floor and/or ceiling. In most garage haunts that's not easy to do, but if you can, it will help.

Three - Main Scare: Here's the whole reason you are doing this... to scare the heck outta people. Pick a scare that fits the room you are designing. Here's a neat picture of a super-scary hallway:

This room design sets the scene perfectly for a good scare. In this case a hidden scare in the hallway would be your best bet. You don't see anything, but you dread that it's there. You could simply have an actor rap on the wall as they pass by. Not all scares have to be visible at first. The scare must fit the room design.

The scare also adds impact if it has a matching sound. A moan (zombie), squealing (rats), roar (monster).

Four - Accents: Okay, you've got the art direction, the walls are made, the scare is ready...now let's anchor it. Accents help tell the story. In the garage picture you see a broken telephone poll. Just that one accent says that the monster has been rampaging. Accents can be chairs, pictures on the wall, dripping pipes, tossed trash, barbed wire.

Five - Lighting: Lighting makes or breaks a room design. You've seen awesome rooms, but they were too bright, too dark or didn't spotlight the right things. Lighting can be used as an accent (like the lit window in the garage picture) and it can also be used to distract. If you focus the lighting on a static prop (like the werewolf), the viewer will look at it, but you've just set them up perfectly to scare them from a dark corner.

Six - Atmosphere: We've now built up some great layers of scare but now let's set the mood. Sound is the best way to get into their head. When designing a zombie apocalypse in an industrial setting, this type of soundtrack will really convince them they are in a factory. Here is a sample:

Can you just feel like you are there? Adding a sound layer, to me, is essential to making the room believable. Now, don't forget other ways to add atmosphere. Fog is terrific to make the person feel like they are somewhere else other than your garage or front lawn.

Seven - Touch and Smell. If you really want to get under their skin use all their senses. So far, we've used sight and sound but throw in touch and smell and you just may put them over the edge. A tickle on the back of their neck from hanging threads or the smell of decay.... just too fun!

Here is another great example of a well-designed haunt. This is from The ScareHouse in Pittsburgh:


At Transworld I went to a seminar called "Over the Top Art Direction" put on by the guys at House of Torment. They said their haunt was good but disconnected. They realized that to bring their haunt to the next level they must use cohesive art direction.

Art direction means to have an artistic style to direct the look and mood of the haunt. It really helps bring different elements together. Even if you don't have a 'theme'… cohesive art direction still pulls a disjointed haunt together.

I personally like a theme because a garage haunt can only be so big. Following the advice from the class, I picked a theme (post-apocalyptic vampires) and then made a theme poster. That poster became the art direction to focus the design style of the new props and sets that needed building.

You can see many design elements that could be used: Stone ruins, broken stained-glass, dark forbidding tone but pops of color (especially red), garbage, mystery, fencing, swords, city ruins, sexy/stylish vampires, tattoos, leather, Japanese influences, silver, piercings, vampire bats.

It helps immensely in keeping the art direction on track if you keep your inspiration art near the props you are designing.

Some examples of the props made to fit the theme. It helped make the haunt almost beautiful... It all meshed in an artistic way.


The first area to decorate is the perimeter of the room. This tells the viewer where they are. A jungle (camo netting), freezer (frosted over stainless steel), spider lair (webs). For a while I've been collecting ideas for decorating walls, ceilings and floors. This blog post may seem a bit rambling but hopefully you'll grab an idea or two. This list has quick ideas and not so quick ideas. Let's start with the quick ones first:

Quick Wall Draping

CAMO NETTING: 10' x 20' is a great size
CHEESECLOTH: so wispy that when you further pull it and shred a bit, it makes a room look abandoned or webby.
CREEPY CLOTH: Basically black cheesecloth that's already been pulled. Also gives an abandoned look but with a more Gothic feel.
JUTE NETTING: AKA ‘Dorp’, Erosion cloth. Love, love, love this stuff! Not only will it fit many types of rooms (jungle, torture, spider, vampire, cellar, forest) it also has the perfect scent. Smells like the outdoors, dank basement... Halloween time.
HAUNT MOSS: Remove some of the bottom cross-netting on jute cloth but leave the top intact. Dip the hanging vertical strings into green-tinted latex. Let dry and WALLA!, you have Haunt Moss.
BLACK LANDSCAPE FABRIC: My walls are made of this and is the essential background color - black. If your garage walls are also painted a happy green color like my walls are 11 months a year, just throw this on the wall and instant dread. Plus it's a matte sheen and not the shiny black garbage bag sheen.
FAKE SPIDER WEBS: When you get good at pulling it, it can cover quite a bit.
OPAQUE PLASTIC TARPS: Great for slaughter rooms or, if shredded, adding an abandoned vibe.

Quick Finishing Touches

CHAINS: All sizes, real and fake ones
BARBED WIRE: The fake kind please. heh.
ROPES: All kinds of thicknesses and even ropes pulled from jute netting (see how handy that stuff is?)
MOSS/GREENERY: Spanish moss, fake greenery, fake vines
GARBAGE: Strewn about the floors
HAY: Also strewn on floors plus it has a spooky smell
PAINT: If you don’t mind – painting the floors is effective for stains and blood. Chromadepth is very effective when painted on the floor.

Using just these items, you can layer them over one another and it quickly gives the room a sense of what it's supposed to be.

Haunt wall examples:

SPIDER ROOM: Black background (landscape fabric). Layered with pulled and ripped jute netting. Then layers of pulled and shredded cheesecloth. Finish with fake pulled spider webbing.
JUNGLE/FOREST ROOM: Camo netting. Layered with pulled and ripped jute netting. Then layers of ropes, chains, barbed wire, moss.
TORTURE ROOM: Black background. Layered with pulled and ripped jute netting. Then layers of ropes, chains and barbed wire. Plastic tarp would also look ominous.
VAMPIRE ROOM: Black background. Layered with jute netting and then creepy cloth. Ropes and spider webs.

Now, let's talk about going extreme if you are going more for the pro haunt look. You will need rigid walls for these ideas.

Extreme Walls, ceilings and floors

SHED: Dirtied up plywood walls and then nail up wood boards haphazardly. Hang rusty items and bits of moss/greenery. Hay on the floor.

BOILER ROOM: Get a bunch of big PVC pipes and run them along the walls and ceilings like they were sewer pipes. After you rusted them up, you'd swear they were real sewer pipes. You can also use empty conduit and electrical boxes to help give the room an industrial look. A few rusted signs would look great here.
CAGE/PRISON: Attach a section of chain link fence up to the wall and overhead. Throw on a sign or two. Of course, garbage on the floor.
MORGUE: Cut out and shape morgue doors out of foam and attach to the walls. Paint the whole wall to blend in. Go back over with black paint to add shading and definition. Paint blood and other bodily fluids on the floor
EGYPTIAN TOMB: Line the walls with foamboard and carve in hieroglyphics. Splatter acetone on it to age and then paint. Be sure to add jute netting, jute rope and webbing.
TOXIC: Great Stuff is your friend here. Starting at the top of the wall, build it up and then make it look like it is spilling down. Paint fluorescent green and add some rust paint effects.
FREEZER: Mix in some coarse texture additive for paint in your monster mud. Tint the mud to be a whitish gray. Roll it on the wall. It will make the walls look frozen. For extra detail put some Great Stuff in cracks and dripping down a bit. Also put in some empty electrical conduit and paint all that to match the whitish gray. Never tried this but perhaps spray some iridescent glitter to give it a light reflective frosty look.

GARAGE: Brickwork would be key here. Home Depot sells some pretty cheap brick paneling ($20) that is 8' x 4'. Then dirty it up with black spray paint. If you are good at graffiti, add some. The picture above would be a good addition of a backlit fake window.
HAUNTED MANSION: At Home Depot, they sell paintable wallpaper that is thick. Paint the wall a gray and then loosely attach the paper to the wall and paint it. Mossy green is a great color. Then, rip some of it from the wall but leave it attached at the bottom. Hang some pictures at an angle on the wall. Screw them to the wall if people are close to it. Finish with spider webs.

Scare It Up!

You know when you are in a room and you realize that there is a spider on the wall right in front of you at eye level? YIKES!!! Use that to your advantage. Nail up a big creepy spider on the wall at eye level. Or, have dummies on either side of a skinny hallway. They don't have to be free-standing all the time. You could even make them half-buried in the wall. Would you want to walk by this?

Random Ideas

SPRAY PAINT: There should be nothing in the room that looks new. Especially fabric. A fast way to dirty things up is a can of cheap black spray paint. Randomly hit the clean item with the paint until it takes on a dirtied appearance. Add shadowing to any pipes or morgue doors you added. Find a few corners of your wall and add smoke damage. Does wonders for giving a room an abandoned feel.
PAINTING DETAILS: Raw Sienna is a paint color you need in your arsenal. It has a rusty, earthy look. Put dabs and vertical streaks on your walls. Then get some mossy green and do the same. Finally, add some gray and it should look good and evil. Don't forget to really water the same paint down to 'wash' the walls with grime.
MONSTER MUD: This stuff is great to add deeper grime to the walls. If you tint it the color you want, you won't have to paint it again. Tinted with raw sienna color: instant rust.
CLEAR GLOSS PAINT: Vertical streaks of this gives the wall a wet look. If you used some lime-green tinted monster mud in places, go over it with the clear gloss paint and you've got slime!
LED LIGHT WALL WASH: Lighting is a fast way to color a wall and set the mood. A red wash implies murder, fire. Green washes are toxic, alien. Blue is night, cold. Purple is Gothic, vampire and yellow is forest, rampage. In the movies you see this done all the time.

SPIDER WEBS: The final touch of abandonment. If you have a web gun, also try to get a hold of Fuller's Earth. It's the dust that is used to make webs look old.

Layer Three: MAIN SCARE

Ah, fear. It's what makes us haunters different from the rest. Most try to avoid fearful situations. We create them. But why do we do that? Because we have experienced the joy that fear can bring. Muh ha ha haaaa...Wha-huh?!

OK, science lesson time: When we are scared or startled our instinctive survival motors kicks in. The heart races, blood pumps into our large muscles, eyes widen... you know the drill. The body is getting ready to do the 'ole FIGHT or FLIGHT. I mean literally. The body is now primed to fight out the attack or flee from it. It's all instinct baby and there's nothing your sweet little ToT victims can do about it. So, you've got the fear thing understood but what about the joy part? Well, once their rational brain realizes that it's safe and the terrifying experience was only a maze in your garage, all that adrenaline is still pumping around in their bodies. That's the joy. It's a high (AKA: Adrenaline Rush) that many people get hooked on. In that rush, endorphins are released to give them a long-lasting, blissful high. Once someone has experienced it, they come back for more. Ever wonder why kids will no sooner exit your haunt and jump right back into line? DANGER MAKES YOU HAPPY That's why you hear the famous 'ScreamLaugh' in your haunt. That sound means you hit the jackpot, you aced the test.

So, how do you create the sweet, sweet sound of a ScreamLaugh? With your main scare! But to achieve the ScreamLaugh you must carefully design an effective scare. There's a couple of things that already help you in your design. When a person is scared, their body's reaction is no different between a real or imagined threat. YEAH! That makes it easier for us. Reality & imagination are the same. That's why dreams seem so real. They don't have to be at risk to feel at risk.

Another thing that helps bring out the panic response in your victim is to use their peripheral vision monitoring to your advantage. If you come behind them at around 135 degrees from their front vision (90 degrees is beside them, 180 degrees is behind them) you will bring on the panic response easily. Again, it's their instinct, they can't help it. Automatically, a human being is constantly monitoring things in front and at the sides of them. Especially in your haunt. So, if you can come at them at just the right angle - not too far behind and not too forward to be seen easily, you are in the sweet spot. This is especially great advice for your live actors to understand.

Another consideration when designing your scare: Time your scare to last about 5 seconds. Shorter than that they won't have enough time to process the scare and will think to themselves, "What was that!?" Longer and they have enough time to see that it's just fake and the atmosphere has been ruined.

There are two main ways to scare: Cheap Scare and Set-up then Sudden Scare

Cheap Scare brings up the pure panic response in your victim. Example: air cannon blast. This can be used alone for pure freak-outs. Great fun but they shouldn't be used exclusively in your haunt. They get aggravating and are a cheap shot ...darn. Plus, you want to entertain them with your haunt which is why you also have the other version of a scare. The...

Set-up then Sudden Scare puts the body on high alert, draws out the fear and then WHAM! get 'em with a Sudden Scare. Example: horrifying autopsy and suddenly the head springs forward from the body. In a way, think of the Set-up as the first act and the Sudden Scare as the climax. There are many ways to Set-up your victims: Very spooky set, disorientation, distractions, decoys, delays... This is always a fun one: Set off a lame prop and a few seconds later, blast 'em with the real scary prop. Distractions are very effective Set-ups and should be a go-to for you. Example: Have one live actor come right up to the ToTs and have a second hidden actor come at them from almost behind. Now for seasoned ToTs, you can do another neat Set-up called The Delay: Wait until they think that it's safe, there's no scare to be found in the room and then fire it off!

Now we can talk Props! You may have noticed that you can somewhat categorize props. These categories are broken out into Set-ups and Sudden Scares. Use this list to help you choose the best scare that fits your haunt room. Note: In each category you can easily tweak it to fit the theme of your room.


DISORIENTATING: Mirror maze, Dot room, Vortex laser tunnel, Strobing room, Ghillie suit, ChromaDepth 3D
HORRIFYING DISPLAY: (Any scene that's gory) Man roasted, Electric chair, Torture
LAME PROP: (Used as decoy) Puking pirate, Talking skeleton, Swinging clown, Singing busts
LIVE ACTOR: Used as a distraction
MIRROR ILLUSION: Man-in-half, Endless hallway, Endless pit
MOVING FLOOR: Sliding floor tiles, Springy rope bridge
SPOOKY DISPLAY: (Any scene that is especially spooky) Graveyard, Possessed library, Attic, Basement, Boiler room
TUNNEL: Moving hallway, Spinning tunnel
WHISPERING SOUND: Voices next to ears

Sudden Scares:

AIR BLOW: Cannon, Whips, Guns, Air Nozzle, Fog Blow
BANGING: Picture frame, Door, Shutters
CRAZY FURNITURE: (Animated furniture) Drawers opening, table bolting, Rocker rocking
DROP PANEL: In a wall, in a box
HOPPING: Barrel, Box, Bug, Coffin
JUMPER: (anything that jumps up or grows in height) Skelerector, growing tree monster
KNOCK: Wall-knocker, Pneumatic air hammer
LIVE ACTOR: The Preferred Scare IMHO
LIVING WALL: Axe-blade door, Barrel basher, hands or face moving in wall
LOUD NOISE: Air horn, Train horn, Buzzer, Pneumatic ratchet
LUNGING/ATTACKING PROP: (anything that propels forward with or without a hiding cover) Werewolf, Rat from box, Car, Train, Zombie behind shutters, Dinosaur from cave, Spider from lair, Ring girl from TV
MIB (Monster in Box): Crate, Coffin
OVERHEAD DROP: Monster, Bats, Spider, Heads
OVERSIZE: (Huge animated anything) King Kong, Dinosaur, Minotaur
PEPPER'S ILLUSION: Ghost, Crusher, Two-way illusion
PROP OR REAL?: Actor disguised as prop alone or with matching props
SHAKING/MOVING: (anything that moves in place) Zombie, Dead body, Scarecrow on pole, Tortured person, Kicker, Hanging, Peeper tombstone, Undertaker swinging shovel
SLAMMER: Slammed against plexiglass, Trapped person, Slamming against fence
SPITTING: Snake, Spider, Toxic, Exploding Toilet
STROLLING: (actor-activated spring scare) Barrel pop-up, Baby carriage pop-up, Shopping cart pop-up, Wheelchair pop-up
SWINGING OVERHEAD: (anything that swings out from a hidden space) Demon on rope, Clown
TCT (Trash Can Trauma): (Anything that pops out of a container) Zombie from barrel, Clown from Jack-in-the-box, Aliens from storage boxes, Skeleton from tombstone, Demons from piano
TILTING: Stack of barrels, Falling tree, Broken telephone pole, Leaning zombie high on wall
TOUCHING: Hanging fishing wire, Claustrophobic walls, Dripping water, Dropping insects, Shock mats
WALKER: Old person violently shakes holding walker

Layer Four: ACCENTS

Ok, we've decided on our Theme and Art Direction (Layer One). Decorated the Walls, Ceilings and Floors to fit our theme (Layer Two). Picked a Main Scare that will effectively have the ToTs emit the coveted ScreamLaugh (Layer Three). Now, let's help immerse them in the horror movie of your mind. The little details - the Accents - that tell the story of the room. By accents I mean the chairs, tables, pictures on walls, typewriter on the table, surgery tools on an instrument stand. Yes darling, you get to accessorize!

These aren't just little things you throw into a room. They are critical elements that cement what the room is, what happened in the past, and forecasts what may happen in the future. These details are what adds the 'creep' to the haunt. It becomes so real that the ToTs are starting to question if they made the right decision to enter your haunt in the first place. Maybe you are a serial killer and the haunt is just a ruse to trap them! In other words, they start to become 'creeped out.' And, as a special bonus, they are primed and ready for your Main Scare to spring.

Ok, got the reasons why these Accents are so important... but which accents should you pick? That's where some research is in order. Google pictures of the scene in the time you are trying to recreate. For example, an operating room in the 30's. Here's a great picture of a real operating room back then:

Just look at all the large and small goodies you can copy here!

The pro-haunt 'The Dent Schoolhouse', located in Cincinnati, are masters at adding realism with Accents. I was lucky enough to go to their seminar and here are some notes. First, a tease of one of their haunt rooms:

The owners created their haunt theme to match the architecture of the schoolhouse they bought. The theme is the story of kids gone missing back in the 40's and 50's and suspicion had focused on the school's janitor named Charlie. The school was immediately closed for good when the bodies of the children were discovered in the basement. Everything in the school had been preserved in their 1950's condition since. Now that the owners had a theme, construction of each room had to follow that storyline. They have a principal’s office (pictured above), shop class, automotive class, cafeteria, etc.... all exactly as they would have been back then.

They stressed to always try to add as many authentic Accents as you can to help tell your story. Coincidentally, it does make it easier on us (saves prop-building time). The best places to find these trinkets are antique stores, garage sales, Craigslist (good for large accents) and thrift stores. Quote from Dent Schoolhouse: "Picture your set like scenes from horror movies. The sets are realistic atmospheres that are filled with junk and not typically filled with latex (props)."

Start with a base layer of large accents (tables, chairs) then add smaller items to finish filling the room. Remember to always try find items that that help tell the story. If it's a garden shed - have fertilizer, bug sprayer, garden tools...things like that. "OK, but I don't have that much room" you may be asking... bookcases and shelving are great places to showcase the little accents. Oh, and don't be shy, collect a lot of small accents. When you clutter up a corner with the things that would normally be in a kitchen, it appears lived in. There's another beneficial reason to do this: All that eye candy distracts the ToTs and helps set them up to be scared out of their minds when you spring the Main Scare. Don't forget wall hangings! The Dent Schoolhouse has posters of the missing kids plastered throughout the haunt.

Arranging all this junk...

Have all Accents positioned to look like they were just being used. A book laying open, chair pulled out, cigarette in the ashtray, the desk lamp on. That brings me to another suggestion they had: When you can, have the Accents working. They use an old TV switched on a static channel, a radio playing in the corner of the room... things like that. Not only does it add realism, but it also helps to light the room in a very creepy way. Anytime you use a light accent try to have it become the source light in the room. At the same time, have the radio broadcast be the sound.

Secure the accents when you can. Use Liquid Nails, bailing wire, screws... anything to keep them put so you don't have to constantly replace or rearrange them. Don't forget the most important part... make them old! Make a brown paint wash, brush on and smear off with a clean rag. Walla! dirty. Sprinkle everything with cement dust or Fuller's Earth to give a great layer of abandonment. And finally, whip out your webcaster gun... it's now FunTime!

I want to thank The Dent Schoolhouse for giving me so much great information. Their website is chock full of pictures that could give you more idea: https://frightsite.com/photos/

Layer Five: LIGHTING

Lighting (IMHO) is one of the most powerful but least appreciated elements in setting up a haunt. I've been one of those haunters that just gave it a cursory thought. Hey, there's a spotlight on the house, right? Well, yeah I was happy with it until went on a tour of The Darkness haunt while at Transworld. Uhhhh....WOW! Not only are their props and set-ups outstanding but so is the way they are lit! And the colors! The haunting, emotion grabbing colors. They aren't painted that way, they are lit that way.

Since I'm not that knowledgeable about lighting a haunt... time to hit the books and Google. Let’s see if we can eke out more knowledge of coloring.

Emotions, mood and setting are tightly coupled with a color. So, with that in mind we can telegraph what we are trying to set up in the room. Blue for ethereal and sadness. Red for violence, gore, intense, fire. Green for strange and unnerving. Yellow for savage. White for shock. Black for evil and powerful. Purple for exotic and unnatural. I mean, you can attach an emotion to every color in the rainbow! You can also combine color. Yellow and green together is good for a sick and twisted feel. When a haunter combines a fantastic room filled with great props and adds the layer of colored light....it reaches for the sublime. The more vivid the color, the more intense the mood. No wonder we Halloweeniers love those deep vivid colors. We are, after all, trying to set an emotional mood and we need it at Setting 11!

Now, color isn't the only secret to the magic of lighting. In fact, there are four: Color, Brightness, Distribution and Movement.


How bright or intense is this light gonna be? This is important to consider because contrast is as powerful as color. If you use a bright small light, that will create dramatic shadows but not color it much. A subtle wash fills a room with dread and vibe but you will lose contrast. So, it depends on what you are trying to achieve. There's another aspect you can use to adjust brightness and add awesome shadows: cuculoris/cookies/gobos.

This video shows some lighting effects you can use with these and also how to make them.


Where are the light sources going to be in the room? There are four types of light distribution: General, Task, Decorative and Focal. General is used as the overall lighting in the room. But when you also use Task, Decorative and Focal lighting... well now you are helping to tell your story.

GENERAL: General lighting is what replaces the sunlight in a room. It's the overall light level. The big question here is do you even want to use general lighting? Nothing kills terrific shadows faster than general lighting. But, there are some general lighting that is useful. Large strobe lights, black lights, fire/water illusions are types of general lighting used in a haunt.

TASK: Like we talked about in the previous layer, Accents... this helps to tell the story. If there is a desk lamp or a TV in the room simply turn it on. If the light is too bright you can dim it down. But turn them on. They are important tricks that add reality. Other types of task lights: chandeliers, lanterns on a tree branch...

DECORATIVE: You can have a lot of fun with decorative lighting. Examples are light washes that help to show texture on a wall, moonlight streaming through overhead branches, sconces on the wall or sewer lights down a hall. Candles are powerful mood setters as well as being decorative. Silk flames really amp up the excitement.

FOCAL: A powerful tool in your scare lighting arsenal. This is where you can force the ToTs to look where you want them to look. For example: you want to focus their attention on a certain area or static prop so they'll be looking the other way from the scare prop in the other corner? Light it.

The basic way to focus a light on a prop is straight on. But after research I discovered that approach basically sucks. It flattens the object and isn't that interesting. Instead, think of how you can reveal the object. Use an up-light to make a face appear even more monster-like, grotesque and even taller. Use a side light to showcase the entire form of the prop. Put the sidelight up high and it will reveal the top side of the head and upper torso... good for muscular chesty monsters (think Hulk). A pin spotlight can be used just to light the toothy mouth of a ferocious werewolf.

Another great focal light is the use of backlighting. This will make your prop stand out from the background and seem even closer. Imagine the backlight showing through the ribcage of a skeleton in front of them. If you can get away with it, try to do several color layers of backlighting. Like lighting spider webs hanging on the ceiling in purple and washing the wall in red. Doesn't that say VAMPIRE? It will also make the room appear much deeper. Though back-lighting isn't technically a focal light I think it's almost a necessity.

Finally, try to use a lot of contrast and hard light. Dramatic is the goal here. Look at what sharp contrast can do to heighten the fear in this scene:


OK, you've decided the color of your light, how bright it'll be, what type of light it is and now the final question... Do you want the light to move or change? What I mean is do you want it to Strobe or dim, Change color or Flicker? You can make a somewhat scary prop truly come to life using light movement. I went to DMX lighting for this ability. When the lighting is alive it will make a static prop look alive also. A strobing light is excellent for making unmoving objects appear to be moving. Dimming or brightening light adds drama. Color changing light helps tell the story. Flickering light makes fake candles look real, white flood lights in the graveyard look like lightning and fluttering silk look like fire. A simple rotating beacon light can give a sense of alarm or look like a prison yard. Moving light livens up the room. Heck, discos were centered around a mirror ball. "Shake, shake, shake. Shake your booty... "

MINI-SPOTLIGHTS: These tiny little lights are becoming a haunter's dream. This houses one colored LED light and, as you can see, can pretty much be put anywhere. And look at that fantastic saturated color! The color is utterly brutal. The glass aquariums above are diffusing the light a bit and that's something to keep in mind. If you've got glass containers try to light it. It will just rock!

Now, check out how it looks when it's pointed at an object:

SWEET! Remember we were just talking about the power of shadows and contrasts? Look at the drama one little doll sitting on a shelf has.

Unlike incandescent lighting, LEDS have a limited beam of light. That is why you will see specs of LEDS showing things like '30-degree beam angle'. But, that's NOT a drawback. Small beam angles create those sharp light edges. It's just perfect!!! They are also low-voltage - 12 volts. And you can hook up 60 of them on one power adapter. Awesome! The farther away these are placed, the broader and softer the light becomes. If you want something more intense there are similar units that have three LEDS or even 12 LEDS in one housing. One source for these is here: https://www.shop.minispotlight.com/Mini-Barrel-Spotlights_c3.htm


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Discussion Starter #2 (Edited)

It's time to set the ambiance, mystique and feeling of the room. Layer six: Atmosphere, is where you add the magic effects that amaze and confuse. "Am I really in foggy London?" "An insane asylum?" "An evil carnival?" You've already completed the first five layers of scare and transported most of your victims to where you want them to be. For the last few holdouts...creating atmosphere is your ultimate weapon. Who can possibly resist believing they are in a swamp when there's wispy fog and the sounds of buzzing insects all around them? Or that they are in a boiler room when they see steam billowing out of broken pipes and hear the far-off sounds of huge grinding machines?

To create atmosphere you have three elements under your control: Sound, Light and Weather.


Remember when you first upgraded your TV's built-in little speakers with real external speakers? Perhaps even surround sound? Oh yeah...and a sub-woofer? WOW! Movies at your home became as immersing as they were at the theater. Bet you ran right out to the video store and re-rented old favorites to test out this new awesome sound experience. We were in the X-wing firing the photon torpedoes with Han Solo watching our back. The sounds of the screaming Tie-fighters, Darth Vader's evil breathing, blasts from the towers put us right in the action. And the soundtrack made us feel like we were heroes.

Flip-side of that: Our terrified ToTs don't want to be in such a realistic environment. They don't want to be transported to the insane asylum. That's just too scary. But, they will...oh.... they will. You are going to put them smack dab in the middle of that asylum - whether they like it OR NOT! Using sound. Still not sure? Grab a pair of headphones and listen to this famous YouTube clip, Virtual Haircut:

Questions to ask yourself when adding sound: How many? Surround, stereo, mono? How loud? How soft?

A fun way to answer these questions is to imagine being in the setting you are trying to create. Let's use that swamp were talking about earlier:

A swamp would certainly need a background soundscape with buzzing insects, a hawk screaming here and there, crickets and frogs. The soundscape would be best presented with a speaker in each corner of the room. To go extreme, surround speakers would be very impressive.

Let's add another layer of sound to our swamp: mysterious water swishing around at their feet. You know, like an alligator's tail in the water? Having a specific sound in a specific spot not only helps convince them of where they are but amps up the fear and suspense. Bonus!

We talked in the Main Scare Layer about the importance of the sound matching the scare which matches the scene. Just to add another point to that: Use a GREAT speaker and crank it up! Nothing ruins a prop faster than having one of those crappy tinny speakers that comes with those cheap props you can get at the store. An amplified mono speaker generally works well here.

Quick suggestion for adding ambient sounds: Some prop controllers have the option of a passive sound (runs when prop is not activated) in addition to the active scare sound. Could have a lot fun with that.


Goes without saying: Dark is better than light in a haunt. But, to what degree? If we are in the insane asylum, you'd expect some overhead lights. But, since darker is better, how 'bout making them flicker or paint them over in spots with black paint to dim the light? Every room of your haunt has an appropriate light level that helps set the atmosphere. But if it's normally light...darken it as much as you can.

Consider one of your rooms to be utterly dark. Everyone fears absolute darkness. When you force the ToTs to grope their way through a room...they are instantly terrified. Want an easy scare? Spring a bright light on them suddenly. Can't fight instinct. Dark is scary. Sudden bright lights are scarier!

Other ways to use light/dark to create atmosphere: Laser canopies, light tunnels, sparks and my fav... a lightning machine.


If you haven't listened to Revenant’s Theater of the Mind segment on Hauntcast, you are missing a treat. His Hauntcast 15 segment focused on the effect weather has on all of us. He brought up a point I'd never considered before. Man is instinctively afraid of the weather. We know it's too big to fight or control, so it's feared. All we can do is find safe shelter. Pull those ToTs from their safe shelter and into the middle of a storm and you've got them. Bad weather or the threat of bad weather easily helps amp up the fear factor.

Lightning machine, fan, heater, hazer, water, fog machine: tools that you can use to control the weather in your haunt. Lightning machines are great for a graveyard but you can also place it outside a window of your haunt room, so it gives the illusion of a bad storm outside. Spritz some water on the window for an additional weather effect.

Weather effects can also be used indoors. A boiler room would have steam and a misty look to it. Use a hazer for the mist and a fogger with fast-dissipating fog juice erupting from a broken steam pipe for the steam.

Let's explore on how to decide what type of weather effects to use by going back to that swamp room. What is the surrounding air like? Is it windy or calm? Is it clear, misty or rainy? Is your swamp bone-chilling cold or clammy hot? If you think 'clammy hot' would be hard to pull off in a garage haunt in October, don't forget, you can mount a garage heater unit up on the wall. Oooh, another thought: Use a lightning machine set on low in a far corner to suggest an approaching storm. What'd I say, love those lightning machines.

Well, hope you have a lot of fun designing this layer. Here is a checklist to help you decide what atmospheric effects to use.

Haunt Atmosphere Checklist

Musical Soundtrack? Subtle or forward? Speaker type:
Background Soundscape? Speaker type:
Action Sounds? Speaker type:

Day/Dusk/Twilight/Dark? Light type:
Dim light/Fairly dark/Completely Dark? Light type:
Laser sky canopy/Firelight/Light tunnel/Black light/Lightning machine? Light type?

Lightning/Blizzard/Dense fog? Weather tool:
Calm/Breezy/Windy? Weather tool:
Clear/Misty/Foggy? Weather tool:
Dry/Drizzle/Rain/Snow? Weather tool:
Hot/Normal/Chilly/Cold? Weather tool:


Saved the best for last. The layer that you can really surprise them with. Touch they fear the most and Smell is unexpected. The Seventh Layer is the ultimate trick up a haunter's sleeve.

You remember touch in a haunt. Once I was going through a haunt room where a crazed inmate was cutting a captive's arm off with a giant miter saw. "OK", I'm thinking, "A typical torture room." Rounded the corner to pass and I got blasted with warm blood spray. YIKES!!!!! Screamed like a two year-old. Did NOT expect that. In the dark you can't tell it's just water. It was blood I tell you... BLOOD!

The smell of barbecue, popcorn, burning wood, cut grass, cinnamon rolls.... All are powerful and pleasant smells. Mildew, urine, dirty ashtrays, pig sty, old fish, sewage. All of these are powerful and unpleasant smells.

Now go back and re-read the previous paragraph and pay attention to the emotions or memories you are feeling. Isn't it surprising how connected they are to smells? There are reasons for that and ways you can use it to your haunting advantage.


Touch can be used not only to scare but also to unnerve. But we can't touch, right? Of all the scares in your haunt, ToTs are terrified of being touched. I mean, look at how they tuck in their arms and crouch as they go through. They don't want to have any part of their body extended that can be touched. Now the older kids know that you can't touch them (they think). But, we are haunters! There's more than one way to skin a cat. Let me list them....

PASS-THROUGHS: Make the ToTs touch things they don't want to touch. heh. Put things in their path that they have no alternative but to touch them. Pass-throughs can made up of anything... plastic strip curtains (which you can glue cockroaches or other grisly items to), dark plastic tarps, hanging dirty underwear, body bags, shredded tents, body parts, alien eggs. Think of things that either obstruct vision and/or gross them out. You know, like blood on a plastic shower curtain.
WATER SPRAYS: In the dark, water is toxic ooze or blood or acid, barf, urine, toilet water...anything that's wet. Ripley's has a mad doctor that suddenly throws a heart against a chain-link fence. It splatters over everyone. It's just a heart-shaped sponge held in a bucket of water. Neat trick
TOUCHING WALLS: A claustrophobia wall is very effective at touching. The only way to get through it is to literally squeeze your body past it. Another way to have walls touch ToTs is to make the hallways so narrow that they must touch them as they pass through. Be sure to have yucky things mounted on those walls (bodies, giant veins, shiny blood). Ahh, I just get giddy thinking of all the fun possibilities.
SHOCK MATS: These are harmless but when someone is finding their way through a dark corridor and touch one of these. YIP!
DARK: Speaking of dark....Just having a section of your haunt completely dark where they have to reach out and feel their way out is verrrry scary.
MAKE THEM MOVE: Have them go down a short slide or crawl under an obstacle or swing over a log. When they have to move their body differently from their preferred defensive position and have to touch the obstacle... that is unnerving. You can also make them change speed quickly... ahhh, the power of chainsaws.
BLAST OF AIR: Air cannons, pop blasters, ghost breath (Airzooka)...these are great fun toys for you when you control the trigger. I saw something new this year that combined tiny air cannons in a sewer wall with trickling water running down. As the cannons went off it sprayed that water onto you. Yuck!

Oh, and I don't care who you are...if you were in front of this...heart attack time:


There was a wonderful scent I remember about my grandmother. I learned later it was the scent of the moisturizer she wore: Jergens. I finally discovered it when sniffing new lotions to buy. Sniff...Grandma! The sense of smell is the only sense we have that is directly connected to our brain. Not just any part of our brain...the part where our memories and emotions are stored. The scent molecules wafting through the air touch special tiny hairs in our nasal cavity. These are connected directly to our brain. In many ways, it's our quickest and most powerful sense. We can use that sinister knowledge to our advantage. Coincidently, there's a company that markets this...and it's called Sinister Scents. Go figure. Imagine going through a haunt and you notice that it smells like a graveyard. Bet you'd be surprised and a bit more alarmed. "This place is serious and I'm in for it! AHHHHH..."

Back to Sinister Scents. I ordered four of their scents to give it a Terra test. Purchased Haunted House, Campfire, Earth, and Burning Electrical.

HAUNTED HOUSE: Smells like mildew, wet wood, stinky perfume and a bit musty. Think of what this house would smell like and you've got it:
CAMPFIRE: Exactly the descriptive word for this smell.
EARTH: Strong smell of rotting wet leaves, hint of cedar, dirt, and an elusive smell that I would guess would be what an old corpse would smell like. Perfect for a graveyard.
BURNING ELECTRICAL: It's got a strange sweet smell, smoke, ozone and what that magic blue smoke smells like when you fry your amplifier...

There's many more smells they list and I picked out a few that sounded interesting. Haven't smelled them but the four I have smelled were right on with their title. I've also included suggestions on where they could be used:

BUBBLE GUM: Toy room
BURNT FLESH: Hell scene, Torture
POPCORN: Carnival, Movie theater
FOREST: Werewolf, Deep forest
JUST BAD: Super gory scene
MILDEW: Zombie, Graveyard, Basement, Vampire
ROTTING DECAY: Dead bodies, Zombie, Death
URINE: Hospital, Asylum
BOILER ROOM: Freddy!, Apocalyptic
CITY ALLEY: Urban scene, Apocalyptic, Zombie
GUN SHOT: War scene
HELL: Fire, Hell, Demons
LEATHER: Slaughterhouse, Ghost town
MARINE: POTC, Ghost ship
PUMPKIN: Younger audience, Whimsical area
RUM: Pirates
SMOKE: Witches, Cannibal, Fire
SWAMP: Witches, Swamp monster, Deliverance
STALE BEER: Dead dorm, Hillbillies
WINE CELLAR: Vampires, Haunted mansion

Summary of the Seven Layers of Scare

One: Art Direction and/or Theme
Two: Walls, Ceilings and Floors
Three: Main Scare (and it's sound)
Four: Accents
Five: Lighting
Six: Atmosphere
Seven: Touch and Smell

First step in designing your haunt is to first decide on an Art Direction and/or Theme. This will help unify the rooms and set-up a story. It will also help simplify designing choices. Now start designing the Walls, Ceiling and Floors. This is what is going to tell the ToT what environment they are in. Is it a prison or a slaughterhouse? Walls are most important but when you add decorating the ceilings and floors then they are truly immersed. The Main Scare should fit into the room you are designing. From there you can decide if you want to use a Cheap Scare or a Set-up and then Sudden Scare. Adding Accents to a room helps tell the story of what has happened or what will happen. Now spend some extra time Lighting the haunt. Think about how to use Color, Brightness, Distribution and Movement to add that extra scary edge in your lighting. Atmosphere added to your haunt is the over-the-top experience your ToTs are hoping for. Use great Sound, Lighting and Weather to transport them to your magical and horrifying experience. Finally, use Touch and Smell to once and for all scare the candy out of those sweet little darlings.

Thank you so much for sharing in my journey learning how to make a killer haunt. I hope this was helpful for you in terrorizing your ToTs. Remember, they'll love you for it.

1,172 Posts
Terra - would I be allowed to cut and paste this thread into a word document to read at my leisure (if it is possible)?

8,374 Posts
Discussion Starter #6 (Edited)
I am so happy to see this thread and may others revamped and back up again.
I think this one is one of the most valuable "how to" threads ever for building a haunt.
Awesome you liked it. At first I was pretty annoyed that I had to rebuild all of the tuts. But, then started to get a kick out of being back in the saddle. I missed you all so much :)

1,172 Posts
Cheers Terra - I'm more of a paper person than a screen person these days - the old eyes are going I think.

14,231 Posts
This is a fantastic article. Thank you for putting it together. I saved it off as a .pdf for future reading down the road when I need inspiration to be focused and need a refresher.

I know what you mean about the annoyance factor with changing digital technologies and losing so much of what's been compiled for haunters in the past. I still love books. Hopefully .pdfs will be supported for a long time (I have a lot of beta and VHS tapes and now CDs and DVDs that just sit there now and it's sad so much will get forgotten and won't be able to be accessed). Grateful you feel up to tackling so many re-dos. Look forward to your videos on this.

14,231 Posts
BTW if you are saving to a .pdf (I'm on a Mac and storing in Books), resize the window here until all the ads are gone from the page (be sure to start with the window at the beginning of the document or you will get the HF banner appearing where you don't want it) and then go to Print and save either to .pdf or on a Mac you can add directly to your Books in the PDF drop down menu on the left there. I keep my prop manuals/instruction sheets there and have them organized into a Halloween category. If you turn off backgrounds you'll have a white background and gray type.

BTW when I upgraded to a new laptop about a year ago I found out that Books (at least back then) was not saved and transferred over) something about not having iCloud activated and Documents where I think things would be stored. I'm not sure but it was something that didn't transfer while the rest did. Just throwing out as something to look into if you use Books for things like I do and don't want to lose at some point in the future.

Imitation Imagineer
1,154 Posts
I thought my eyes were playing tricks on my when I saw a new Terra post...talk about a doubletake!

I'm sorry you are having to go through the trouble of rebuilding everything, but it's super cool to read that you're making some new stuff, too!

8,374 Posts
Discussion Starter #15
...I know what you mean about the annoyance factor with changing digital technologies and losing so much of what's been compiled for haunters in the past...
This was something I never considered when the internet came into being. At first it's been amazing to get all of this information and the Google machine. Now, as the internet has matured were are also seeing this same information vanish. It just sucks, actually.
Great work @Terra Hope you don't mind I converted it into a pdf document, see attached, the sound file might not work, but link will take you to original. Videos are just links to the youtube page.
Awesome and thanks!
I thought my eyes were playing tricks on my when I saw a new Terra post...talk about a doubletake!

I'm sorry you are having to go through the trouble of rebuilding everything, but it's super cool to read that you're making some new stuff, too!
Just when everyone thought they got rid of me ;)

424 Posts
Can I recommend to the moderators that this be set as a “sticky” post for either the props or general forums? There is so much good info here I hate to see it disappear. Props to @Terra for posting. Pun intended. :)
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