While the professional haunted attractions in the upstate are plentiful and terrific, there is a sad and disappointing lack of amateur home haunts in the area. Also called yard haunts, these are DIY attractions that anyone with a passion for Halloween can put together on any budget in their own yard or garage.
Photo courtesy haunt365.com
I was eleven or twelve years old when I created my first haunt in my grandparents’ basement, and the exhilaration has remained my entire life. I am fortunate to have worked at several major pro haunts like the March of Dimes Mansion of Terror in Virginia Beach and the world-famous SpookyHouse in Los Angeles but nothing replaces a fun yard haunt. When my wife and I were house shopping a few years ago, one of our “must haves” was yard haunt potential!
While I plan to turn our 120-year-old home into a Farmhouse of Fear someday, maybe I can inspire you to create a haunt of your own for Halloween 2021. Just follow these 13 steps:
1. Get ideas for your haunt
The first thing you need is an idea for your haunt. A successful haunt has a theme or through-line that ties all the rooms together. Think of your haunt as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Consider setting up your guests with a concept in the first room and paying it off in the last. If you need inspiration, watch spooky movies and create a haunt based on one or several of them. Watch YouTube videos of other yard haunts and do a variation on the ones you find the best. Or maybe you’ll think “Hey, I can do that better!” You can also mine short stories and novels for ideas. But whatever it is, your idea must be something that excites you!
The Backwoods Maze in Burbank, CA (an AMAZING yard haunt). Courtesy Attractions 360°
2. Collaboration is key
Sharing is a big part of Halloween. After all, you’re creating a haunt to share with friends, neighbors, and even strangers. So get your family or tribe involved in your plans. Perhaps you have a friend who is particularly good at building, or prop making, or creating costumes. Even if you are a creative genius, master carpenter and electrician, and CAN do everything yourself, it is much more fun to haunt with other people. You’re not just creating a haunted house – you’re creating memories.
3. Graph your space
You may just want to do one room with a performance or creepy tableau for guests to behold, but if you want to do a maze, then you’re going to have to floorplan your space. Get some graph paper and a measuring tape and accurately measure the area you want your haunt to inhabit. Then chart your maze on the graph paper, using one foot for each grid. With creative floorplanning you’ll be surprised how much you can fit in a 20x20 area!
Image courtesy halloweenhaunters.com
4. Plan your rooms
Once you have your floorplan you can determine what you want for each room. You can build service halls between the rooms in which actors can move through unseen from one part of the haunt to another. Or where a monster can appear from behind a painting or mirror. Remember, you’re telling a story. Your only limitation is your imagination!
The single most important part of your haunt is the safety of your guests and your actors. You want to ensure that there are no treacherous steps or something that can be tripped on or stumbled over. You need to make sure that the structure is strong enough to withstand wind, and otherwise solid enough to not fall down on someone. Also it is wise to treat all the materials used to build your structure with fire retardant. You may want to include several emergency exits along the maze for easy escape if needed. This is also a good place to mention that you should check with the city or county to see if a permit is required for your build.
Photo courtesy flameoffcoatings.com
6. Go shopping
I hope you like making lists! Actually, there is little chance of you purchasing everything you need in one trip – and you can find props, costumes, and objects to decorate and populate your haunt all year round! But now that you have your plan for the structure and your rooms, you can begin to buy the materials. Make a list of the building materials and one for each of the rooms. Make an inventory of items you already have that you can use, and items your friends and family can donate. Great stuff can be found at thrift stores and junkyards, and did you know there is a “FREE” section on Craigslist? You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg for an arm and a leg – ask department stores if they have broken mannequins that you can have to dress up as a bloody victim or just spare body parts.
Junkyard photo by Heather Lerner
7. Build frame and walls
You can construct the skeleton for your maze from PVC pipe or you can make your frame out of spare lumber or wood pallets. This really depends on your skill level and budget. Once your frame is up and solid, the next step is to build your wall. If your frame is made from PVC pipe, you can hang and zip tie black tarps to them to create dark walls (or even large trash bags cut to make sheets). Thin plywood or particle board is a little more expensive but is more solid. This is probably the most time-consuming step. Remember to keep safety in mind and wear eye protection, ear protection and gloves when appropriate.
8. Paint your interior and exterior walls
You’re going to want your walls to be black or at least dark. But if you have a Sphinx illusion, you’ll want to paint that room with polka dots or vertical stripes that sell the gag. A Sphinx illusion is one that uses two mirrors at the base of a table at 90 degrees to reflect the walls and make it appear that you are looking straight through to the back wall. Often a head pokes through a hole in the table top and opens its eyes or speaks. There are quite a few places to learn how to build one yourself. It’s a super illusion and easy to make and pretty inexpensive. Be sure to leave enough time for the paint to fully dry.
Sphinx illusion photo courtesy educatorpages.com
9. Decorate your rooms
Okay, so your maze is built! You’ve got to feel pretty good! You’ve sewn all the body parts together and now it’s time to bring your creature to life! Metaphorically. I hope. Now you can populate your rooms with props, animatronics, or even illusions! Even one illusion, like the Sphinx illusion I mentioned earlier, takes your haunt to another level.
Photo by Pam Morris
Choosing the right lighting can be the key to how scary your haunted house will be. Your haunt can’t just be in total darkness. Make sure your power source is capable of safely handling the load you intend, and that there are heavy duty extension cords and power strips handy, and that moisture is nowhere near. Plan to have lots of extra bulbs and gels. Get creative tips HERE.
I cannot stress enough how important audio is to your haunt. Sound is made up of frequencies, and the human brain operates on electrical impulses, so sound affects our brain on a physical level. It pushes buttons in our psyches that we may not even know are there! Lots of pre-recorded sound effects are available both free and for purchase from authorized sources. As well as sound effects, make a loop of appropriate horror movie music to play in the haunt or outside for guests in line. One of my pet peeves for pro haunts is when club music is pumping in the common areas and waiting area. I don’t want to get my dance on at a haunt – I want to be transported to a place of fantasy. You can find some great sound tips HERE.
Even before you complete your build and decorate your haunt, you are going to want to promote it. How early is completely up to you, but know that major stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby have their Halloween merchandise displayed in late July! I suggest that around the end of August you should announce your haunt on social media. Maybe you want to create an account specifically for your haunt? Are you going to be open only on Halloween night? Only on weekends? And you’ll want to decide on your operating hours early. Chances are your neighbors won’t appreciate screams past 9 or 10pm – unless they’re all a part of your haunt! Your promotion should increase the week before Halloween. Keep in mind that every post doesn’t have to be about your haunt. By posting all kinds of spooky images, or other events, or horror movie posters, and using appropriate hashtags, you can attract new followers and engage potential guests.
13. Donate to charity
Finally, most home haunts are free. People do it for the love of Halloween. Plus there are all kinds of permits needed for a commercial haunt, and it may even be prohibited in your neighborhood due to zoning. But I have seen many yard haunts who take donations for local charities. Whatever is close to your heart. Put a big plastic pumpkin that guests can deposit donations into at the front of your haunt with a sign about your charity – and one a few feet outside the exit door. You can even set up a cashapp/venmo/paypal account expressly for collecting donations. Just be transparent about it. Perhaps you can even partner with the charity and get publicity from them.
Halloween is about sharing, after all. Good luck and happy haunting!
Photo of Bill Wolcott's "Jose Ramon" haunt by Kent Porter/Press Democrat