9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted Houses

iStock.com/quavondo
iStock.com/quavondo

Margee Kerr leads a unique double life. By day, she teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. By night, she works for ScareHouse, a renowned haunted house in Pittsburgh, where she analyzes data from customers and employees to make the attractions as terrifying as possible.

Kerr’s new book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear explores how fear works in our bodies and societies, and why many of us intentionally seek it out—especially at this time of year. We interviewed her and several other professionals working at haunted house attractions to find out more about how these places work, and why we love them like we do.

1. FEAR IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

Just like Halloween costumes, haunted house characterscycle in and out of popularity. Since 2008, Kerr has been asking ScareHouse visitors to rate which types of characters they find most frightening, whether it’s zombies, ghosts, witches, demons, serial killers, or other nightmares stalking the house's halls.

Kerr says that when she first started the interviews she saw a rising fear of zombies, a trend that has yet to entirely fade. But the characters scoring the highest on questionnaires this season are ones that seem plucked from recent American Horror Story storylines: circus sideshow oddities dripping with nostalgia, face-paint, and worse.

Kerr says movie serial killers like Jason and Freddy are still popular, even with kids who were born long after the franchises got their start. Other perennialfavoritesinclude creepy kids and creepy dolls. (Although people are only scared of porcelain dolls, Kerr notes, never stuffed animals or Raggedy Ann types. She blames that on the uncanny valley effect.) Ghosts, Kerr says,never seem to get to the very top of the rankings.

Amy Hollaman, Creative Director at Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, says they’ve found that their scariest characters are the ones people can’t quite interpret. “We have a kind of cult that has taken over a ‘haunted machine shop,'" she explains. "They all have shaved heads, workers uniforms, and the same tattoo. It’s not a character that everyone is familiar with, so people are trying to constantly assess it—is this threatening? Can I trust this? We find that people think that’s very scary."

2. PROGRESSION IS KEY.

Well-designed haunted houses will take into account the entire flow of the experience, much like a symphony—or even just a good workout.

Several haunted house experts noted the importance of starting out strong. Hollaman says they used to have a slower warm-up sequence at the start of their experience, but visitors didn’t remember it. Today, they go straight for the high intensity, high-startle scares and then get further into the story.

Ben Armstrong, co-owner of NetherworldHaunted Housein Atlanta, Georgia,agrees:“You always want to hit them hard at the beginning and hard at the end."

Kerr confirms that starting out with high intensity is important. At ScareHouse, she says, the initial attractions are designed to get your body in a state of high arousal. They “activate the threat response and get the chemicals flowing,” she notes. “Startle scares”—think a zombie jumping out from the corner—accomplish this effectively. The startle response is hard to shut off, Kerr says, and it gets you into high-alert mode.

ScareHouse, like other haunted houses, employs a series of peaks and valleys as visitors wander through the attraction. Their final room ends on a comedic note, one that tries to leave visitors “laughing, pumped-up, and excited.” There'salso acool-down at the end, where visitors check out their belongings, and staff ask how they’re doing. But Kerr notes that not all haunted houses pay attention to the winding-down part of experience. The ones that do tend to be more business-oriented—they’re concerned about the liability issues of sending terrified people off into the night.

3. SOME OF THE CHEAPEST TRICKS ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE.

“There are a lot of old-school hack tricks that haunters discovered and now science is confirming,” Kerr says.

Many of these have to do with altering visitors’ sense of space and time. Strobe lights induce what Kerr calls "a feeling of depersonalization" by messing with our proprioception—our sense of our own bodies and movement—and our ability to locate ourselves visually from one moment to the next. Blackout rooms also interfere with our ability to orient ourselves, which triggers a fear response.

Other tricks involve subtle movements. At ScareHouse, some of the walls are on springs and move when you lean against them—not enough to make visitors fall and hurt themselves, Kerr says, but enough to make you question what just happened. Golf balls wedged tightly underneath the floors are another classic trick, since they make the ground move just enough to be alarming. "If you put the golf balls really close together in a very tight space and then put a board on top of it (also secured), so there is only about a half an inch worth of movement, it creates just enough disorientation to put you off balance (and set up you for the next scare), but not enough to actually make you fall," Kerr explains.

Still, startles remain one of the most effective tools. “Startles might be cheap, but they’re required to keep that high level of arousal,” Kerr says. “You can have great sets, but you need to have these fundamental things in your pocket to create that feeling of chaos. Otherwise you’re just walking through really cool sets.”

4. DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE.

“I always look for ways to establish a pattern or rhythm,”Elizabeth Harper, an LA-based lighting designer who’s worked on several horror-themed attractions, says. “If you subvert the pattern, the audience has a moment of relief where they feel like they've escaped unscathed—and that's your opportunity to really scare them.”

It's a pattern that's often used in horror movies. “The killer's theme music will prime you to get scared," she explains. "Then one time it turns out to be something normal—it was only the wind or a cat ... you can bet that right after that moment of relief they're going to unleash something terrifying.”

Hollaman uses similar tactics in what she calls her “scareography”—the choreography of a scare. “It’s a sequence of steps, like with a dance move,” she explains, and one that incorporates both physical movements and dialogue. The principles of Hollaman’s scareography includes first scanning the customer and getting a read on their body language, which can determine the sequence or the tempo of what happens next. The second step often involves a distraction, often with a prop.

“For instance, in the morgue, visitors see a rib cage slowly lifting up,” she explains. “While they’re turned and looking at that, it allows the actors to slowly creep out of their scare pockets and slide right to the middle of the group.” That’s when the real scare happens.

“We’re using the principles of redirection,” she notes. "The scare isn’t where you expect it to be.”

5. THAT SMELL MIGHT JUST BE ANIMAL URINE.

Entire companies are devoted to designing haunted house smellscapes, withthe scent of rotting corpses a particularly popular choice.

ScareHouse has used a variety of scents, Kerr says, but this year there’s a boar’s urine smell in a haunt designed to look like a butcher room. “It’s awful, but in a way that isn’t completely repulsive,” Kerr says.

Finding the right balance between scary and just plain disgusting is important when it comes to smells. “Something like bad breath is just going to make people disengage and move away," Kerr says. "But there’s other smells that are weird and gross, yet that don’t take you out of the experience.” Boars’ urine seems to fit the bill, for some reason—perhaps because most of us have never encountered it before and don’t have a script for how to deal with it, Kerr says.

Harper, however, says she’s not a fan of using smell in a haunted house, and “not just because the smell gets in your clothes and hair if you're working all night.” She says the unfamiliar smells can actually take people out of the moment. “Unlike sound or lights or actors, you can't hit someone with a smell and make it disappear, so it overstays its welcome. People start wondering how we did that, which is the least scary thought in the world.”

6. THE SCARES MAY CHANGE ACCORDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.

At ScareHouse, “if a group comes in that’s not jumping at all, the actors will abandon any dialogue and go right to startle scares,” Kerr says. In other words, plot goes out the window, while the basic physiological triggers come back into play.

On the other hand, if people who seem too scared, the actors will take it in a more comedic direction. Armstrong at Netherworld agrees: “If someone is too scared we train our actors to back off … We want them to have nightmares for a week, not the rest of their lives!”

According to general manager D. Brandon LeJeune, the goal at House of Torment in Austin is "to scare first and foremost, but when that doesn't work out, we fall back to entertaining. Groups are instructed before entering the attraction that if they are too scared to continue, they can inform a monster and they will be escorted out. This happens on a very regular basis.”

Hollaman, however, says her actors aren’t supposed to improv very much. They might have to make some of their scares shorter or longer, but basically need to stick to the script.

7. SIMPLE IS BETTER.

Not every scary setup works. Around 2009, ScareHouse created a haunted house built around a detailed universe with good soldiers fighting an evil overlord. Visitors were supposed to be able to choose sides, but people didn’t get it.

“The complexity of the story didn’t allow people to go into primal, no-thinking scare mode. That was a lesson in how simple is better—narrative thread good, narrative cobwebs bad,” Kerr says. Or as Harper puts it, “a little bit of narrative goes a long way."

8. THEY PRODUCE A NATURAL HIGH.

Kerr says there can be surprising benefits to visiting a haunted house. For some, they induce a kind of natural high. “The adrenaline, the dopamine, the endorphins that course through your body—the scary material is just a trigger for that kind of response with some people,” Kerr says.

Others seem to enjoy haunted houses because they genuinely like scary material. “Some people have a positive response to a negative picture,” Kerr explains, “and there’s not necessarily a pathology behind that.” The reasons behind such responses are complex. “It could be because some people have linked scary stuff with the feel-good endorphins, so the negative image takes on a positive feeling.”

And some people, like Kerr herself, go to haunted houses as a way to enforce feelings of competency. Going through a set of thrilling experiences can be a safe way to challenge oneself and emerge feeling great. “It’s a confidence boost,” Kerr says. She actively seeks out safe-but-scary experiences on days when she’s feeling low.

9. THEY MAY GET US CLOSER TO OUR ANCESTORS.

Humans evolved in environments in which they were facing constant physical threat. For a lot of us, life is significantly more cushy now. That could mean we’re missing out on dangerous but potentially exhilarating experiences our ancestors were more familiar with, whether that’s running from a bear or fighting a battle.

“For many Americans, their emotional expressions on a day-to-day basis are very narrow,” Kerr says. “We’re not having many highs or lows. We’re living a more restricted emotional life. I think that’s why we go out to scary movies and haunted houses—we evolved to have this massive range of emotional experiences, and we still want them." In other words, haunted houses might just be a way to recapture the sense of thrill our foremothers and forefathers knew—but instead of ending up as a snack for a wild animal, we can go off laughing into the night.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Songwriters

A songwriter in her natural habitat.
A songwriter in her natural habitat.
Soundtrap, Unsplash

Behind every club banger and power ballad is an eclectic team of individuals, each with their own role in its creation and promotion. Needless to say, it couldn’t happen without the songwriters. These gifted musicians don’t just pen the lyrics that fuel all your car concerts and karaoke nights—they also manage egos, help artists articulate their innermost feelings, and juggle their own side gigs. So what does a songwriting career actually look like? Mental Floss chatted with three experienced songwriters about everything from how they make money to how they make hits.

1. It’s common for songwriters to have their own music careers.

From Carole King to Pharrell Williams, the music industry has long teemed with talented artists who’ve written songs for other acts—so it’s not exactly surprising that so many songwriters are nurturing what they call their own “artist projects.” In fact, all three songwriters interviewed for this article have released new music in the last few months. Daniel Capellaro released the EP Nightside [A] in November under the moniker “Dvniel”; Skyler Stonestreet’s first single as “The Sunshine State” dropped in late October; and Trent Park has been unveiling a steady stream of singles and corresponding music videos since June.

Though it seems like it could be difficult to constantly fork over songs that they might want to release themselves, the collaborative nature of the business prevents this from being a major issue. Often, the songwriter is working off ideas and emotions specific to the artist they’re writing for, so the song truly feels like it belongs to that artist. Other times, the song gets tweaked by so many writers and producers that it’s no longer the original songwriter’s personal opus. “When a song comes out, sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah that was good, but I would’ve done it a totally different way,” Park says. “But that means it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”

2. Songwriters sometimes have to fake it ’til they make it.

In a business built on relationships, it’s pivotal for up-and-coming songwriters to always be on the lookout for new connections. Sometimes, this means acting first and thinking later. During Capellaro’s early days in Los Angeles, his demo CD was his de facto business card. About a month after giving one to an executive from Universal Music Group, he got a call from the company asking when he was playing next. Having no dates lined up, he picked one at random: March 16. “So I hang up and I'm like, ‘OK, I’ve just committed to playing a show. I've got no venue. I've got no band. I have to get all this put together in the next 30 days,” Capellaro remembers.

He found a former bass player from the band Lifehouse on Craigslist, and the two set about securing the rest of the band. For the venue, Capellaro chose a well-known rehearsal space called SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals), only to find out that the Universal exec slated to see the show “[had] never signed a single act at SIR—she hates that place.” It was too late to switch venues, so Capellaro reassured his Universal contact over the phone that “she won’t recognize it” and immediately transported everything in his recently furnished living room to the stage to give it a whole new look. “I had a couch, a rug, tea candles,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like MTV Unplugged.” The hard-to-please executive was duly impressed. “She’s like ‘You sound great. How long have you guys been playing together?’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, you know, for a while.’ I didn’t want to tell her ‘Four days.’”

When asked what surprised him most about the industry, Park answered without hesitation: “That nobody knows what they’re doing.” He, too, confessed to occasional fibbery. “There are some times when I reach out to an artist and I say, ‘I love your stuff. I have a song for you,'” he says. “I’m completely lying. I just want to work with that person, and once they reach out I end up formulating songs in the vein of their stuff.”

3. Songwriters don’t just write for career music artists.

Songwriters like Capellaro and Stonestreet, who are signed to music publishing companies, mainly do work on songs for fellow artists. Park, on the other hand, is an independent songwriter—so his clients sometimes come from other industries altogether. “Right now I'm writing for a couple lawyers that are just doing it as a passion, but they pay me really well,” he says. “I’m there for everyone. Honestly, it’s way better money.” Park also spent a few weeks writing songs for the wife of a billionaire app developer. Not only did she pay him triple his per-song rate and triple his per-diem rate, she also insisted on posting him up in a luxury hotel and giving him an additional $500 each day for food and other expenses. “That was a really cool [scenario],” Park says, “I’m hoping for more of those.”

4. There are countless ways to create a song—and countless people involved.

Songwriting isn’t exactly a linear process. “You can start from any place,” Capellaro says. “You can start with someone toe-tapping, or have a piano pulled up and just start playing a C chord over and over again.” Often, the record label has already started for you—they’ll send an instrumental track to multiple songwriters, who each adds their own lyrics and melody. Then, the label simply chooses their favorite.

Other songs originate in songwriting camps. Basically, a record label will gather various songwriters in a house, split them into small groups, and “see if magic happens,” Stonestreet says. During a camp meant to generate hits for Dua Lipa a few years ago, it did: Stonestreet and several other writers penned her 2018 single “IDGAF.”

But even after a track has lyrics and a melody, there’s always a chance it’ll undergo another round of edits. Maybe a label liked a certain producer’s work on another song, so they ask them to tweak this one; or they bring in a new writer to fine-tune a few words or add a post-chorus. Big artists also sometimes have personal collaborators that they want credited on the song, whether or not they actually helped create it. “That’s why when you look at a Katy Perry song, you’re like ‘How did 14 people write this one song that has the most juvenile lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life?’ They didn’t—it’s all politics,” Capellaro says.

5. Songwriters don’t make much from music streaming services like Spotify.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are notorious for pocketing most of the earnings from artists’ work. Spotify, for example, pays the rights holder as little as $0.006 for each stream—and that paltry sum must then be split among all the people involved in making the song. Songwriters, producers, musicians, managers, label executives, and any number of other people could each be entitled to a certain percentage of the profits. “I have over a million streams on one catalog, and that translated to $785,” Capellaro says. “If I sold a million copies, I would’ve had a house up in [Beverly Hills].” Not only are the rates low, but artists also have to somehow make their songs stand out from the tens of thousands of other new songs released each week, which Capellaro admits is “virtually impossible.”

6. Songwriters often juggle other jobs.

Since songwriters can’t rely on streaming dividends for income—and salaried music publishing positions don’t always come easy—they often make ends meet with a variety of side gigs. Park realized early in his career that while songwriters were mainly earning money from royalties, producers were often paid an hourly rate or up-front lump sum. “So I learned how to produce,” he says. Then, he purchased a mic and other equipment so he could record vocals at home—like hooks for people’s rap or EDM songs. “Basically, I’m an a la carte thing,” he explained. Park eventually branched out into music video production, and he’s now directed videos for chart-topping artists like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign. He also served as a music technical consultant for 2020’s The High Note, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson; in that position, he made sure the dialogue, instruments, and other music-related details matched real life.

Even when a songwriter appears to be working a job entirely unrelated to the music industry, there could be a shrewd reason for doing so. Capellaro spent more than a decade running a restaurant called Amici in Brentwood, California. “I knew I wanted to be there because that’s where the celebrities live,” he explains. Sure enough, he connected with people like J.J. Abrams, Laura Dern, and Bonnie Hunt, who was hosting her NBC talk show at the time. One evening while refilling Hunt’s water glass, Capellaro posed a question: “Hey Bonnie, what would it take to be on your show?” She asked if he had a CD on hand, which he did, and booked him as a musical guest within weeks. The day after the taping, Hunt dined at Amici again and lauded Capellaro for his performance. “I’m like, ‘This is so surreal. I was just on your show yesterday, and now I’m bringing you sea bass.” A producer who caught the performance later reached out to Capellaro and ended up inviting him to his studio for songwriting sessions—which yielded hits for Chris Brown and Boyz II Men.

It was also at Amici that Capellaro developed a friendship with Marc Caruso, a music engineer who happened to be the founder of a music publishing company called Angry Mob Music Group. About five years ago, Caruso, knowing Capellaro was itching to give up his restaurant job and focus on music full-time, offered him a music publishing deal; Capellaro’s been there ever since.

7. Songwriters have to form close bonds with artists in a few hours or less.

Because the goal is to create a song that feels personal to the artist, songwriters usually prefer to work directly with them whenever possible. And getting the artist to give them some seed of inspiration means forging a deep friendship with them within minutes of entering the studio.

“There’s so much trust that needs to happen in the room. You’re telling potentially intimate details about yourself that would be uncomfortable sharing [with a stranger]. So much of it is trying to create a safe place for the artist and a safe place for the writers, all the while dealing with egos the size of tall buildings,” Capellaro says. “It’s almost like a therapy session: What’s your mood today? What happened over the weekend? What’re you pissed off about? What’re you inspired by at this very moment? Because it can change at 5 p.m. today, and maybe that inspires the song.”

Stonestreet expressed a similar sentiment. “I honestly love when the artist is involved. You won’t know anything specific unless you’re sitting there having a conversation—it can be emotional. You form a relationship, and you trust each other to handle the information.”

8. Songwriters have to say “no” without actually saying “no.”

Songwriters have to find creative ways of steering a song in the right direction without flatly rejecting an artist’s not-so-great suggestion. Stonestreet might toss out a compliment and lean on the lackluster reaction of the room as evidence that they haven’t yet struck gold. Something to the effect of: “‘That’s cool, and I like it, but maybe it’s not jumping out, and it’s not making everyone jump around the room and [giving everyone] that feeling of ‘This is so exciting.’”

“I always say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Park says. “‘I don’t necessarily hear what you’re talking about, but let’s try it.’” Sometimes, hearing their idea come to life is enough to make the artist realize it isn’t a great fit. Park also occasionally asks the artist’s manager, significant other, or another trusted party to weigh in, hoping they’ll side with him. “But I am always honest. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think the idea works. If you like it, 100-percent do it. It’s not my vibe, but it’s your song.'”

And since the artist does have final say, the writers also need to know when to cut their losses. If the artist is hell-bent on certain subpar lyrics? “You’re going to go with whatever they’re going to like,” Capellaro says.

9. Songs sometimes get lost in the abyss.

Earlier this year, Stonestreet wrote Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s duet “Stuck with U,” which got released mere weeks later. “I just heard the demo of it last week, and it’s coming out Friday. I don’t understand what’s going on,” she thought at the time. “That was a freak thing. Usually you do have to wait a minute.” A minute could be a year—or never. “So many people have to say yes to the song for it to come out … All the label’s people, the artist’s team, your team.” Even after getting all those green lights, a single could still test poorly among advance radio reviewers and end up stalling indefinitely.

Sometimes, a record label neglects to send the finished product back to the songwriter. “I think some songs can go into a complete abyss where they just sit on a hard drive for years and years,” Stonestreet says.

10. Songwriters have mixed feelings about making music via Zoom.

Since songwriting often involves multiple people spending long hours in a small studio, the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend the whole system. So songwriters went virtual. Some, like Park and Stonestreet, already had recording equipment at home; Capellaro, meanwhile, quickly invested in a mic, a monitor, cables, and all the other requisite gadgets. To shift the workflow online, they’ve had to more clearly define each person’s task for each song.

“I’m a vocalist, so I’m going to record vocals in my house, and I will send the stems to producer X, Y, or Z, have them tune them for me [and] put them into the rest of the track," Capellaro says. “I can have another guy master it, [and] we can always hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call to get it written and recorded.” This streamlined process has actually helped with productivity. “I have been writing more music since March than I was previously,” Capellaro says.

Making music via video chat tends to work better with fewer people, so Stonestreet has enjoyed the opportunity for more one-on-one sessions. When there are several people on the call, they cut down on confusion over who’s speaking (and singing) by thoroughly explaining each suggestion. “You really talk things through, which has been really nice,” she says. That said, the camaraderie born in the studio is hard to recreate on a computer screen, and songwriters are eager to experience that again. “I love Zoom, but I also really miss people in the room with me,” Stonestreet says.