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.

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Easter Bunnies

This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every year, thousands of families, church groups, and event planners enlist entertainment companies to dispatch a costumed bunny for their Easter celebrations. These performers often endure oppressive heat, frightened children, and other indignities to bring joy to the season.

It can be a thankless job, which is why Mental Floss approached several hares and their handlers for some insight into what makes for a successful appearance, the numerous occupational hazards, and why they can be harassed while holding a giant carrot. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on under the ears.

1. They might be watching netflix under the mask.

Has a bunny ever seemed slow to respond to your child? He or she might be in the middle of a binge-watch. Jennifer Ellison, the sales and marketing manager for San Diego Kids’ Party Rentals and a bunny wrangler during the Easter season, says that extended party engagements might lead their furry foot soldiers to seek distractions while in costume. “We book the bunny by the hour and he is often booked for multiple hour blocks,” she says. “Listening to music definitely helps the time pass.” One of her bunny friends who does a lot of shopping mall appearances has even rigged up a harness that can cradle a smart phone. “It sits above the bunny's nose, resting right at eye level for the performer inside, easily allowing the performer to stream Netflix, scroll through Facebook, or check emails.”

2. They can’t walk on wet grass.

Bunnies that appear at private functions, like backyard parties or egg hunts, have to maintain the illusion of being a character and not a human in a furry costume. According to Albert Joseph, the owner of Albert Joseph Entertainment in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of Easter engagements, one of the cardinal rules is never to set foot on wet grass. Why? “They wear regular shoes under their giant bunny feet,” he says. “If they step on wet grass and then walk on cement, they’ll make a human foot print, not a bunny print.”

3. There’s a reason they might not pick up your kid.

Bunnies might be amenable to posing for a photo with your child on their lap, but they’re probably not going to grab the little tyke and sweep them off their feet. According to Steve Rothenberg, a veteran performer and owner of Talk of the Town Entertainment in Rockville, Maryland, deadlifting a kid is against the rules. “The last thing you want is to lift them up and have them knock off your head,” he says.

4. Giant carrots will invite inappropriate behavior.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
As the 3-foot-long carrot proves, adults are easily the least mature guests at a child's Easter party.
lisafx/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Joseph’s warren of party bunnies usually come equipped with a 3-foot-long giant carrot as a prop. While children are amused by the oversized vegetable, the adults at the parties usually can’t help making observations. “Practically every visit, there’s always someone saying, ‘My, what a big carrot you have,’” he says.

On one occasion, Joseph attended a function at a retirement home. One of the women, who he estimated to be in her 80s, commented on his big feet in a lascivious manner. “She told me she was in room 37.”

5. Clothes make the bunny.

Easter bunny at the White House.
Every year, a well-dressed Easter bunny visits Washington, D.C. for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While “naked” (i.e., unclothed) bunnies remain popular, Ellison’s lineup also includes Mr. Bunny, a “classy lad with a top hat and vest,” and a Mrs. Bunny sporting a purple dress. Why would kids care if a bunny has sartorial sense? “Kids can probably better relate to a giant, furry character if it's dressed like a human,” Ellison says. “[And] we just thought the costumes looked cute.”

6. They can’t wear dark clothing underneath.

If a bunny wants to wear a black shirt under his or her fur, it stands to reason there wouldn’t be any issue: It's all hidden from sight. But Joseph insists that his cast stick with white apparel only. In addition to being cooler, it serves a practical function. “There’s always an opportunity to see a little something around the neckline or near the feet,” he says. Light clothing helps preserve the character.

7. They use an upholstery cleaner for their heads.

Most bunny costumes can be tossed in any regular washing machine, with the feet going in a larger commercial-use unit. But the heads, which are typically massive and unwieldy, get special attention. “You know those upholstery cleaners you can rent from a grocery store?” Joseph asks. “We use those. There’s a wand attachment to it for cleaning carpet.”

8. There’s a trick to keeping cool.

Costumes made of fake fur in the spring can be a recipe for disaster—or at least some lightheadedness. While none of the bunnies we profiled had experienced fainting spells, Ellison says that the trick to staying cool is actually adding a layer underneath the outfit. “Light, breathable clothing underneath the suit usually does the trick, but some people choose to wear an ice vest under the suit as well.”

Many bunnies also work in intervals: 45 to 50 minutes “on,” and 10 to 15 minutes in a private area to cool off and drink water. “Clients are usually understanding and sympathetic of the bunny and will allow even more breaks if necessary,” Ellison says.

9. Mints are essential.

Bunnies may favor carrots and grass, but their human operators need something other than that in order to deal with the humidity. Rothenberg says that his bunnies usually nibble on mints while working a crowd. “They’ll typically chew gum or have some kind of mint to keep their throat from drying out,” he says.

10. They use bunny handlers to prevent knockdowns.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
An Easter Bunny makes a young girl's day.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Any professional bunny knows that having an assistant watching their back is the best way to ensure an appearance goes smoothly. “Your vision is limited and you can’t really look to the left or right,” Rothenberg says. “Having an assistant prevents kids from running up behind you.”

11. They have damaged butts.

In order to ease apprehensive kids, Joseph advocates for his bunnies to squat near a child rather than bend over. “It gets them at a child’s level so they can touch and feel for themselves,” he says. “But a bunny that does a lot of squatting winds up needing their [costume] butts re-sewn. I’ve repaired a lot of them.” Joseph will also invite mothers to sit on the bunny’s lap so fearful children are more likely to approach. “You don’t want to prod the kid,” he says.

12. They’re not just for easter.

While bunny costume season is a fleeting few weeks, companies are happy to roll out their rabbits for other occasions. Once, Ellison sent out a bunny for a customer’s Alice in Wonderland-themed gathering. “The client wanted the White Rabbit, so we dressed up our bunny in a vest and top hat and gave him an over-sized pocket watch. It worked out great.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.

10 Secrets of Brewmasters

Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Stone Brewing

With roughly 7500 craft beer breweries in the United States—a number that continues to grow—it’s clear consumers like their ales and lagers. And as more of these breweries pop up in towns and cities every month, it’s up to brewmasters to constantly produce new beers to satisfy demanding (and evolving) palates, maintain a sterile workspace, and properly operate all the complex machinery that pumps out your favorite IPA. To find out what goes into owning and operating a brewery, Mental Floss spoke with a number of brewmasters about what their days entail. Here’s what they had to say about taste tests, oyster beer, and getting doused in hop sludge.

1. A lot of brewmasters started out as home brewers.

Stone Brewery equipment.
A brew kettle from Stone's Richmond, Virginia, location.
Stone Brewing

While brewmasters sometimes attend college to study chemistry or even specific brewing courses, a fair number get their start in their own homes. “When I started, I would say about 50 percent [were home brewers],” Tom Kehoe, co-owner of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says. This was back when there were only around 649 breweries in the country, according to Kehoe. That number has only grown with time, and now he says as many as 90 percent of current brewers experimented with home brewing before moving on to larger productions.

While home brewing can be a good start, Kehoe says that there’s a limit to how much you can learn in a garage setting. “The basic knowledge of how beer is made is exactly the same. However, good brewing practices need to be learned on site. The environment working in a brewery is a lot different than brewing at home.”

One example? Size. According to Jeremy Moynier, brewmaster of Stone Brewing in San Diego, California, people are surprised when they see the scale of some brewing operations. "A home brewer is used to making a few gallons," Moynier says. "We could be making a 250-barrel batch [at Stone]. Each barrel is 30 gallons."

2. Brewmasters use sound almost as much as taste to evaluate the brewing process.

Brewing equipment from Yards Brewing.
This is just a sample of the brewing equipment employed by Yards.
Yards Brewing

Breweries come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them implement a lot of machinery, stainless steel vats, pumps, and bottling lines to concoct their brews. It becomes a symphony of sorts, according Moynier. And if one instrument sounds off, he can tell.

"You use all of your senses, from taste to sound," he tells Mental Floss. "Breweries are noisy, and there are sounds you get attuned to. If something sounds wrong, you know there’s a problem somewhere. Your senses being in tune are important."

Once, Moynier heard an unusual squeaking noise in the factory. He discovered that the tank that held the crushed malt was backed up, which would eventually ruin the conveyor belts if no one noticed in time. Thankfully, Moynier picked up on that change in noise, and the problem was corrected before the machine required a more expensive repair.

3. Brewmasters are always trying novel flavors. Even oysters.

There’s no shortage of creativity among brewmasters, with breweries constantly experimenting with different flavor profiles, from tea to chocolate to fruit. "There are so many different styles, flavor, and aroma profiles you can hit," Moynier says. "We’re constantly learning about new ingredients.” One that impressed Moynier recently was an oyster stout, a style that was originally billed as a beer that simply paired well with oysters more than a century ago, but has since evolved to include actual oyster meat and stock in modern recipes. This one came from Liberty Station, one of Stone Brewing’s locations in San Diego. "It was pretty fascinating," he says. "They got a real briny, oyster thing going."

4. Sanitation is one of the most important parts of being a brewmaster.

A picture of Stone Brewing's beer equipment.
Stone's barrels hold 30 gallons of beer.
Stone Brewing

The stereotype of brewmasters sipping beer all day and hovering over batches is slightly misguided. According to John Trogner, co-owner with brother Chris of Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania, most of the job is making sure beer is made in clean conditions. “People usually think you’re sitting around all day dreaming up recipes and tasting beer,” Trogner says. "That’s a very small component. Physical cleaning is probably 80 percent of it. Sanitation is paramount. It’s like a chef keeping a kitchen clean. Workers spend most of their time scrubbing."

Just because the breweries are kept clean doesn't mean the brewmasters are quite as lucky. Depending on the valve and your luck that day, that could sometimes mean an unintentional beer shower for workers. "I’ve taken baths in yeast and beer sludge," Trogner says of his early days, explaining it's a hazard you face when you're opening the valves on the brew tanks.

5. Brewmasters know they're expected to bring beer to most gatherings.

A look at the Tröegs brewery.
Foeders are large wooden vats that age a beer to create a unique flavor profile. It's part of Tröegs's Splinter Cellar, and each foeder was custom made and shipped to the brewery.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

Like any other profession, brewmasters can sometimes be greeted with an expectation that their services and goods are free for friends and relatives to enjoy at gatherings and family events. "If it’s appropriate to bring beer, I will," Kehoe says. "And sometimes when it is not so appropriate. I have brought beer to a business networking breakfast and somehow it turned out to be a great icebreaker. I find that people are disappointed if I don’t have at least some beer at the ready."

6. The job can make you critical of other beers and even food.

Working to perfect beers all day can have an effect on how brewmasters regard other beer options. "I still love beer, but it changes the way you approach it," Moynier says. "You pick out a flaw, and it will bother you. It might ruin your enjoyment. But if you find a beer you really like, it can also make it more enjoyable."

A brewmaster doesn’t just develop a sense of what makes for a good beer; they’re also constantly thinking about what type of food pairs well with certain beers. "It definitely affects the way you taste things," Moynier says. "It’s made me a pickier eater. You’ll think about how food will pair with beer sometimes, where you wouldn’t necessarily think about that before. It made me appreciate how things go together."

7. Brewmasters know names and logos can make or break a beer.

Tröegs Independent Brewing Mad Elf beer is pictured
Tröegs's Mad Elf is one of the most recognizable beers around the holidays.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

With so many beer options, it’s imperative for brewmasters to use marketing as a way of setting up a consumer’s palate before they sample anything. For Tröegs's Haze Charmer, which offers pineapple and grapefruit notes, the brewery went to great lengths to describe how the "haze" of the recipe carries hop oil into the mouth.

"Haze Charmer emerges from a soft, swirling cloud of oats and unmalted wheat. Vigorous dry-hopping adds a second phase of haze, propping up the oils of Citrus and El Dorado," the website description of the beer reads.

"The name is a critical component," Trogner says. "Consumers are getting to know it before they try it."

The right—or wrong—name and design can make all the difference. Trogner promoted a cherry, honey, and chocolate ale around the holidays and called it Mad Elf, with bottles and packaging decked out in cartoon images of a tipsy elf enjoying one too many. It's become a perennial hit.

"It’s a celebration of the holidays," Trogner says. "Mad Elf is kind of part of social webbing, which is nice to hear. Grandmothers come in and buy five or six cases for family coming over for the holidays."

Similar beers with different branding didn't fare as well. "We’ve done beers like Mad Elf out of season and it didn’t have near the fervor or excitement," he says.

8. A brewmaster associates a beer’s personality with color.

Yards Pale Ale is pictured.
Yards's Philadelphia Pale Ale is lighter in color and far more citrusy than an amber lager.
Yards Brewing

According to Kehoe, light and dark beers each give off a distinctive personality trait depending on their color, which comes from the grains used. "To me, the color of the beer is the mood of the beer," he says. "Light color is fluid and exciting; darker [is] slower and more filling and relaxing." Amber is more middle-of-the-road and more versatile. "[It] can be whatever personality that you want to project in the moment."

9. Smells are a big inspiration for new beers.

Don’t think brewmasters develop recipes based just on tasting other beers; it’s more of a multi-sensory experience. Trogner says that most beer ideas come from everyday life. “We’re not sitting around and looking at other types of beer,” he says. “It’s more about an experience, like having an amazing dish at a restaurant. Or you might be hiking and smell something floral in the air, like pine.”

10. Yes, brewmasters sometimes drink early in the morning.

While downing beer is probably not as common an occurrence as you might think, brewmasters are still expected to sample their wares before it goes out for distribution. According to Moynier, those executive samples can happen at odd times of the day depending on schedules.

"Tastings can happen at six in the morning," he says. "We also have structured tasting and daily taste panels to approve beer about to be packaged. Three times a week we have a brewmaster taste panel where we focus on new beers we’re trying out for release or changes to recipes. There’s an executive panel once a month with [Stone's founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner]."

Or, as Kehoe puts it, “I don’t drink all day, but I do drink every day.”

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