Jump scares in haunted house attractions have no effect on me.
I’m not saying this to imply that I have nerves of steel. If there’s a jump scare in a movie, there’s a 99% chance that I’ll jump out of my seat. If I’m awake when the alarm clock goes off, I flinch. I jump at the doorbell even when I hear the person walking up to the door, though at least I don’t let out a yelp. I’m an easily startled guy.
But in a haunted house, with actors constantly leaping out at you with the specific intent of making you jump…I don’t. I LOVE haunted houses, but I’m not tense or scared when I walk through them; I’m mostly just going “Ooooh—that’s cool!” and admiring the artistry.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live a convenient distance from some of the most highly regarded attractions. The houses at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights are fantastic, though the lines are the scariest part (the days when you could get through all of them in one night through careful planning and strategy are over).
Netherworld in Atlanta is like going through all of the Universal houses back to back—it’s gigantic and there’s absolutely no wasted space. The queue to get in is so impressive that I didn’t realize the actual haunted house part hadn’t started yet. There is misdirection galore. Yet with these top-notch attractions, I’m impressed but not scared.
Scream-a-Geddon near Tampa, Florida feels like you’re going to meet the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family before you even finish the drive. One of the houses is a prison-themed attraction where you can, by wearing a glow-in-the-dark necklace, give the actors permission to touch you. (You can withdraw consent at any time by removing the necklace.) I figured they might brush up against you every once in a while, but no—my wife and I were separated from each other within 30 seconds, and it became a solo nightmare, with actors constantly grabbing you, pushing you through the rooms, aggressively getting in your face, shoving you down into a dentist chair, locking you in a jail cell, etc. Way more intense than the average haunted house, but still, for me, not scary.
Nope, the scariest haunted house was in New England about twenty years ago, run by high school students.
My wife and I had taken a Halloween vacation up there. One day in Salem (which we assumed would have awesome haunted houses), one day at Spooky World, and one day hitting what other attractions we could find. Spooky World had several houses, plus a hayride and a magic show, and we figured it would take up most of a day.
But the fire marshal had shut down all but one of the houses. Did we say:
- a) “Well, it’s good to know that our safety is the #1 priority.”
- b) “Whaaaaat??? That sucks!!! We hate you, fire marshal!!!”
The answer is obvious, and it’s the reason the mayor in Jaws kept the beach open. We didn’t care about the risk of a flash fire, we cared that our fun had been ruined. So we found ourselves with a lot of extra time, and decided to check out a haunted house at a high school. This was pre-GPS, so finding the school was a nightmare by itself, but we eventually arrived there and went through the haunt.
Not too impressive. Lots of dark hallways without a lot going on. The actors weren’t great.
But there are certain—not rules, but traditions in a haunted house. You’re most often walking down a hallway. If you’re in a room, there’s still a clearly defined path to follow. Sure, there are dark mazes or mirrored walls to get you lost, but there’s still a path, even if you’re going down the wrong one.
So, we walked through a dark hallway, turned a corner, and stepped into a huge, wide-open room, taking up much of the gymnasium.
Several actors were standing there in Scream masks and cloaks.
They all turned to look at us. And then started slowly walking toward us.
I’m not scared of high school students in Scream costumes. But suddenly being in a wide-open room, when I was conditioned to expect narrow hallways, was completely disorienting, and we weren’t sure where we were supposed to go from there! We had several actors moving toward us and no defined path to escape!
It turned out that all you had to do was walk across the room and the next hallway was easy to find. But for a few seconds, this haunted house had successfully freaked me out.
There’s no way the kids said “We’re going to mess with their preconceived notions of how a haunted house should work, thus creating a sense of unease.” It was unquestionably a time/budget thing. Unintentional or not, by defying expectations, they created the scariest moment I’d ever encountered in a haunted house.
Fun fact: This also works for writers.