Will haunted attractions be a Halloween tradition that survives the apocalypse?
The mention of real haunted houses dates back to First Century A.D., when Roman author and politician, Pliny the Elder, wrote a letter about a man haunting his house in Athens, ever since then, people have been telling stories of ghosts and haunted houses. That’s its own topic for another day. This post is about haunted attractions, live entertainment inspired by haunted places and things.
In 1802, Madame Marie Tussaud opened the first wax exhibit, which took the public by storm, depicting gruesome decapitations of public figures such as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Her permanent museum on Baker Street in London featured what she called the Chamber of Horrors, wax figures of notorious murderers and villains. This is thought to be the very first horror attraction. Sadly, Tussaud’s closed in 2016.
Over 100 years after Tussaud’s, the first-ever electrified haunted attraction ever recorded was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House, at the Edwardian Fair in 1915, as part of the steam collection, in what would become known as dark rides, moving vehicles, trains, and boats that took passengers through scenes, like a spooky house or the tunnel of love. It didn’t take long before attractions featuring dark rides popped up in carnivals, world fairs, and exhibitions worldwide.
In 1969, Walt Disney opened The Haunted Mansion featuring groundbreaking technology and audio-animatronic ghosts. This is when commercialized haunted attractions were thought to have become a cultural mainstream. The idea was born in 1951 between Walt Disney and his Imagineers, when early illustrations created by the Legendary Harper Goff, of the proposed park featuring a church, a graveyard, and a “run-down manor perched high on a hill that towered over main street”, but Walt didn’t like the idea of a rundown house in the middle of his brand new park. It’s said that after a visit to the Winchester House in San Jose, CA, with its creepy deadends and stairs leading to nowhere, Walt was inspired to fashion the mansion in a similar way. It originally was going to be a walkthrough too, but Walt and the team decided on making it a dark ride that would carry passengers through their animated “Museum of the Weird” and christened their vehicles “doom buggies.” During the planning years, The Haunted Mansion grew darker and stranger, and took on several iterations, not to mention several years to build. Sadly, Disney died in December of 1966 and never even had the opportunity to experience one of his most popular creations.
Since The Haunted Mansion’s opening in the late 60s, there have been hundreds of commercialized haunted houses or carnival dark rides, too numerous to count. Haunts popped up in abandoned buildings and farmhouses across the USA, People capitalized on both rumored and actual haunted places, offering tours, mazes, hayrides, and festivals in honor of legendary ghosts and American haunts. According to AmericaHaunts.Com, there was even a book written on the subject authored by Jim Gould and Tom Hilligoss, who detailed makeup FX, scene ideas, and marketing strategies. Over 20,000 copies were sold and Gould and Hilligoss became known as the first Haunted House experts. They would go on to create the Haunted House Company, one of the first outfits to sell FX, masks, lighting, costumes, etc.
After Hollywood’s horror boon during the 1970s and 1980s, horror movies became more mainstream and an entire industry of itself. Bigger theme parks found a way to offset seasonal attendance by offering haunted mazes and attractions. In 1973, Knott’s Berry Farm turned part of its fairgrounds into Knott’s Scary Farm. Today it boasts 160 acres featuring haunted mazes, spooky characters, scary rides, and scare zones. Universal Studios would cash in on the craze during the1990s, using its extensive film history with classic monster films and newer horror franchises as inspiration for haunted mazes and attractions. Soon after, all haunts everywhere featured popular characters from horror books, movies, and television. These days, I’ve heard there are something like over 4000 amateur-made, professional, or commercialized haunts every Halloween.
No people, no haunted attractions. We’ll all become ghosts. Every place will become haunted. Simple as that.