Darkitecture and Disorientation
The psychology behind the scare at the Missoula Haunted House
Every September, Richard Davenport walks into an empty 7,000 square foot box with an idea, a floor plan and maybe some leftover skeletons from last year.
In one month, Davenport and his production company, Roothead Studios, turn that box into the Missoula Haunted House at 1101 South Ave. W. at the corner of Russel and Brooks. Last year, the many hours spent in the warehouse resulted in a creepy sideshow. This year Roothead Studios created Escape From Hell.
Davenport’s crew starts with a floor plan and a few pre-fabricated art pieces from the studio (like skeletons stuck to flypaper or pieces of a blood fountain). Then, crew members get the walls up, mostly made up of pallets from a local hot tub store.
Once the walls are in, the crew can start on the lighting, sound and decor. It’s a long process: Davenport often spends late nights in the warehouse, going home to sleep for a few hours before coming back to continue the construction. The night before opening, he stayed working in the warehouse until 6:30 a.m.
It’s logistically challenging and physically exhausting. But, the most subtle and important challenge the designers face is the psychology of the scare.
“It’s not like herding cats, per se; it’s more like herding terrified cats,” says Davenport. “You have to think about that fight-or-flight lizard brain thing and just place lights and little set pieces that will basically trigger the response that you’re looking for.”
Davenport and his crew must try to predict what a few thousand scared people will do in tight, confusing spaces. As he puts it, it’s about finding that fine balance between fear and crowd control.
Americans spend between $300 million and $500 million on haunted attraction tickets each season, according to the Haunted House Association. In 2016, over 4,000 attractions in the U.S. charged admission.
To be so successful in such a large market, a haunted attraction needs to be truly scary without going overboard or jeopardizing safety.
Haunted attractions use a variety of psychological tricks to control the crowd. Short sightlines let scenes reset while visitors move through the house just feet away. Impossibly dark, tactile-only areas force the “hauntees” to slow down when moving through an area they can’t see, keeping them from catching the group in front.
Redirection is a popular trick; scenes in the haunt force people’s attention to a spectacular set piece, like Davenport’s blood fountain.
“The way that I like to orchestrate the scares is kind of like a ‘Look over here!’ and then a scare from another direction so they’re not expecting it,” he says. “That way, you don’t know where everything is coming from and how it’s gonna get ya, so every corner becomes pretty terrifying.”
Twists and turns in the floor plan ensure that hauntees don’t know where they are. Dark hallways and strobe lights disorient them further. This creates confusion and a “lack of legibility” for the situation, increasing the terror without any acting or jump scares.
Davenport and Roothead Studios use massive rolls of fireproof black plastic to achieve the darkness they need for this effect. The plastic, which comes in 10-by-100-foot rolls, is completely lightproof. Once all the walls are up, the team spends hours stapling the plastic to the entire build, obscuring the warehouse lights and ceiling.
“Darkitecture,” a term coined by expert Delaware-based haunter Phil Miller, is the use of subtle, terror-inducing architecture tricks.
Where architecture strives to make people feel comfortable, Darkitecture achieves the opposite. Missoula Haunted House’s collapsed walls, cramped crawl spaces, and strange turns all contribute to a feeling of uneasiness.
Haunts rely on three pillars of terror-inducing success: scare, story and spectacle. The story, a Descent into Hell, is supported by the third pillar of attraction: spectacle. This year’s spectacle is provided by several large set pieces.
“We’re really trying to deliver a bang for your buck,” says Davenport on a tour around the haunt-in-progress. “We’re standing next to a 40 foot river. It’s 20 inches deep, and you ride a ferry boat down. So you get on the River Styx, and that’s how you enter into Hell this year.”
As hauntees contemplate their fates, a boat pilot lists the accommodations for the ride before delivering victims into Hell.
“Welcome to Hell. I’ll be your captain today. Our in-flight entertainment is the sound of cats being tortured. Our in-flight meal will be sour milk and maggots. If you have any questions, comments or concerns, keep them to yourself.”
The next spectacle is a (nearly) life-sized model of a P40 Warhawk, a World War II bomber plane, crashed right into the warehouse. It’s Davenport’s pet project and his so-called “baby.”
But spectacles like these present another psychological challenge. Haunters need to know how much detail the audience will notice, or need, to make the spectacles scary.
Phil Miller, an expert and full-time haunter, told CNN that making the haunt as detailed as possible sells the experience to the audience.
Davenport and his crew don’t have that kind of time. They aren’t using pre-built houses or structures. They only have a month to build the entire set. They must find the exact right balance between detail and time-wasting.
“It is a trick,” says Davenport. “When is it too much detail, and it’s a law of diminishing returns, you know?”
He adds that the designers want to wow the audience with their pieces but know the audience may be too blinded by fear to appreciate the work they put in. There simply isn’t enough time to put detail into something no one will notice.
The solution: layering the detail. Rather than fixating on a specific area of the haunt, building each room one at a time, the designers add layers of equally spread detail over the month. This ensures places won’t be forgotten or over-decorated.
Equally important to the spectacles and scenery are the actors. They advance the story and provide much of the scare factor.
Three-year actor and haunt builder Bradley Lykins loves the art of the scare.
“I just like to scare people,” says Lykins. “It’s fun. The best ones are the big tough guys that come in acting all macho in front of their girlfriends, then you make them squeal.”
Lykins has several roles throughout the haunt. He must be able to travel from place to place without being seen by the hauntees. Being spotted could mess up the story and take the terrified people out of the scene they’re in, and back to reality.
To combat this, the actors use the “negative space” to navigate the twists and turns. Davenport and crew build secondary hallways, secret doors, and tiny rooms for the actors.
These hallways, says Davenport, are the most important parts of the haunt. Without them, it wouldn’t work.
They negative space gets people where they need to go quickly and safely.
Well-designed negative space makes Lykin’s haunting easier.
“This time last year, I was running in between scares through the actual haunted house,” he says. “This year, they made it to where I can literally get to pretty much anywhere from my spot.”
Paying guests want the scare to be as long as possible, so hiding the negative space is important to make it seem as though the twists and turns are filling the entire warehouse.
To do this, the haunt is designed so that the hauntees never circumnavigate the un-haunted space, and therefore never realize it’s there.
Davenport and his crew were ready just in time for the opening of the Missoula Haunted House last weekend, with crew members adding final touches, adjusting lights and walking through with push brooms to clean construction debris just fifteen minutes before opening.
As the clock ticked down on opening night, actors rushed to their spots. As Davenport switched the house lights off, sending a howl up through the twists and turns. All the actors joined in, signalling they were ready and in place.
About 130 hauntees came through the house on opening night, which was Friday, Oct. 11, and there was already a line of about 10 people before opening the next day.
“We got it done, and pulled it off. I think people enjoyed it, it was a good night,” says Davenport. But the work isn’t done. The crew will add, adjust and repair sets and aspects as the month wears on, once they see how people behave in the haunt.
On Saturday night, the parking lot filled with screams and the revving of chainsaws as hauntees were chased back to their cars. For most, the jumpscares were the most terrifying part.
But for Tony Woodward, one of Saturday night’s first hauntees, the scariest parts were in the slower moments.
“You know, we’ve never had to crawl before,” said Woodward. “For me, the most effective things are the simple, new things that scare everybody. It’s definitely one of the most scary experiences I’ve had in Missoula for a long time.”
Woodward has been to the Missoula Haunted House before, and says it’s getting better and better. He appreciates the new features this year — the boat, the crawling.
“They make it cool and scary at the same time.”
First-time hauntee Mikenly Deschamps enjoyed her first haunted attraction experience.
“I would give it a 9 out of 10,” she says. The haunt only misses 10 out of 10 for Deschamps because she was too scared. But, she does say that for people who like being scared, it was probably a 10 out of 10.
Hauntee Dylan Tift was less scared, but he did enjoy the experience.
“I really liked the story,” he said. “The theme was nice and going across the river in the beginning was a good touch.”
A regular ticket to the Missoula Haunted House costs $15.
Every year, Roothead Studios choose a beneficiary from the haunt. This year, the Missoula Special Olympics team will be the beneficiary.