Haunted houses reveal tricks of the trade

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Hundreds of homicidal zombies, grim reapers and chain saw-wielding maniacs are gearing up for a very busy weekend.

Utah's haunted houses expect packed houses this Halloween, but how much work, planning and thought actually goes into scaring Utahns?

When I asked haunted house operators to tell me what seems to effectively scare people, they thought it would be a good idea to show me instead.

"Great idea," I said, sarcastically.

The first person to make me jump was Nightmare Mansion actor Mitchell Huberd. He admits he likes to see big guys like me jump more than any other person.

"When somebody comes around, it's that adrenaline like, ‘I'm getting ready, I'm getting ready.' And when you pop out and scare them and just see that little face that they make, it's just the best thing in the world," Huberd says.

But frightening people isn't as easy as you might think, and haunted house operators need to find new ways to stand out. So, they study up on movies and even go to national haunted house conventions to do what you might call "fear research."

"Our owners, I know, go to probably three to four conventions every single year," says Whitney Duhaime, cast director at Nightmare on 13th.

Duhaime says technology has vastly improved in the fear business. Sensor pads and motion detectors can set of their animatronics a lot better than a guy behind a wall pulling a rope.

But she says some of the common skits you used to see in a haunted house don't really work anymore.

"You can only see somebody put into a meat grinder so many times until it kind of just isn't all that entertaining anymore," Duhaime explains.

Interestingly, what scares people in other parts of the country might not scare people in the Beehive State.

Duhaime says that houses in the Midwest show a lot of fake body parts and gore, but gore doesn't really get to people here. Nightmare Mansion co-owner James Bernard agrees.

"Our movies and our video games that the kids see are so graphic and so violent that graphic violence doesn't scare them anymore," Bernard says.

Instead, he says simple things are still very effective. Chain saws are a must. Clowns have to be there. And you can never go wrong with just darkness.

"It's not just that, but someone is on the other side of the darkness [growling] and going, ‘Come to me.' And then someone gets you from behind," Bernard explains.

If you want to give the people who come to your door a jolt, Bernard says it's actually pretty cheap and easy to do. Just replace your porch light with a red bulb, get a couple tarps to hide behind, attach a stuffed sleeping bag to a pulley system to make it look like it's moving, and you've got it made.

Other "fright technicians" say fog machines help, and they're less expensive than you may think.

"Just know that not as many kids will come next year," Bernard warns.

How serious is he about scaring people? Well, to put it bluntly, he gives a bonus to any of his employees who make a customer lose control of their bladder.

No. I'm not kidding. His chain saw guy gets a bonus every night.

E-mail: pnelson@ksl.com


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