When workers began to renovate the historic Creston Opera House 12 years ago, Dede Forrest knew she had to take advantage of the window of opportunity to build a haunted house.
“I have been wanting to do this ever since we gutted the building,” Forrest said last week as she conducted a tour through a maze of plywood walls. Forrest is a member of the Creston Booster Club, which owns the building. She noted that this is the first year that the renovated first floor will have electricity to power the lights and attractions needed for a haunted house.
The Haunted House Association’s website says that “Haunted houses have been making America scream for nearly 40 years,” and that haunted houses are a 100 percent American form of entertainment. The website also reports that more than 2,000 haunted attractions in the United States will charge admission this year.
Larry Kirchner, president of the association, says that haunted attractions get scarier and more popular each year, in part because over-the-top special effects in movies and video games leave thrill-seekers wanting to be part of the action.
“The popularity in haunted houses has grown because people want more interactive entertainment,” Kirchner said. “They’re live, they’re interactive and they are in-your-face. The best seat at a Broadway play is in the front row, but that still doesn’t put you in the action. When you are in a haunted house you are a participant.”
This is the seventh year that Alex Nerad, executive director of the Egyptian Theatre, has organized and supervised the setup of Amenti, the DeKalb theater’s annual haunted house.
“The expectations are getting so much higher,” he said.
Almost every year, Amenti increases its attendance, Nerad said. In 2011, about 3,200 people visited the haunted attraction. He credits the increase to the attention the theater’s staff and volunteers dedicate to making the scary scenes, or “frights,” different each year.
“We have done it enough years that we rotate some rooms in and out,” Nerad said. Some of the most popular rooms that get moved around the theater are the satanic Santa, the madman room and a jail cell.
Like the Haunted Opera House in Creston, the Amenti Haunted House consists of a maze of plywood walls that lead visitors from fright to fright. The Amenti’s maze takes visitors from the lobby to the stage, the balcony and the auditorium. Volunteers construct stairs and risers that elevate the maze above the seats in the auditorium.
“Most people don’t know where they are, even people who have performed here or are volunteers here,” Nerad said. “People tell me they have a real hard time knowing where they are at.”
For this year, at least, the Creston Boosters haven’t designed any themes for the rooms in their haunted house. The first few rooms of the Amenti tour usually have an Egyptian theme, but the layout of the haunted house and the variety of rooms changes each year. Nerad and the volunteers get feedback from attendees and actors to judge the success of a particular room.
“We try to focus on some of the fears that people have,” Nerad said. Some of the common fright themes are clowns, zombies, monsters and mental asylums. A new addition to this year’s haunted tour will be an evil dentist, complete with a dentist chair that was loaned to the theater.
Nerad said that the trend in the haunted house industry is to appeal to as many senses as possible.
“For some people, just hearing the clown music and not even seeing the clown frightens them,” he said. The theater started to add odors to certain frights last year, such as the smell of cotton candy in the clown room.
Nerad estimates that each year 200 people chicken out and leave through an emergency exit before the end of the tour.
“The haunted house industry as a whole says you don’t want to terrorize people,” Nerad said, adding that people who get too frightened might not return in later years.
“It’s not just about scaring people – it’s entertainment,” he said. “I hope that if you don’t get scared you at least had a good time.”