As a marketer, it’s a little frightening to realize how much Americans actually like to be scared. Many even consider it one of their main sources of entertainment. I’m not just talking about moviegoers who enjoy a good horror flick or the rabid fans of FX network’s “American Horror Story.”
Now that Halloween is approaching, I’m also talking about haunted houses, which have become increasingly realistic and interactive over the years. While I’ll always remain loyal to Disneyland’s elegant and witty Haunted Mansion, the person looking for his hair to stand on end would probably appreciate the house that features live actors—most of whom provide an element of surprise by jumping out to (pretend) grab you at every turn.
While hiring live actors isn’t new—Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., which transforms into Knott’s Scary Farm for Halloween, has been employing actors to serve as monsters for more than 40 years—what is new is the actors’ interaction with the guests (they are much more in your face) and the overall experience itself.
“Haunted attractions are being housed in more authentic ‘haunted’ destinations like old asylums and factories,” says Jodi Bettencourt, VP, Travel Channel Digital. “We’re also seeing more advanced special effects and use of technology.”
For the second year in a row, TravelChannel.com editors have enlisted a panel of experts to help determine the top 10 Halloween attractions of the year. These experts include Zak Bagans (lead investigator for “Ghost Adventures”), Jeff Belanger (author, TV personality and paranormal expert), Larry Kirchner (owner, HauntWorld.com, Hauntworld Magazine and Halloween Productions) and Aaron Sagers (geek culture and paranormal pop-culture expert).
“We asked our panel of experts to select attractions based on innovation, creative design, popularity and level of scariness,” explains Bettencourt.
Hmmm. After reviewing the list of “Travel’s Best Halloween Attractions 2014,” I wondered which of the marketers behind the haunts used the best scare tactics to lure visitors to their venues? Using a panel of one (myself), I visited each of the websites, researched publicity materials and watched TV commercials where available to determine who had the most frightening (and therefore most…appealing?!) marketing tricks of the Halloween season.
So here are my Top 5 of the Travel Channel’s top 10:
Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor—Long Beach, Calif.: No TV commercial, but great featurettes on their website of each of the main characters or “spirits” who inhabit the ship. From The Captain of the Dark Harbor to the Voodoo Princess, the videos will have you ready for a night of chills.
13th Floor Haunted House—Denver, Colo., and Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights—Orlando, Fla.: These venues’ TV commercials are so well-done and tell such great, scary stories, they’re like scenes out of movies. They did make me wonder if the real deals could actually be as horrifying. But that’s okay. I’m going to take their word for it!
Bennett’s Curse—Jessup, Md.: While this venue’s TV commercial does not have the same production values as some of the fancier spots mentioned above, there is something extremely scary about the piece. The theme of the haunt is medieval, so they can get away with a commercial that is less sophisticated and very raw. While it’s basically a bunch of fast clips through a dungeon of monsters and madmen with dramatic music playing, it’s effective.
ScareHouse—Pittsburgh, Pa: Scarehouse uses video very effectively on its website, YouTube and television. On its website, there are short pieces about each of its three main attractions. I think “Creepo’s Christmas in 3D” is about the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen and yet I am intrigued to see more. (I can’t believe I said that!) On YouTube I found a longer featurette narrated by their art director, Macabre Noir, who goes into some depth about the authenticity of the sets, props, and décor for their haunts. Quite frankly, she may give away too much of the “magic,” but she admits that they like to appeal to the nerds, and nerds do love to hear the details. And finally, they have run TV commercials in past years that are every bit as slick and scary as the 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver.
In summary, I found that the haunted houses with the most effective marketing campaigns had one strategy in common: They all used storytelling as their main form of communication. Which makes perfect sense. After all, what has ever scared us more than the ghost stories we first heard around a campfire as children? Maybe we’ve just been trying to recapture that thrill ever since.