Skip to main content
In depth

Haunted Attractions: How to Tell a Scary Story – Making Nightmares Come True in the UK, US and Asia


With the massive growth in Halloween in the UK and the Asian market still booming, we asked experts in the field of frightening about the importance of storytelling and cultural differences in haunted attractions. 

So how do you make nightmares come true for audiences worldwide? Is it better to reference classic horror films or create your own narrative?  What role do special effects play compared to live actors?  Is there a universal scare formula?  What’s happening in the Asian market?  Nick Farmer (Farmer Attraction Development), Brad Billington (Mirage Entertainment) and Quan Gan (Darklight: Precision Lighting System) tell tales to make your flesh creep!  You have been warned……

Related: Haunted Attractions: The ScareHouse’s Scott Simmons – “We Love Zombies!”

nick farmer farmer attractions development

Nick Farmer, founder of UK based Farmer Attraction Development, conceives, invents and creates new attractions and immersive experiences for theme parks and visitor attractions.   His work can be found in all of Merlin Entertainments' Dungeon Attractions.  We asked Nick how important story telling is in scare attractions.

blackpool tower dungeonsPure Halloween attractions tend to have a sequence of scenes with some kind of thread holding them together, with a jump scares in each.  The story line is generally nothing more than ‘The Haunted Hotel’ or ‘The Asylum’.  This is sufficient to give each room a general decorative theme.  Outside of Halloween, scary attractions need a bit more context to hold them together, especially if they are stand-alone attractions not linked to theme parks.   Halloween visitors accept the simple sequence of jump scares at that time of year, but the appeal only lasts a week or two.

Merlin’s Dungeons are a great example of scary fun being developed into year-round stand-alone attractions.  However, this only works because of the stories they tell.  Every show and every story told in the Dungeons is based on fact.  The stories might be hammed up a little with a touch of Blackadder type humour, but essentially they are true.  In recent years the various Dungeons have installed new shows based on Bloody Mary Tudor, Jack the Ripper, the long drop at Newgate Gaol, the Lancaster Pendle Witch Trials, the execution of Dick Turpin, the Civil War and so on.  These are great stories, and all of them can be told with more than an edge of fear but also a touch of fun.

Without these true stories the Dungeons would lose their heart and soul.  Each of the seven Dungeons has their shows very carefully researched to find local history which can be given the Dungeon treatment.  Sadly in any local area throughout Europe it’s not too hard to find dreadful things that men did to their fellow citizens.  And just like today, it’s generally the men who did the evil deeds, although you wouldn’t want to cross Bloody Mary.

scary pirate show mirage entertainment

Brad Billington, co-founder and CEO of live event specialists Mirage Entertainment, brings us up to date with his current haunted attractions, both in Asia and closer to home, and looks at scare attractions from the point of view of a live entertainment producer.

We spoke to you last year about the Horrorwood Haunted Theater in Taiwan.  In your comments you said that you were looking to develop even bigger and maybe mobile haunted attractions over there.  Can you update us?

We are working on this project and it will be our own travelling live action haunted event based on real stories from around the world.  This will be the first of its kind in that it will travel from place to place… actual artefacts and pieces from the haunted locations will be included in the show.  In test marketing and even working on the project, we have had some very interesting “happenings” that have really raised the hairs on our neck… you know, the kind when you walk into a room and feel like there is something there.  It is just a feeling that some of our people who have been working on the project have got when they are either holding certain object or even mention names.  This new type of attraction really plays on your mind.  This project is really taking on a life of its own… ha ha. 

What unusual haunted projects you have been involved with this year? 

One such project that we just finished is sort of out of the norm for Halloween… is our new Pirate’s Treasure Maze that we did for SeaWorld in San Diego, CA.  It is a maze for the little kids to go though that coincides with a 3D movie at the park… it is called “The Search for Cap’t Lucky’s Treasure”.  Some of the best project, are not always some of the biggest projects that you work on… this is just one of those little projects that turned out to be one of our most fun pirate showwe have had in a while.  It is just… cute in every way.  The kids love it and the parents can’t say enough nice things about it.  The maze has live scenes from the movie and it brings the 3D movie experience to life.  We have a crab pit scene, a bird poop scene, a bee hive scene and some other nasty “Home Alone” type kids scenes recreated from the movie that are fun for the kids in their search for Cap’t Lucky’s Treasure.  Although it’s not scary… we still have quite a few little ones that are startled in a fun way and some even have to take the “Chicken Out” path to make it through.

And how is your attractions business doing?

We're doing well in Asia… with several new attractions in negotiations for both existing parks and new upcoming parks as well. Our attractions business has really taken off. 

Do you have any top tips in terms of how haunted attractions compare with other live events? 

Very different in expectations… people expect a totally different experience with a haunted attraction vs a live show.  Mostly just in what people expect their emotions will be… bracing for scary experience is nothing like what a live acrobat show or theatrical production would or should be.  We hope to combine this experience with our new project that will be out later next year. 

Haunted attractions combine elements of high tech as well as live cast members.  What kind of combination of technology vs human works best for scares? 

We are working with a new technology called MIST… this new technology will enable us to do things never before or even thought of in live shows… let alone what we can do with it for a haunted attraction.  Combining live cast members is one aspect, but when your audience becomes the show… you have something that will be very unique to say the least.

We had a comment last year from Jason Karl, a UK haunted attraction operator, that UK audiences tend to like a coherent story with their haunted attractions, whereas in the US perhaps there are more discreet references to elements of iconic horror films.  We talk a lot about storytelling in theming attractions generally, but how important is storytelling in the haunted attraction?

We think it is very important! Story telling in our new project will be everything… the attraction is not your typical walk through… much deeper into the psyche is what we are shooting for.  Utilizing MIST technology along with other special effects with real life stories and sprinkle in authentic set pieces from the actual scene… I think we will have to have our guests sign a release when they buy our tickets!

shanghai scary clown

Quan Gan founded the Shanghai Nightmare in 2009 and revisited the experience in 2010, but in the face of Chinese government bureaucracy has put the role of operator on hold in favour of being a specialist lighting supplier.  We asked Quan about his experiences in the Chinese fright mhalloween scary nursearket.

What works in a Chinese haunted attraction? 

There are a few things that come into play: what people want, versus what content is allowed.   Since China is a censored nation, the content of the attraction needs to promote a "harmonious society" – meaning that the Government frown upon gore and violence and worship of the occult.  Whilst government officials, as individuals, may enjoy what goes on in a typical American haunted house, when they are working, they may have to be more conservative in their tastes.

So when we produced our haunted house, our spin on it was that this was a thrilling event that promotes the togetherness of friends, similar to friends going to a theme park with roller coasters – you get excited and scared and entertained.  In Chinese, we didn't even call ourselves a "haunted house" but a "thrilling and mysterious house".  The word "haunted" is the same as "ghost" or "monster", and that wouldn't necessarily have looked good on paper when we asked for government permission.

In Shanghai, the most westernized city of mainland China, I don't see a huge difference between what Chinese people like versus foreigners.  Our audience generally was already tuned in to American pop culture (at least since the 90s).

For our haunt, we did throw in a few Asian elements – for example a girl with long hair in a white night gown, similar to that of the ring.  We have a girl who hides inside a TV set that's playing a scary movie and then suddenly pops out from the screen when the guests come through that room.

One of my best scares, which is both psychological and startling, I always put at the beginning of the show to give you full impact.  There’s a long hallway with hanging lights.  As you enter, a girl crawls into the scene from the far distance and slowly stands up and walks towards the guests.  Suddenly the lights sequentially shut off, onegirl zombie shanghai by one and the hall gets swallowed by the darkness.  After a brief moment of pure darkness, suddenly a flash of blue light reveals the screaming girl RIGHT in front of the guests =)

What future do you see for haunted attractions in China?

It's tough to say what the trend will be of independently operated haunts, they seem to come and go.  Leasing property is very expensive in Shanghai.  Halloween isn't an established holiday, and so it takes quite a bit of marketing effort to get people to go to a haunted attraction.  A haunt would have to open up in the middle of the city where public transit is convenient – which makes the lease super expensive.   It's not like in the US where people would drive up to an hour or more to go see a haunted house.  My best bet is that Halloween is going to be taken up by some of the local theme parks which are on the outskirts of the city.  People will go to the theme parks anyway and the Halloween theme will just be an added bonus.  Perhaps after a few years as the productions get larger and larger, like Ocean Park in Hong Kong, people will actually go that far out just to see the Halloween event.

Are you going to revisit Shanghai Nightmare next year?  What would your advice be to anyone thinking of entering this very challenging market?  Is it best to leave it to the theme parks?

Shanghai Nightmare is dormant at least for this year and probably next year as well, since our new business really needs more nurturing at this point.  I may be biased but I feel like we set a pretty high bar for what a good Halloween haunted house needs to be in Shanghai, so if someone else came in they would need to top us or else there wouldn't be much hype.  When we came in, we really were the first to put in so many never-seen-before (at least in China) special effects.  There was no major event happening around Sept/Oct in 2009… so our event became viral and spread across the entire country.   There's a Chinese equivalent to, called  When we were open, our rating was about 4.5 out of 5.  So as far as plans for the next Shanghai Nightmare go, unless we can get 4s and 5s from customers by wowing them with something really amazing, I'd rather not do it again.

As for our spin-off venture, we created Darklight: Precision Lighting System, which is compact LED lighting for dark attractions, theme parks, museums, science centers, etc.  So we're still very much involved in the haunted house industry, only now we're vendors instead of haunt owners.  Our business is doing well and we're also expanding into general themed entertainment such as the large theme parks.  This business has also given us the opportunity to visit haunted houses across the US, which is a luxury that most haunted house owners cannot afford during the Halloween season because they’re too busy.   It’s a dream (or nightmare =) ) come true for us. 

vortex tunnel scary

Search for something

More from this author

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update