What Rod Serling was always going on about

Boo!How many corndogs is too many?

Do you think that they’ll ever clone veloci-raptors, and that they’ll be smart enough to work a doorknob?

From time to time the pipeline deposits a question for me that warrants extra attention here. Neither of these is one of those. But this, now …

How do you scare someone?

What a question! And seeing as how the first 2009 4H haunted house planning session is coming up very soon, it’s a topic worth looking at.

The way I see it, an authentic scare falls into one of four categories, and each involves a certain level of difficulty in order to pull off.

I. Shock …
This is the most basic and over-used scare device in the haunted house trick bag because it doesn’t weigh anything, doesn’t require any thought; so it always floats to the top. Jason, in this room you jump out of this alcove. Freddie, in this room, you jump from behind that wall. Michael, in this room, you jump from behind those curtains. The only people who’ll scream every time are the hamster girls. You might get a few others to jump once or twice, but it quickly becomes a tiresome game of Whack-a-mole.

II. Deception and shock …
Here’s where you start getting into the psychology of a scare. In essence, you get the person’s attention, then pull the rug out from under him. Good examples are:

A. The dark hallway with a high light shining into patrons’ eyes. All they can see is the light, and they have no other option, so they walk toward it. What they don’t see until they’ve passed beneath the light beam is the actor or prop that has suddenly materialized before them.

B. It’s done to death, but it remains effective; one actor keeps the audience’s attention while another actor sneaks up from behind and growls, grunts, roars, or simply waits for the hamster girls to notice him. Do it early, and they’ll look over their shoulders for a while. Do it in every room and somebody’s going to get smacked in the head if they don’t – get – out – mah – face!

C. Drop panels can be employed counterintuitively to great effect. Patrons enter a small room, or narrow hallway. Their attention is directed at some point or scene. At a trigger, the walls drop away on either side (hallway) or behind them (small room) to reveal a large (and well-lit) group of monsters reaching and shambling toward them.

III. Impending doom …
This is much more difficult to achieve because it requires that you create an atmosphere that is not only discomforting, but is also sustainable. A dark, wet tomb that smells of mold. A dry and windy rooftop. A creaky bridge. A ghost-filled cemetery with half-seen spirits around every tombstone. Or a large, empty room with one spotlight shining on a box, and arrows on the floor telling you to go to the box. What’s in the box?

It’s the goal. What’s the goal? The thing in the box. (It’s got the electrolytes plants crave)

The goal, whatever it is, stands at the far end of this frightening place. It is the object that draws you through the scene, but you dread reaching it because you just know it’s going to bring down hell and carp on your head. It is preferably the most well-lit object -key, door, book, button, skull, rat, refrigerator- in the room. If you’ve got the real estate to spare, make this a very large room, dimly lit except for a path and the object. By the time the rubes have reached the goal, they’ll be so shaken because nothing has happened -yet- that your grandma could step out of the refrigerator and show them her teeth. A 20′ tall cybernetic minotaur with rocket launcher and laser eyes would also work.

IV. Utter bewilderment …
When perception and reason suddenly don’t jibe anymore, you’ve reached a special place. This is the stuff Rod Serling was always going on about. The thing that caused Ray to go bye-bye and left Egon terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

We accept certain things as everyday, mundane, humble, and expected. The same is true in a haunted house. Now suppose you present the patron with something utterly senseless and illogical, something far beyond reason or common sense. It becomes unreal. Yet there it is, and it’s coming right at him. Whether or not he accepts its reality (and this is hard to do), psychologically, you own that person’s mind for a few seconds.

A. Patrons enter a room with an actor pretending to be a guide or part of the group. Attention is focused on this person while a black shape swoops down from the rafters, grabs the actor, and they both rise into the pitch black above. Hard to pull off? Yep. Dangerous? You betcha. Think somebody’ll freak out when they see it? Very likely.

B. Patrons see a monster shape or a glowing face in the corner. As they get closer, the shape begins to rise up, slowly unfold. Over the course of 10 seconds, the legs grow impossibly long and the arms reach over patrons’ heads. A slightly less ambitious version involves an actor on drywall stilts. Stalk-arounds are excellent candidates for this kind of scare.

C. I really hate to use this as an example because the “unfold the scare” concept is more subtle. However, if you study the man on the right (you’ve seen this 100 times already), he perfectly illustrates what happens when someone reaches his limit for common-sense-contrariness, however pathetically small it may be.

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3 Responses to “What Rod Serling was always going on about”

  1. A) I hate it when someone carps on my head. I mean, I was born with it, so please, don’t be cruel about it. And I don’t really like the lingering fishy smell, either!
    B) I love when grown (groan) men scream like little girls. It’s so very satisfying!
    Spook, I look forward to your Friday posts like my next breath. Thank you for all the thought you put into them!

  2. Has to be one of the most accurately labeled videos I have seen: Man Screams like a girl.

  3. One of the most effective scares I had was a shock and deception. I have a dressed up mannequin on one side of tree, and an actor on the other. People timidly approach the mannequin, laugh at it, and then scream!