If you've haven't been to a haunted house since you were a kid, chances are you'd be in for a shock if you went to one today. In the past five years or
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Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM

If you've haven't been to a haunted house since you were a kid, chances are you'd be in for a shock if you went to one today. In the past five years or so, the business of scaring people has become a lot more sophisticated. What was once a cult of a few enthusiasts has evolved into a significant segment of the amusement industry, complete with its own international associations, trade shows and magazines, a constellation of specialized vendors, and an impressive number of online resources.

The haunted attractions themselves, or “haunts” as they are called in the business, involve a lot more than smoke, mirrors, and a few spooky sounds on tape. The most successful ventures are run like theatrical production companies and are adopting advanced media technologies at a frightening pace. One innovative haunt in Green Bay, Wisconsin, called Terror on the Fox, has managed to stir up a brew of high-tech media and live action, incorporating digital video and audio, computer-controlled lighting, and animatronic props into its shows.

Named for its location on a 40-acre estate near the Fox River, Terror on the Fox is designed, built, and operated by Bad Boy Scenic Design, a company with offices in Green Bay, Madison, and Boston. Mike “Beaker” Parpovich, technical lead for Terror on the Fox, says the company also builds sets for clubs and other installations, but its main focus is on designing haunts. Parpovich, his five business partners at Bad Boy, and the dozen or so assistants employed by the company all share a singular passion for their work. “We're in it because we love scaring people, and we're also raising money for a good cause,” he says. The administrative side of the Terror on the Fox is handled by the local Optimists club, and proceeds from the haunt benefit local youth organizations.

Although Terror on the Fox isn't the largest haunted attraction in the country, it is probably one of the most technically advanced for its size. The design of the facility lets the production crew keep the visitor experience fresh, season after season. “The designers and builders of this house were professional stage designers and stagehands who knew how to plan for maximum flexibility,” Parpovich says. When you approach the haunt, it has the look and feel of a converted house, but it's actually a temporary structure consisting of three semitrailers that support the roof and a house-size facade, backed up by two temporary buildings and two train cars. All walls in the house are modular, allowing the designers to construct a different floor plan and different rooms every year. The current design features 21 distinct rooms.

By creatively using digital media and computer controls, the Bad Boys technical team squeezes the maximum amount of fright from its budget. The audio and video are fully automated and synchronized to the lights, and the animatronic props are propelled by self-contained, programmable logic controllers. The principal media controllers are two computers: the first providing a timing reference and playing video and a multitrack audio, and the second dedicated to controlling lights.

On the first computer, a MIDI sequencer is used to generate MIDI Time Code and play a MIDI control track that triggers the light control sequence; on the same machine, digital media workstation software plays the main video to a large screen in the center tower of the house, 3 audio channels (left, center, and right) to the front of the house, and 14 additional channels inside the house, including ambient sounds, individual room sounds or music, and effects synchronized to lighting sequences.

To compose the lighting sequences, Parpovich uses a MIDI keyboard to record the MIDI control track for the lights while watching the video and audio tracks, and then he plays the entire sequence back with the video, audio, and MIDI lighting cues all synchronized to the MIDI Time Code output. The second computer receives the MIDI control information coming from the first computer (with each MIDI note corresponding to a light or light sequence) and uses a USB-to-DMX 512 converter to control strobe lights and dimmers throughout the house.

A single, 9-hour sequence is created to run for the duration of each day's show. Parpovich observed that when he used shorter, looped sequences, the video/audio playback and lighting cues would drift slightly out of sync whenever the loop restarted. However, by playing one long sequence from beginning to end, he can keep everything synchronized for an entire night.

The animatronic props throughout the house are propelled by standalone controllers that can be programmed ahead of time by someone walking through the house with a laptop computer. Their programs are then activated by a variety of triggers, such as floor pads, optical devices, or by actors operating manual controls. The animation of the props can be quite sophisticated; they can be set up to have multiple or delayed responses, adding to the surprise factor. Because they are easy to reprogram, the animations can be adjusted to reflect changes in the script or in the weather. “If an actor has a new idea for interacting with a prop, we can quickly go in and reprogram it,” Parpovich says, “or in the case of our pneumatic props, they can get a little sluggish when it gets cold, so we can compensate for that in our program timing.”

Though the setup sounds horrifically complex, the power-up procedure for the haunt is eerily simple — all the props and lights are connected to main power grid for the house. “All I have to do each show day is turn on the power, boot two computers, launch the applications, and run a short control sequence while I walk through the house and check the lights, sound, and props,” Parpovich says. “Then I return to the control room and press Play on the main computer.”

By constructing a reliable yet flexible high-tech backdrop for Terror on the Fox, the designers made it possible to concentrate on the dramatic content of the shows. Several of the production staff are also actors in the haunt and get the benefit of direct feedback from their audience. “It's easy to scare kids, but when you get a middle-aged biker and his old lady to hit the floor screaming, you know you're doing something right,” Parpovich says.

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