October 14, 2009 / 1:44 PM / in 8 years

Haunted attractions become a screaming hot industry

<p>A man made up to look like a zombie takes part in a zombie parade in Frankfurt, July 18, 2009.Johannes Eisele</p>

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - If horror movies no longer give you nightmares, there's a growing industry waiting to scare you out of your wits -- haunted attractions which have benefitted from live talent leaving Hollywood as computers take their roles.

Haunted attractions have become high tech venues which do everything possible to make a scary scenario seem real, which includes hiring professional actors to jump out at you and using theatrical sets with sounds, lighting and animatronics.

Larry Kirchner, editor-in-chief of Hauntworld Magazine and a board member of The Haunted House Association, said haunted houses began on U.S. amusement piers in the 1920s then were run by charities before some went commercial in the 1980s.

But he said they have soared in scale and popularity in recent years, in the United States and increasingly overseas, at the hands of specialists pushed out of the movie industry by computer-generated effects.

No longer hokey, a first class fright attraction will cost $1 million to set up with The Haunted House Association estimating the industry is now worth about $1 billion a year with ticket sales in the U.S. alone generating more than $500 million.

"There is now a whole industry of vendors and skills to create special effects or sell products to haunted attractions which have let them get a lot better," Kirchner told Reuters.

"Some of these places are more sophisticated than the top Broadway plays in New York but, unlike a movie or Broadway show, you are part of the show. That interactivity has really made haunted houses popular."

In the United States this year, 81 percent of amusement parks will hold Halloween or fall-themed events this year, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Fewer than half offered Halloween attractions 15 years ago, and this trend is spreading internationally.

Kirchner said haunted attractions tended to be restricted to Halloween in the United States but have become year-round in some other countries, citing Turkey, South Korea, Chile, Japan, Germany, Belgium and England as countries enjoying a fright.

Frankenstein in Germany, Dracula in Romania and Britain's Jack the Ripper have all generated haunted attractions.

"This has been great for the fright industry as they come here to buy everything and hire someone to build it," he said.

"The biggest growth for vendors to the haunted industry is now overseas where haunted houses are opening at a record pace."

INTERACTIVE TERROR

Rob Weiner, who lectures on the history of horror cinema at Texas Tech University Libraries, said these attractions provided something movies can't -- an in-your-face experience.

"Audiences today have seen it all it seems. With transgressive material all over the Internet and the many exorcist, zombie, vampire, torture porn sequels, nothing is scary anymore," he said.

Dwayne Sanburn who owns and operates 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has become an expert in terrifying people with attraction topping Hauntworld's list of the most scary attractions in the United States for two consecutive years.

The 13th Gate offers 13 themed experiences to make every nightmare seem real from crawling through a crematory oven and an old hearse to being lost in dark underground tunnels or finding yourself standing on a rickety bridge over a bed of live snakes.

It is only open for a couple of months a year but during the off-season the haunt employs a year-round movie industry construction crew of scenic artists, carpenters, lighting and sound technicians, and special effects artists.

During Halloween, over 100 professional actors, 12 special effects makeup and airbrush artists and several costume specialist work together to terrify customers every night.

"Haunted Houses are just like the movies except you are in the movie with the ghouls jumping out at you. You will get scared but in the end it's all fun and you'll come out screaming, but you and your friends will laugh about it," said Sanburn.

"We have a "no touch" policy," assured Sanburn, adding that none of the live rats, cockroaches, snakes or other critters will touch customers. "Our monsters will not grab or maul you."

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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