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CEREBRAL HAUNTING:
Terrifying Their Minds, Not Just Their Eyes
By: Rick Maue

 

Located about ten miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is an unassuming ranch style home in an average neighborhood. For the last ten years, however, the house has gained a reputation of being anything but average. Each October, more and more visitors seek out this urban residence, rumored to be "a haunt that is really haunted." With virtually no publicity or advertising, Haunted House fans throughout the Pittsburgh area return year after year because of the unique style and personality of The Haunted Chamber.

The Chamber was conceived in 1990, and was based on the concept that a well decorated haunt, combined with a good storyline, sleight of hand and mind-reading effects, could have incredible appeal. Visitors to the Chamber would experience a much different type of scare than the average commercial Haunted House. More importantly, many of the unsettling things that take place, happen right under their noses.

This is not to say that chainsaws don't also have their place in the world of dark entertainment, but the decision to take The Haunted Chamber in a different direction, has helped to set this humble offering apart from the other, more traditional haunts in the area. The result is an extremely frightening attraction that is often too realistic for the patrons. Those who are brave enough to make it all the way through the attraction, leave wondering, "Was that real?"

My personal experience in building haunted attractions began in 1976, with a séance I organized in the basement of my parent's home. I was a senior in high school and billed the amusement as a tribute to Houdini on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. After months to devious planning, I had created an evening of fright, filled with effects, such as a self-lighting fireplace and the Demon Ring (see inset). Held on October 31st, the séance lasted for two hours. Combining close-up magic, special effects and eerie scripting, I created a night of terror that the guests still talk about to this day. This combination of sleight of hand and heavily themed storyline started me on the path that I still follow today.

The first commercial Haunted Attractions that I got involved with were associated with local charities and youth organizations. I even met my wife in the graveyard of a haunt that was sponsored by the youth group for which she was a coordinator. The attractions ranged from school buildings to warehouses and they were always a labor of love rather than profit. I have never made a penny on haunting, although I have spent tens of thousands of dollars to terrify people. I did work for a short time with some local "for profit" haunts, but I was disappointed when their only goal seemed to be money rather than quality or even safety. (Since those early days, I have met a few professionals, such as the folks at Castle Blood, who do an excellent and unique job of haunting.)

The early attractions that I worked with were all traditional haunts with a great deal of screaming and gore. The scenes that all of us have experienced over and over; lunatic with a chainsaw, operating table, someone sitting up in a coffin, the scares that are typically found to this day in many attractions. I began to look, not only at the over use of these scares, but also the lack of logic of the whole thing. If a crazy person comes running towards you with a chainsaw, why would he suddenly stop short when he finally reaches you? Even if such a scare gets a strong initial reaction, I felt that there is never a lasting payoff. The patrons always know that the situation is not real because the actor did not actually attack them. Even though the old stand by scares can be very powerful, I began to fall back on my lifelong passion for theater and sleight of hand to create a Haunted Attraction that would stimulate the mind as well as send shivers down the backs of the visitors.

Everyone who enters the Haunted Chamber is told the "Legend of Penntella," (A tribute to Penn & Teller) a cruel and hideous monster who lived centuries ago on the land where the Chamber now stands. What was to be the eternal grave for the creature and his many victims was disturbed during minor repairs to the building in 1991, unleashing the soul of Penntella to haunt the Chamber for eternity. It is not necessary for the actors to learn pages and pages of dialogue because the storyline simply creates the flavor (and logic) to the haunt, which is enhanced at every opportunity. The enormous power of this heavily themed storyline and the well-written script that accompanies it cannot be underestimated.

No matter how large or small your attraction, a good storyline will work wonders. It sets the tone and creates an entertaining and frightening atmosphere, while controlling the pace of the show. Many patrons run through most Haunted Houses so quickly that they miss a large percentage of the displays. A good script slows them down and helps them feel that they have gotten more than they paid for. This is obvious after speaking with our patrons. Over 80% comment on the elaborate detail and the realistic type scare that they have experienced. They appreciate the amount of work that has gone into the production because what most people expect is an actor with a latex mask and a chainsaw jumping out at them. After visiting the Chamber, they feel that they have experienced much more. They have been a part of a complete theatrical performance. Being a home haunt, I don't have the pressure of getting a specific number of people through the gate each night to cover expenses and turn a profit. I have the luxury of being able to spoil my visitors. They go away entertained, but also frightened to death.

This heavy themeing of the storyline, lends itself perfectly to the séance type effects that I use in the show, such as the mysterious appearance of Penntella's signature of on a blank piece of paper, or the Demon Ring (see inset). These effects are very participatory, involving hands-on interaction with the actors. This not only frightens the patrons; it also pulls them deeper into the show. It is the patron's own imagination that does a large portion of the work. The pace is purposely slow and deliberate, which plays on their minds. Many people actually believe in things such as ghosts, psychics, poltergeists and even telekinesis. Although I am a true skeptic, I know good theater when I see it. These ingredients, along with the everyday fears that people possess opens a door that takes haunting to a different level. The slow chilling fear that a person keeps deep inside can become paralyzing. We all remember that terrifying feeling from our youth, that someone or something, was in our bedroom late at night. The fear was overpowering but it was all in our heads. A cerebral scare works in the same way, it consumes the guests because the fear is on a personal level.

It is very important to make the Chamber very real in the imagination of the guests. That means that the physical look of the house must reinforce the overall feeling in every possible way, without the building becoming the whole show. Only about 5% of the house is kept extremely dark. The motto of the Chamber is: "If the set looks good, show it off. If not, turn the lights out." I firmly believe that although extreme darkness can be intimidating, in most cases it does not permit me to be creative. I want the house to look as authentic as possible so that the thought process for each person ties the entire experience together. Basically, a haunted house should look haunted even if no supernatural occurrences are witnessed. In the minds of the visitors, the Chamber looks like it is haunted before things start to happen. When things begin to move or appear, the thought process is reinforced and they believe. This creates a lasting terror.

I do not want to simply startle the guests, I want to make them think that what is happening in front of them could be real. Perhaps forcing them to remember back to a childhood fear or two. I want the overall feeling of the Chamber to linger in their minds and make them uneasy whenever something reminds them of what they have experienced. This "after the fact" fear, is like sending each visitor away with their own piece of the Chamber, a "mental souvenir," if you will.

Guests visit the Chamber in relatively small groups of six people or less for each tour. Being a small home haunt, the Haunted Chamber does not attract thousands of visitors every night, and working with smaller groups gives me the opportunity to personally talk with the patrons and learn things about them. This works to our advantage because we can personalize the scare for each group by learning information during casual conversation and then passing the data ahead to the actors. The patrons are frightened by the fact that our characters know things about them even though they don't recall telling anyone the personal details that are brought out. This is a common technique used by "psychics" and astrologers. It makes the effects that we perform very intimate, once again making the fear personal.


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Cold Reading
This technique is a form of "cold reading", a process of acquiring information through casual conversation, listening in on conversations, or previous research. After obtaining the personal information about an individual, you proceed to dig deeper by making general statements that would be true of almost everyone. These statements condition the guest to agree with you since what you are saying is true. By listening closely to their responses, you can "read" what topics are accurate and you can elaborate with additional general comments. When they agree with a statement that you make, rephrase their comments and state them again. They will remember your words to be true and they will give you the credit for "knowing something that you could not have possibly known." The general conclusion is that something supernatural has occurred and that the place may really be haunted.

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Over the last two years, I have reduced the number of actors in the Chamber to only four or five, so that the main focus can be placed on the scripts and the effects. This smaller number of actors helps to keep the storyline consistent and the performance level high. There is never a character that simply jumps out at a group and screams "Boo." Every actor has a story to tell and several effects that he or she will be involved in.

The Haunted Chamber has evolved into a year-round project. It covers the entire garage, laundry, stairway and game room of our house. The areas are sectioned off to create six rooms and a regular tour takes between fifteen and twenty minutes to complete. It is a much smaller attraction than the average commercial haunt, but this intimacy makes it possible to utilize our cerebral methods to accomplish a lasting scare. It is more "theater" and less "violence and gore." We have tried to slow the visitors down instead of telling them to flee to safety when a monster approaches. This helps us to terrify their minds and not just their eyes.

This year, we look forward to approximately one thousand visitors to tour The Haunted Chamber. All proceeds will go to our local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. As you can see, I'm not in it for the money. The goal is to have fun and to stay connected to the world of fright. I have learned over the last twenty-plus years that the real key is that there is no right or wrong way to haunt. Every method has merit and every method plays on a different emotion. Perhaps someday, I will attempt to return to the world of high throughput fright just for old times' sake, but for now, I like it slow and ominous. You know, like "someone is watching you."


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The Demon Ring
One of the most effective routines that I perform is also one of the easiest to do. Although this handling and presentation are my own creations, this type of effect dates back to late 1800's, and the early days of Spiritualism. A simple magic trick, taken out of the context of a stage show, and put into the world of the supernatural, can turn many people into believers. Just ask the "psychic" that made millions of dollars bending spoons "with his mind" throughout the 70's.

Guests enter a room and stand around a large séance table. A solid brass ring and a long thick bootlace are passed around for them to examine. The ring is then threaded onto the lace and the two ends are handed to two of the guests, on opposite sides of the table, so that the ring is suspended. Another guest is asked to turn off the lights so that the spirits can enter, and two more guests are asked to take hold of the medium's (actor's) wrists and lock them behind his back After a long pause in total darkness, a loud clang would be heard. Quickly the lights are turned on to reveal the mediums arms still held behind his back, the bootlace still wrapped around the hands of the volunteers, and the ring lying on the table. The moment that the ring hits the table, the guests are not only dumbfounded as to how this occurred, they also become terrified.

The Method
The "Demon Ring" was accomplished without the use of any hidden assistants. It simply involves having a duplicate ring with a break in it. This ring is casually switched for the one that is examined while the medium circulates the bootlace. The gimmicked ring is then threaded onto the lace and as the lights are turned out, the actor removes it, conceals it in a pocket and then places the real ring on top of his head. All this is done in less than two seconds, but with a little practice, anyone can make the switch. At the same time that the switch is taking place, the actor is asking for the other patrons to grab his wrists and hold them behind his back. It takes them several seconds to locate his arms in the dark. By the time that they do, everything is positioned properly. The medium simply lets the guests wait in silence for a short time. When the time is right, he slowly bows his head and the ring will slide off onto the table, making a loud, startling noise in the darkened room.

As easy as this sounds, I have had people comment on the effect more than fifteen years after they experienced it.


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By day, Rick Maue is the Marketing and Education Coordinator for Gateway Travel Management. Better known as Incubus, the caretaker of The Haunted Chamber, Rick lives near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with wife, Tammy (Spidella), daughter Jamie (Poison), dog (Buster) and python (Hydra). He can be reached via e-mail at: hauntedchamber@yahoo.com  

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