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The Pit and Pendulum
By Joseph M. Meils

 

"It was this- my chin rested upon the floor of my prison, but my lips and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly at a less elevation than my chin, touched nothing. At the same time, my forehead seemed bathed by a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my Nostrils. I put forward my arm, and shuddered to find that I had fallen to the brink of a pit, whose Extent, of course, I had no means of ascertaining…." E.A. Poe


Some scares seem to be ingrained in our DNA, you cannot escape reacting to them. Most of us have had terrifying dreams of falling from a great height, and psychological tests on infants have found that this fear, of being on an edge, of plummeting down from high above, is innate. Not a learned behavior, but one that is programmed into each of us either by nature or the collective unconscious. In extreme cases, it is called acrophobia; the fear of heights.

In 1997 Kurt Hopkins, fellow haunted house designer, came up with an illusion that preys on this fear for The Castle of Fear in Denver, CO.  The basic idea for the effect is entirely his, and I want to thank him for his permission to write this article on it. Once the basic effect was set up, several of us kept adding little details to perfect the illusion. When "The Pit Effect" debuted, The Rocky Mountain News reported on it in their annual review of local haunts, "The pit was nothing less than heart stopping." During our run that year, we actually had people refusing to cross it. I myself, working another room nearby, could hear the gasps, exclamations, and occasional outbursts of colorful language from people as they came upon it.


The Pit Experience
The way audiences experienced this effect was pretty straight forward. They would come out of the previous room, and ascend a short ramp, onto a raised platform, the light behind them fading away until they were in near total darkness. As they took a step forward, lights would suddenly click on, far below, revealing a pit yawning beneath their feet. Sometimes, its edge was right below where they were about to step! Most people would leap back, their hearts in their throats. After a moment, they would realize that there seemed to be a clear covering over the hole in the floor. Most, at that point, would carefully side step the hazard. Others would realize the trick, and walk across it. Others simply refused to move, hypnotized by the well that they had almost fallen into.


Smoke and Mirrors
Like so many great effects, the Pit is fairly simple. It will take an outlay of several hundred dollars, but since it is an effect that you can reuse year after year, the cost and effort is well worth it. "The Pit" is really just a 45 degree mirror, looking down an empty crawlspace beneath a raised platform. Over the top of the viewing hole is a sheet of 1Ú2 inch thick Lexan. By keeping the area of the crawlspace nearest to the mirror in darkness, and lighting only the far end of it, the edges of the mirror disappear. People could not take their eyes away from the image of the bottom of the "shaft," seemingly five stories straight down. Better still, when they finally gathered up the courage to step over it, the clear plastic would inevitably creak, as though it were about to give way. There was no real danger; we had tested the Lexan with several other large, bearish men, standing on it. A total of over a half ton! In this description the design utilized a raised platform twenty feet long. However, it is possible to replicate the effect with fewer materials on a lower budget.


Getting Started
The Pit begins with the creation of a raised platform, a four foot, by four foot, by twenty foot long wooden box with a simple 2x4 structural framework. Cross members on the walkway were spaced every 18 inches on center and were reinforced with vertical members wherever possible as in fig. 1 (Note: Check with local codes for spacing of structural elements.) A floor decking of 3Ú4 inch plywood covered most of the top of the box an 1/8 inch thick sheets of Masonite covered the sides. The inside of the box was painted to look like ancient stonework. Assembly was made with 3 inch deck screws for the structure, and inch long screws for the sheeting. At each end of this box we built a ramp to the height of the box. Our ramps were 12 feet long to pass local code, (to be ADA accessible, this ramp would have needed to be 48 feet long). Please check with your local building inspector to see what will be required in your area.


The Mirror
Next, we built a stable bed for the mirror to rest on. We were using an acrylic mirror, so it needed a ridged bed to lie on, to avoid any funhouse-style distortions. This bed was a simple frame of 2x2 lumber screwed together into a framework, and skinned with 1Ú2 in ply.  We had measured the interior of the platform, going from the upper corner, and down 45 degrees. This diagonal line gave us the approximate length of the bed. Once completed, the bed was mounted it in the upper corner with only a pair of screws. This way, the bed could be raised or lowered slightly at the floor end with bits of scrap wood, for final adjustments. The mirror was obtained at a local plastics company for about $40.00. Once we had the bed's length and width, we had the people at the plastics company cut the mirror to size for us. Acrylic plastic is wonderful, inexpensive material, but its very brittle, and if you try to cut it on your own without proper tools, you will end up with a badly cracked and fragmented surface.


The Lexan
While we were at the plastics company, we also purchased our Lexan window. By far, this is the single most expensive part of the entire effect, but well worth the price. Lexan is a transparent, almost unbreakable polymer. Although we got the stuff to creak by stepping on it, we were never able to outright break it. We purchased a single sheet of the stuff, and had it cut into two four foot by four foot sheets. The second sheet was in case the first one became too scuffed and scratched to see through. After drilling screw holes around the perimeter about every four inches, we mounted the Lexan on top of the platform. We used a countersink when drilling the holes to avoid a trip hazard. The Lexan was raised up to the level of the 3/4 inch plywood with1/4 inch spacers, so that the two surfaces were flush.


Lighting
On our first attempt at this effect, we thought that we would have to light the entire length of the crawlspace in order to get the maximum impact. Not so. What we it more effective light only the end of the box away from the 45 deg. Mirror. The lack of lighting near the mirror helped to hide its edges. After several hours of experimentation, we found that a single clamp light, located at the far end of the crawlspace, angled away from the mirror, gave the best effect. A cooler light, something in a shade of blue was chosen because cooler colors help the eye perceive something as receding, while warmer colors flatten out the effect.

We rigged the clip lamp to go on and off using a simple timer relay. It was hooked to a photocell, so that the light would go on for ten seconds each time the beam was broken. After that, the pit light would stay off for 20 seconds before being able to be triggered again. It kept people from simply standing there, bottlenecking the haunt.


Sweeteners
During the first week of operation, we ironed out a few problems, and also found a few things we could add to help "sell" the effect. The first thing we added was a pair of fake windows on the floor of the crawlspace. They were not nailed to anything, they were simply laid there. By giving the eye something it recognizes as being part of a vertical surface, the brain had a harder time "flipping" the image to see how it was being fooled.

Latter we added a dummy on the floor of the box. First its neck in a noose and then its arms seemingly shackled "over" it's head. Again, the brain interprets this body as hanging "down" with gravity, making it more difficult to see the truth.

About a week later, we found a second mirror, that happened to fit inside the crawlspace perfectly, at a yard sale. We removed the props from the box and mounted the second mirror at the far end of the crawlspace, away from the Lexan/mirror. The apparent depth of the pit was immediately doubled, and although the groups could now see their own reflection at the far end of the pit, they couldn't tell what it was. Their reflection, dimly lit, was now 40 feet away. All they could see was that something was moving down there.

If you are a high volume haunter, invariably, you will encounter someone who has a major phobia about heights. A bypass corridor and someone stationed near the effect, to lead true acrophobs around the effect would be warranted. Another annoyance is that some people will attempt to break the Lexan window looking down. There is very little danger of them doing so, provided the edges are properly supported and fastened. However, if they are persistent enough, they may cause damage to the frame or the flooring. Again, this might be a good area to station someone nearby, to "shoo" the group on to the next room.

This effect is a blast to both build and to watch how various people react to it. It became a regular topic of conversation in the Haunt break room and we began to collect stories about how various patrons would react.

Any fear that we as Haunt designers can tap into and traumatize our patrons is well worth utilizing. The innate fear of heights and of falling is right up there in effectiveness with the fear of the dark and the fear of smelly chainless gas powered fume generating noisemakers.

 

Joe Meils is a lifestyle Haunter, having worked various Haunts in Illinois and Colorado since 1980. Currently he is living in Conway, Arkansas, where by day he is the technical director for the Snow Theater at UCA. At night he becomes the evil genius of "Goblin Grove," a five-acre Haunted Trail located on his property. Currently, he is preparing to start a small latex prop and decoration business, called "Boojum Studios, LLC." Contact Joe at BoojumStudio@aol.com

 

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