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If one denies their visitor a treat, they shall go on to be tricked and it was these tricks that led to the creation of haunted houses. Pulling pranks has been a staple of Halloween. There was a time in North American history when youngsters took their pranks too far. Instead of continuing their mostly harmless pranks. Like stealing a gate off someone’s fence and putting it in a nearby tree. Or a prop dead body on some railroad tracks to stop a train, they decided to destroy property.
It was Halloween night in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, and a group of 200 boys vandalized their town. They flipped over cars, saw down telephone poles, and opened up fire hydrants to flood city streets. When the cops showed up to try and put an end to the chaos the boys continued, not giving a care at all. This night, which has been dubbed “Black Halloween” was the final straw for adults across the country.
Halloween was officially out of hand, and some cities were considering banning it together. But a few organizations recognized that this would only make things worse. So instead of stripping away one of the four things that children back in the 1930s could do for fun. The YMCA and local Boy Scout Troops began to organize parties, parades, carnivals, and costume contests for Halloween night. This was to give the youths something less destructive to do with their time. That strategy worked, there’s an article included in a publication from the Rotary Club in 1939, so six years after Black Halloween. That celebrated the Monumental decrease in vandalism that holiday.
Events of Haunted Houses
They said that whole communities were coming together to put on events for the kids, some store owners paid for parties the local boxing gym stayed open so the meaner hooligans could burn off their teenage angst safely and schools began organizing costume parades. Haunted houses were also part of these distractions and some people even put them on in their own homes. This Halloween fun book was printed by the Minneapolis Halloween Committee in 1937. It instructs readers on how to build, what they call, a “Trail of Terror.”
“An outside entrance leads to a rendezvous with ghosts and witches in the cellar or attic. Hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walla, where one feels his way to dark steps… Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face… Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel… At the end he hears a plaintive ‘meow’ and sees a black cardboard cat outline in luminous paint…”
While families and local businesses found great success with their annual Haunted House events, the commercial haunted house industry hadn’t yet taken off. This would all change in a few decades, with the construction of what might be the most famous haunted house of all time.
The Haunted Mansion
The popularity of haunted houses in America led to Walt Disney himself wanting to include one in Disneyland. Granted the idea didn’t become a reality until over a decade after the park was opened but it was jotted down in its early notes.
Imagineers experimented with its design for years. This was Disneyland so they weren’t going to rely on the usual gimmicks of turning off the lights and letting the guest’s imaginations do the rest. They wanted their visitors to see everything while still causing their imaginations to run wild.
This was done through cutting-edge special effects but also by engaging the guests in a story. Originally the haunted house was about a sea captain who killed his nosey wife, then hanged himself after her ghost haunted him into insanity.
The hanging man visual they’d envisioned way back then would go on to be used in the mansion’s final design. Though in this version the man hanging is the ghost host narrator. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away a few years before the Haunted Mansion opened. So he never did get to see the completed project or how much his guests enjoyed it.
Haunted Houses Around The U.S.
Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween,” writes: “A lot of the professional haunters will point to one thing, and that’s Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. It’s the start of the haunted attraction industry.” The popularity of the Haunted Mansion showed that there was a real demand for this kind of experience.
The technology that Disney used caused those wanting to make a name for themselves in the industry to step up their game. They of course would not be able to copy Disney’s most cutting-edge effects of the price and patents, but it gave them a reason to move beyond the simple ghost-in-a-sheet type stuff. If they could provide a more believable experience, they would make more money. Simple as that.
From that point onward commercial haunted houses and other immersive scary events would continue to grow in popularity. Other amusement parks like California’s Knott’s Berry Farms started hosting their annual Knott’s Scary Farm events in 1973. Universal Studios would join the fun in 1991 with their Fright Night Celebration. It’s now known as Halloween Horror Nights.
Then there are the smaller more local haunted houses. In 2015 the Haunted House Association a trade grade of haunted house operators estimated there are roughly 2,700 haunted houses operating in the United States today and combined they bring in $300,000,000 a year. Not bad for an industry that’s only officially in season for a few months out of the year.
By: Zaylah De La Torre
History: The Great Depression Origins of Halloween Haunted Houses
Props.Eric-Heart: THE GORE OF GRAND GUIGNOL By: ERIC HART
WorthPoint: 1937 Minneapolis Halloween Fun Book Frances Somers National Youth Administration
Walt Disney Archives: A Haunted Mansion Tale
Featured Image Courtesy of Carol VanHook‘s Flickr Page – Creative Common License
Inset Image Courtesy of HarshLight‘s Flickr Page – Creative Common License