Many articles put a lot of emphasis on the construction techniques of haunted houses but very few, if any, give tips for how to light them up. After all, what good is your $5000 animatronic if no one can see it? So here are some lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made in building my own haunt.
1. Do Your Painting Under Set Lighting
Many people paint their set under normal lighting conditions, they spend a lot of time getting the colors realistically accurate, only to find out that when they turn off the lights and hit the scene with a red flood light, everything turns into a shade of red. Of course, there’s nothing wrong about this approach, especially if you want to show off your details in a lights-on tour, however, if you’d like to save time and energy: paint under set lighting. This way, you’ll be able to see the exact effect you’re getting while you paint. If you still want to make sure your colors are accurate under normal lighting conditions, another option is to switch back and forth between normal and set lighting. Ultimately, your set is being seen under set lighting a majority of the time, so why not spend most of your effort in getting the colors to look right under those conditions?
2. Install Lights First, Then Add Your Set
This may sound backwards compared to what is normally done in the industry but I believe this is suitable for those who are either building a new haunt or have temporary haunts that needs to be assembled and torn down each season. This method saves you time and money for one reason: you don’t have to detail what your audience doesn’t see. Usually, your venue will determine the shape of your paths. Once your path is laid out, you should imagine where your audience is going to look (or where you want them to look) as they enter each scene. Lights should then be placed accordingly. Once you know the direction and spread of your lights, you now know the visibility range of your audience. Anything beyond this visible range is extra work that you don’t have to do. Spend time adding props, details, and other visual effects in the visible range.
3. Test Your Light with a Battery Before You Hardwire and Use Swappable Lights.
Building a haunted house is a very experimental process for most people. Very few, except for the veterans, can imagine the scene and the colors in their head and get it to look right the first time around. One of the most annoying adjustments that is often made is lighting because it’s already hardwired to the wall. Moving a light involves cutting wires, taping up loose ends, stripping new wires, and remounting the light. It would be much easier if lighting can be done right the first time around, or if not, at least there should be a more convenient way to move your lights around. When determining where your lights should go, use a portable battery to power the light so you can move around with it and see exactly what effect you’re going to get before you hardwire. Lights that have swappable bulbs are also nice to have if you want to switch colors around without rewiring.
4. Vary Light Intensity Between Scenes
Just like in any story, there are highs and lows to keep the audience engaged. Do the same with your lights. Having a constant glow throughout your haunt is boring. Vary up the brightness between rooms. Some rooms can be almost pitch black while others completely illuminated or strobing. Getting your audiences’ pupils to dilate and contract will disorient them and add to the uncertainty of your haunt.
5. Use Low Voltage Lighting Where Possible
As always, keeping it safe for your guests and your employees should be the number one priority for any haunted house owner. Using low voltage lighting, such as 12V, and low current lessens the fire risk of any attraction. When possible, use wires with overall insulation, an example would be telephone cable or Ethernet cable, where there is a final layer of insulation that wraps around all of the wires. Your fire marshal will be happy as well.
About Quan Gan
Quan Gan has an robotics background from UC Berkeley and Stanford University. He is owner of Shanghai Nightmare, China’s first Halloween haunted house. While working on his Shanghai haunt, he developed a unique, user friendly, and durable LED precision lighting system for the dark attraction industry called Darklight. (http://darklight.e5design.com)