I have a confession to make. As much as I love classic horror movies, Halloween and the showmanship of a good haunt – I’m way too chicken to ever step foot inside of a pro haunt. I worked as a volunteer in one once and I couldn’t even stand walking through the maze to get to my station!
Still, I’m fascinated with what goes on behind the scenes of haunts like Knott’s Scary Farm, Universal Horror Nights and especially Dark Harbor at the Queen Mary.
What makes Dark Harbor so different from the usual theme park attractions is that the haunt happens inside an already spooky, known to be haunted ship. Heck, even this interview was haunted.
Listen in while I talk with Dark Harbor producer Charity Hill about what it takes to put on a haunt inside a historical landmark. She even has a few tips for you home haunters, too.
Charity: We do. One great thing about our creative team is they’re able to use the ship itself, which is definitely a creepy [laughs] location all on its own. They do a really great job of blending what is existing with the elements that we take to a different level, of course.
When we’re in development and working on the mazes and the stories themselves, we really take them from the tales and history of the ship, so there’s probably no better environment than what is pre‑existing.
There are plenty of stories about The Queen Mary being haunted. Have you experienced any paranormal activity on the ship?
I have, actually. When I first started at The Queen Mary, I spoke to the captain and commodore about getting photos of the original passengers for my office.
They took me down to the archives, and I picked out some photos of passengers including one of passengers standing out on the deck for a fire drill. Everyday I would come in the morning, that particular photo would be in different place in my office. It would just move. I thought, OK, someone’s playing a joke on me, so I’m going to lock my door. I told no one, but it just kept happening. Turns out the fire drill photo was taken on the deck right outside my window.
[After I moved to a different office] it stopped happening. That was my experience. I think other people have a way more dramatic experiences than that, but that was enough for me.
We sit in conference rooms on a regular basis, and the door will just open and close with 12 of us in the room. We have moments where we’re like “Are we going to acknowledge that?” and someone in the room would be like “No!” and we’ll just keep going.
Everybody into the Pool
You have a new story this year that’s based on one of the ship’s resident ghosts.
Our new maze this year, is called Lullaby and it’s the story of Scary Mary. The character was developed around a little girl that drowned in the pool room. That particular maze will take you through our version of how she passed.
I’ve been in that pool area, and it’s scary normally. It’s very disorienting.
It really is. It’s a pass‑through for me to get to accounting. I’m one of the few people with a key to get through there and I won’t walk it. I will literally go all the way around the ship to get to accounting, up a level and back down to another level to avoid the pool room. I literally won’t go in there by myself.
We went on a the tour through the ship, and I remember feeling out of balance in there. I didn’t know if it was because of how deep you are in the ship, the water, or what it was, but it was just like, “This is weird.”
I don’t feel like I know my way through it. I know that’s scary. There’s a door that has a fairly straight shot through it, but I just have this feeling that that door’s going to close and, for some reason, I’m not going to be able to get out of the other door or I won’t find my way through it. That’s probably just a childish fear, but I don’t do it.
I was going to ask you what was the spookiest part of the ship, but it sounds like that might be it.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s it for me. I probably buy into a little of the hype. I just don’t want to know. I spend many months here by myself. Not by myself, because the ship is always open, but in a lot of the offices, I can be here sometimes until two, three in the morning.
People ask me all the time if I see stuff, and I’m literally like, “I choose to not look.” There are always things in corner of your peripheral that you think you might see. I just don’t even acknowledge that because I wouldn’t be able to stay working by myself.
I don’t ever feel anything evil here. I don’t think I’d work here if I did. I just know I’m never alone. I always have that feeling where I’m never alone.
Walk This Way
When you’re putting together a haunt on a ship, there have to be challenges. The walkways are very tight. Safety’s always a big concern. How do you guys approach having lot of people packed into a small space with one entrance and one exit?
Safety is first. While it looks like there’s one way in and one way out we, by law and by fire code, have to have multiple access points and exit points. We’ve got a fire safety team on site at all times. We have fire marshals on site all times, and it’s always been a labor of love for both departments. We work really closely together, so that we can deliver the best experience for our guests in the safest way possible. Part of the art of any haunt is making people feel unsafe in a very safe environment.
There are no short cuts. We don’t have that luxury. The one thing we do have is trying to work and contend with a 1937 vessel. That’s a challenge. There are no elevators or escalators. That can make it difficult but we have to err on the side of caution just because we are a historic site and it is challenging to maneuver through it.
First of all, we open our doors to everyone who wants to take part in Dark Harbor. We can see nearly a thousand people or more for auditions.
Something we look for is a good attitude ‑‑ people that are outgoing, can follow directions, but they also have to be in good shape. Scaring in a haunt for six hours a night, four or five nights a week is exhausting work. We have a break system that’s really rigorous, so that they can rest and keep their energy up, so everybody’s scared at all times.
But it still requires quite a bit of being agile, being able to move through those mazes quickly, being able to make non‑physical contact with a guest. Deliver them a scare, but also deal with a guest that…there are a lot of people that have a reflex, so being able move back and dodge guests who freak out is something that we look for.
There are some characters that are very specific, but the majority of our characters are all genders, all races, all sizes and shapes, and we’re pretty open Dark Harbor. If you have a passion for Halloween, we probably have a passion for you.
Step Right Up, Folks
This year’s event includes a sideshow of freaks and oddities. Tell me more.
The concept for this year is that you’ve stumbling backstage of a vintage traveling circus. Once you get back into the sideshow, there’s a freaks and oddities museum. Beyond that, you’ve got three scares that I don’t want to tell you about that are freaks themselves.
We’ve got a sideshow stage that will have mini‑performances all night long, everything from blockheads, stapling skin, dangling things off of excess skin, fire‑breathing, fire‑dancing, and glass walkers. We also have our new big‑top bar, which features absinthe, potions, and cocktails.
Do you do that as a period piece or does it sort of defy periods?
At Dark Harbor, we try to keep in the vein of when the ship sailed itself. Our creative team works really hard to stay a little more on the vintage side. We tend to skew into the ’30s ‑‑ old Coney Island‑feel, old dust‑bowl traveling circus, that’s kind of the genre we stick with.
We’ve got this beautiful painting that was done for the Queen Mary that sits right now in our Starbucks. It’s called “The Mills Circus.” That painting itself was the inspiration for the sideshow and a bit of the circus element of Dark Harbor.
How about some tips for the home-haunters. What elements do they need to produce a good scare?
I think there’s a couple things; one that we touched on earlier. I think safety comes first. Especially if you’re building a haunt in your home, you take on a lot of liability, so making sure that there are clear paths and things like that.
Barring safety, important things for a good haunt, in my opinion, start with a story. From visiting and doing my research on the haunts across the country, I feel like what really distinguishes a good haunt from an OK haunt is having a good story-line. A lot of times when you skip over story and go straight to technology, you lose the scare because I didn’t buy into it yet.
[tweetthis]What really distinguishes a good haunt from an OK haunt is having a good story-line.[/tweetthis]
Set your guests up with that story before they walk in. Something that we are really focused on this year is our pre‑show; the show before the show.
The other thing that is important is choosing your scares well. There’s a formula to scares, and there are multiple ones. Some of them become so formulaic that you know what’s coming, like, “Oh, diversion over here. Scare over here.” Yes, that works, but you have to time them so they are not all the same formula in a row. Otherwise, I know what’s coming.
Our guests are very advanced these days, so I feel like you have to catch them off‑balance without using the formula all the time.
When you’re working from a smaller haunt to a bigger haunt, you have this big scare envy thing happening. Bigger isn’t always better. You can get organic scares out of much smaller Animatronics.
Sound, smell, and sight are all very important to engage as many senses as possible. If you can do a scent bomb or a scent cannon to add to whatever I’m seeing visually, on top of whatever I’m hearing, that’s really important.
If you remember as a child, when you watched a scary movie, you don’t close your eyes necessarily. You plug your ears because the scare also comes from the music. I could watch scary movies, slasher movies, on mute before I could listen to them and not see them, because you’re going to jump from the music or the soundtrack.
It’s really true. We went to see Jaws in the theater when they did the re‑release a couple months ago. They train you with that shark music that he’s coming but, then they’ll do the shark music and he doesn’t come. Then you’re like, “Oh I was ready. Oh, not that time.” The music just really does…it’s like Pavlovian. Your brain starts to go, “Oh, it’s coming again!”
If you’re conditioning them that with the crescendos of the music comes a scare, doing the opposite of that’s a perfect example of how to train your guests to expect something and then deliver something else.
Charity, why do people want to be scared?
It’s funny. Watching the haunt community grow exponentially like it has is an anomaly. What I take from it is ‑‑ even looking back at my childhood to the childhood of children today ‑‑ there’s a sensory overload that happens with all of the technology that we have today.
When I was younger, you could scare me by just the idea of something being under my bed. Now, I think children today actually need to see something under their bed to be scared! We’ve raised the bar over a couple of generations and you just expect more, so I think that going to live scares is one of those ways of getting that thrill that we all seek.
As we were wrapping up this interview, I heard a sharp crack sound from the kitchen. I jumped out of my seat. A mop that I keep by the refrigerator had fallen over for no reason whatsoever. The sound of the wooden handle hitting the tile floor was louder than it should have been. It was strange. That mop has never tipped over on its own before. I’m sure it was just a coincidence but Charity and I both laughed nervously over the idea that she had sent a ghost my way.
If you’re in Southern California, you have to check out Dark Harbor on the Queen Mary. It opens October 1 and runs until November 1. You can get tickets online and you’ll get $5 off if you use the code BORIS.
*Discount valid for General Admission Tickets when purchased online only at queenmary.com. Cannot be used or combined with other discounts, offers or promo codes. Cannot be applied to past purchases. Queen Mary reserves the right to change or discontinue this promotion at any time.
Tell me about your favorite Halloween Haunts or what you’ll be doing in your own home. If you have photos somewhere on line, link me – I’d love to see them!