A History of the Haunted House

By: Ruby Garff

Has it ever struck you as strange that every year hundreds of thousands of people across America and the world pay to be scared? We willingly walk into situations engineered specifically to activate our amygdalas and make us scream, squirm, and jump. 

The haunted house is an admittedly weird concept. We find them fun or entertaining for one reason or another; it spikes our adrenaline or makes us feel brave, even when no actual danger is present. Plus, it’s always fun to see a friend scream like a little kid after bearing the brunt of a particularly surprising jump scare. 

I’m not complaining that people flock to haunted houses every October. Actually, please keep coming. I have a unique perspective on haunted houses, coming from the daughter of someone who owns one (come to Panic Point, please! I have no shame). Still, haunted houses confuse me. As I lead someone through the Haunted Forest’s elaborate scenes for the 500th time and all they can do is grab onto me and try not to pee their pants, I have to wonder, why is this fun? Why are we doing this right now? How did this all even start? Where did the haunted house come from?

Some of the earliest examples of haunted houses pop up in early 19th-century London. These attractions were meant to appease the gruesome curiosities of visitors, giving you that stomach-churning feeling. Marie Tussaud created her famous wax figures, depicting victims of decapitation, including the prominent King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Her exhibit was dubbed “Chamber of Horrors,” truly seeming to have an intent of freaking out its audience without directly harming them. This time period also saw the general public becoming infatuated with the idea of ghosts, ghouls, and spirits. Fortune tellers grew in popularity, spiritualists communicated with the dead, and Mary Shelly wrote her horror classic, Frankenstein. This is all pivotal in the production of haunted houses because it marked one of the first times that the public began to see horror as fun or as entertainment. 

As carnivals and fairs gained popularity in the 1900s, they came to support the public’s desire to see the strange or scary. Freak shows, which now seem inhumane, validated the weird curiosities carnival goers had. In 1915, an English fairground created an early kind of paid haunted attraction. This house featured various basic effects, like shaking floors, screams, and dimmed lights. 

Haunted houses in America were born out of the Great Depression. Teenage boys and girls were causing chaos on Halloween. Vandalizing property and harassing people in the name of innocent Halloween trickery. Parents were eagerly looking for a way to keep these kids off the streets on October 31st, and in the process, ease the worries of the community. The result of this was haunted houses or haunted trails. Along with haunted houses, trick-or-treating saw a rise in the United States because of this same reason. Families constructed these haunted houses in their homes and basements, using simple effects that could at least distract kids or provide a fun thing to do on Halloween. While not particularly scary, it’s easy to see how this era in American history really began to shape Halloween into what we know today. 

Of course, like any good amusement attraction, nobody really, truly cared until Walt Disney took a stab at it. In 1969, The Haunted Mansion debuted at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, constructed by prolific amusement ride manufacturer Arrow Dynamics and dreamed up by Disney’s Imagineers. The 9-minute experience would popularize the haunted house as fun and give thousands of haunted house owners across the country the idea to scare people for profit. While commercial haunted attractions existed in a smaller capacity prior to the Haunted Mansion’s opening, the Disney ride truly was a catalyst for the success haunted houses enjoy today. 

What followed in the 70s was a wave of iconic haunted attractions opening their doors in the United States. The United States Junior Chamber or the Jaycees began opening haunted houses to raise funds for its organization. These were simple, dark curtains and poorly lit rooms with a healthy dose of fake blood. But, they made scares accessible to people across the nation. In 1973, Knott’s Berry Farm held its first rendition of Knott’s Scary Farm, the seasonal event where the park created haunted trails across its usually family-friendly grounds. This was the first theme park or amusement park haunt, paving the way for iconic events like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, or Halloweekends at Cedar Point. Hell Houses were also created at this time, popularized by Jerry Falwell. Hell Houses are an Evangelical Christian version of a haunted house, with the purpose of scaring visitors into following the word of the church and of god. Often depicting sinners and their following descent into hell, featuring Judgment Day heavily.

As horror films gained steam in the 1980s,  the general public more than ever found themselves wanting a good scare around Halloween. Due to the popularity of the Haunted Mansion and Knott’s Scary Farm the decades prior, nearly every other amusement park had adopted its own haunted attraction. The haunted attraction industry was marked by tragedy on May 11, 1984, when a fire was started within Six Flags Great Adventure’s Haunted Castle attraction. The fire killed 8 teenagers who found themselves trapped inside. The incident set a precedent that affected the safety standards of haunted houses and attractions for years to come. The industry strove for safe, fun, and scary experiences, hoping something like this would never have to happen again.

This leads us all the way to the current day. Haunted attractions are everywhere, and go beyond the traditional “house” format. We have trails, hayrides, mazes, etc all designed to bring a genuine sense of terror to whoever dares to venture inside them. There are thousands of haunted houses in the US alone. The haunted house industry is worth 300 million dollars today, and larger haunted attractions can bring in 2 to 3 million dollars in a season, while smaller ones can bring in numbers upwards of $50,000. What started as a mix of curtains and cardboard props created to keep teenagers off the streets during Halloween has evolved into an integral part of the holiday for many people.  I for one will be spending 19 nights of my year working for a haunted house, listening to the chorus of screams and chainsaws, and maybe walking through a haunted maze or two if I get a chance. As I nearly leap out of my skin getting jump scared by the same haunt actor for the 500th time, I’ll still be asking myself why. But I find some solace in knowing when and how this haunted attraction came to be. I hope you decide to take a trip to a haunted house this year and pay homage to the sick and twisted sense of fun that comes from screaming at the top of your lungs as your worst fears materialize right in front of you.

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