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Full Contact Haunting: The Next Big Thing or the End of Haunting As We Know It?

By Leonard Pickel, Hauntrepreneurs(R) Themed Design and Consulting Firm

First published in HauntNation Magazine http://www.hauntnationmag.com/

Last Halloween, I noticed a disturbing and growing trend among haunts across America. Attractions that allow actors to not only touch but to grab their paying customers. Is this legal, a passing fad or the next evolution of fright attractions?

As a Haunted Event designer/consultant, I am constantly on the lookout for industry trends and new approaches to scaring people for money. Each season I scour the countryside searching for the “next big thing,” not only to keep myself and my clients on the cutting edge of haunting, but also to search out the best attractions in the country for future HAuNTcon tours. Last October alone, I experienced over 200 Haunted Attractions from Salt Lake City, Utah to Tampa, Florida. Needless to say I saw a mixed bag of very exciting new concepts and tired, old, played-out ideas.

Overall the industry seems to be leaning toward a more physical approach to haunting. Concepts like the “alone” style haunts, where you have to eat something disgusting or dig a key out of a filthy toilet, seem to be more like the “FearFactor” televising program, than a haunted house. However today’s attraction designers will do just about anything in the quest for the ultimate scare.

One trend that stood out last October was a scare approach/style that I have deemed “Full Contact.” Attractions that not only allow actors to touch or grab their patrons, but promote, advertise and upcharge for the privilege of being manhandled.

Some events charge extra for the ” full contact” treatment, even offering different levels of contact, from hair caressing and wrist grabbing to being thrown onto a lab table or carried out of the scene draped over an actor’s shoulder.  Some attractions promote full contact all the time, no exceptions, take or leave it. While others offer an upgraded “not to be touched” ticket at the full contact haunt.

In a society as lawyer heavy as the United States, how can a full contact haunt keep from being sued? The truth is that if your event signage and verbal instructions state emphatically, (as many do), that the “actors will not touch” the patrons and there is accidental contact, then the business is liable for a lawsuit. However,  if all the warnings state that customers will be touched by the actors and someone still buys a ticket to enter, then they are relieving the business of contact liability. However, this is not carte blanche to grope a patron, and I am sure we will see media reports of illegal touching from one of these events. Inappropriate touching already occurs, even in no-contact haunts.

When I opened my first haunted attraction in 1976 the industry had just out grown making blindfolded patrons touch peeled grape “eyeballs” or cold spaghetti  “brains.” In the decades since, I have seen the industry grow and evolve into the high tech, animatronic, LED, soundscaped fright houses of today. In the 1970’s, actors touching patrons was common, but at that time the trend was away from heavy gore and towards high startle. Over touching patrons became taboo.

Many of today’s full contact haunts seem to be owned by the next generation of haunters. A younger group, more likely to enjoy physical activity and more desensitized from fright by video games and film CGI, like the patrons that they cater to. While most of the “old school” haunters, those who have become the patriarchs of our industry are railing against this “new” trend, worried that full contact will irreparably damage the industry that supports their livelihood. However, there are infamous Haunted Events across the country, like Bates Motel in Pennsylvania and House of Shock in Louisiana, that have been “full contact” experiences, or at least have been touching patrons, for 20 years or more with no apparent industry damage done.

We haunt designers are always experimenting, thinking outside the “oblong” box, hacking new technology and trying to devise devious and sometimes dubious ways to scare an ever more hardened audience. Because of this, haunting is always changing. Invasion of personal space is a well accepted technique. The next logical step was actual contact with the victim. At the very least, a full contact Haunt silences that young teen girl repeating throughout the haunt “If you touch me, I’ll sue!”

Grabbing patrons is not my personal preference in haunt design, (perhaps I am too old and brittle to think being carried out of a room can be fun), but this full contact approach is coming and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. The question now is how to compete with it? Will the perception be that a full contact haunt is scarier than a no-contact haunt? If so, you may have to make the jump to full contact.

The task now is to figure out the most profitable approach to full contact; charging to be touched, charging not to be touched, or offering no options at all. This will play out in the next few years and it will be interesting to see which concept makes more money. After all, making more money should be the goal of all this. However, from a liability stand point, and to compete with the full contact haunt that will soon be opening up in your market, everyone should remove the “actors will not touch you” signs and instructions today!

Full contact haunts are not the end of haunting as we know it, but I am not sure it is the next big thing either. Haunting trends come and go and we have seen “touch” haunted houses before.  Are the “alone” style haunts, where you have to dig though something disgusting in a toilet to retrieve a key, really all that different from peeled grape eyeballs and spaghetti for brains?

As a cautionary tale, one full contact event owner boasted to me that patrons leaving his attraction tell the people waiting in line to get the full manhandle contact upgrade. Proof, he said, that full contact was popular and a money maker. When I toured the haunt, however, I found a flaw in his logic. The actors spent all of their time focused on the girls in my group with the full contact wrist bands and ignored the rest of us. Were patrons leaving the attraction telling people to get the upgrade because the experience was better with full contact? Or because the experience  was not worth the price without the upgrade. Make sure that your actors give at least some attention to us “no-touch” patrons. We paid money too.



Leonard Pickel is owner of Hauntrepreneurs(R) Themed Design and Consulting Firm as well as the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Conference (HAuNTcon) and partner in www.findhaunt.com attraction listing portal. He can be reached at hauntrepreneurs@gmail.com