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The Business of Fear

Q&A for the “Business of Fear” story for CNBC.com.

1.What is it about fear that attracts humans and gets them to spend money on haunted houses?

Haunted houses are for adrenalin junkies. Just like a roller coaster mimics death by violent plane crash, a haunted house mimics a violent death by maniac or monster, both while being relatively secure you will survive to scream again!

2. What’s your estimate as to how many Halloween-style “haunted houses” there are in the US?

There are between 3,000 and 5,000 haunted events that charge admission in the US open only in October. This number changes drastically as unprepared people get into the business and others go out of business each year.

3. Any idea/estimate of the amount of revenue these houses bring in nationwide in a given year?

According to the National Retail Federation’s (www.nrf.com) Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, 20.8 percent of the US consumers planned to attend at least one Haunted Attraction in 2010. This number was up 2.1% from 2007. That equates to over 36.7 million people attending Haunted Houses in the US in 2010 and an estimated total gross revenue of $367 million dollars in ticket sales alone. In addition to that, an estimated $150 million are spent on building and refurbishing Haunted Attractions each year.

Adding this money to the Halloween Retail figure means that $5.55 Billion Dollars are spent on Halloween each year, with Haunted Attractions making up (an appropriate) 9% of the total Halloween Spending.

4. Can you give me an idea of the rate of growth? How many in 1995?

The growth of the Haunted House industry has not been in number of attractions. It is my opinion that this number has decreased since 1995. Codes are more strictly enforced, money is tighter, and property has been harder to find (until recently that is. The current economy has created a surge of new haunts, with people looking to open their own businesses, and plenty of vacant building available.)

What is perceived as rapid growth is the industry coming to age in the marketing world. Today’s haunts realize that no matter how cool your haunt is, if no one knows about it, no one is coming. It takes $2-3 in advertising per person you want to buy a ticket and it is this expanding exposure that that makes it look like there are more haunts every year.

5. Describe “the Haunting industry.”

Haunters are the best people on earth. They are passionate, creative, innovative entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of technology; ever striving for more frights and a better entertainment value for their patrons. No other form of entertainment has the as much impact on its customers.

7. How is it a year-round business?

Most sponsorship money is allocated by January. Changes to the attraction are mapped planned out in March ready for the HAuNTcon convention in Early May where props are ordered. New trends and tips are learned during the conference education program and implementation begins as soon as they get home. Actors are trained throughout the year and start competing for positions in July. Construction and renovations are under way right up until opening in September.

Operations and maintenance run through the first week in November. Then the attraction and property has to be closed up and winterized through December.

8. How much can a good haunted house make for its proprietor?

There are some events in the industry that have in excess of 50,000 people paying $20 or more each in 20 days of operation, but these events are few and far between and it can take years to get to this level.

Haunting is just like any business, there is a 3-5 year payout and what you don’t know can kill you. Hire a consultant or someone who has been down the path several times before to blaze the trail and help you avoid the quicksand. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

9. Conventions? You have conventions? Any web links to one?

HAuNTcon.com – Moves to a new city every year and pays local haunted houses to open up for the show. The money making window is so small that most owners cannot get away from their own businesses in October. HAuNTcon gives them the opportunity to see what haunters in other markets are doing. Over 50 hours of education provided do it yourself prop making, haunt design workshops, business seminar, make-up demos, and actor training classes for attendees. And since Haunters are working on Halloween, the convention offers a attendees the chance to celebrate at a massive costume ball. There are even a hearse rally and a haunted Garage sale.

10. You say, “Haunting is a date thing.” Why?

From the early days of the “Tunnel of Love” men have been taking women to dark and scary attractions so they can receive the rewards of being protective. When you look at the lines of people going into a haunted house, they are mostly couples and groups of mixed gender friends. The largest attended nights are date nights, like Friday and Saturday with Thursday and Sunday fighting for second place. Even in this weak economy, haunted attractions are recording record attendance. October is the only time of year you can get the kind of interactive experience that a haunted house offers and people will take advantage of it going to as many attractions as they can as long as the weather holds. (Bad weather can out you out of business, as can your major league team going to the world series)

11. Why do people pay to be scared?

The haunted house is a rite of passage, something you aren’t allowed to do or cannot summon the courage to do as a small child, “Wait till your older.” Kids today aren’t really allowed to do anything dangerous. They are very protected, from child car seats and air bags to elbow pads and bike helmets. In a haunted house you are lowered to cellular level instincts of fright. What do you do when the chainsaw maniac jumps out from behind the tree? The adrenalin blasts through your veins and you faint, fight or flee.

12. What is the single-most scariest element you’ve seen in a haunted house?

I am pretty tainted, seen about everything in a haunt, so I am hard to startle but it can be done, (usually because I am looking under something to see how it was done and did not notice the actor standing there.) You won’t see me jump, but I still get the adrenalin rush like everyone else.

What scares me most are haunted attractions that are not up to code. Walls covered with flammable black plastic, lack of emergency exits, doors that close off the egress pathway and small gage extension cords running power to too many lights. All in all Haunting is a very safe industry, there has never been a death due to fire in an operating October seasonal Haunted House, but we want to keep it that way. Use only non-flammable and flame retardant materials in the construction. Run electrical in conduit and make sure all doors swing in the direction of any emergency travel.

This is just as important if not more so for the fastest growing segment of our industry, the Home Haunter. Follow these basic guidelines and keep Halloween safe for all of us!

Leonard Pickel is Owner of Hauntrepreneurs(R), a Dark Design and Consulting Firm, Founder of Haunted Attraction Magazine, Owner and Creator of the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention, (HAuNTcon), Partner of Findahaunt.com Haunted Attraction locater. Leonard is available for consulting, Haunt design, permit drawings and lectures, (like the one above). Contact him at 972-951-5100 or via email at hauntcon@gmail.com