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Sound Ideas

Did You Hear That?

Thump.... Thump.... Thump....

One of the most often overlooked parts of a haunt is the soundtrack. Unlike a real abandoned house, a quiet haunt is a lonely, empty place... "Hey, wait! we need some sounds!".

Second only to sight, sound is most powerful medium to enhance a haunting experience. Sound is useful to add apprehension and increase tension before a scare, intensify the scare, and offer a breathing space to relax the guest for the next scary scene. All kinds of sounds can be used, sounds to excite, delight, relax, arouse fear, put on edge, make nervous, and startle.

Putting together a well thought out sequence of sounds for your guests to enjoy as they proceed through your haunt will greatly enhance their excitement. Creating a sound landscape, or 'soundscape', can make the difference between a ho-hum haunt and a haunt that everyone talks about. Doing this requires practice, patience, some equipment, and above all, the ability to listen.

Enhance and Surprise

Listen to movies with your eyes closed. No kidding. Go rent your favorite movie, pop it into the VCR, sit back, turn up the volume, and close your eyes. Listen to how the sounds 'tells you' what's happening, or what's going to happen next. The main intent of sound in movies is to accent the visual presentation and add to the action. You can 'hear' the anticipation, the action, the release. This is exactly what is needed in a haunt. Using sound effectively will greatly enhance the haunt experience. In addition, in the live theater of a haunted house, the sound can not only effectively enhance, but deliver much of the intended effect. Choosing the right sound for the right moment is a very important part of giving the guest a good show. On the other hand, having just any sound or sound effect with a scene may dramatically reduce the impact.

Everyone carries expectations with them. We are all "pre-wired" to expect certain things to happen when presented with a situation. Scene designers take advantage of this all the time in haunts, either by presenting a familiar space and delivering an unexpected action, or by creating an unfamiliar space and delivering an expected action - unexpectedly!

Add to this idea, sounds that enhance the space the guests enter, go through, then leave. Given enough time in the room, an entire sound presentation is possible. But even for a short time, the right sound environment can make a real difference. There are several classes of sounds effective in haunting, including the most important use of sound - silence!

The Sound of Silence

The effective use of sound also includes the absence of sound - silence. Suddenly changing from a loud sequence to silence carries tension. Alfred Hitchcock is the master of tension and silence. In his movies, notice the sudden absences of music, dialogue, or sound effects. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, all while making room to add higher levels of excitement. In general, many modern movie directors use silence effectively to enhance the mood. They will have a music or sound effect track suddenly stop, then let the dialogue carry the action, then the music track blasts back in to accent the action.

Here's a simple, if not obvious, example: Say you have a large space designed as a forest. As guests enter, they hear the sound of crickets chirping constantly in the background. Then, suddenly, the crickets stop. The guests are filled with apprehension, with their senses on full alert. Something is going to happen! Then the crickets start again, and the guests relax a bit. They guess something is not going to happen after all. (now they are ready for the tree monster to jump out!) A simple use of silence caused a dramatic change in guest's perception of what is going to happen next.

Incidental Sounds

There are many sounds that put peoples 'teeth on edge' or heighten unease. Some of them include: high-speed dentist drills, fingernails on chalkboard, child or baby sounds (a child's scream, a child's voice in the dark, a baby crying or screaming), low growling, heavy breathing, whispers in the dark, heartbeats, the highest and lowest pitched sounds at the very edge of hearing - the list goes on and on. Utilizing these 'incidental' sounds in-between scenes adds to the environment, especially when the guest doesn't expect to have anything happen. For example: right after a main scene, the group goes around a corner into a short, dark tunnel. The sound of fingernails on chalkboard is heard, or suddenly, a whisper right at ear level "Look out! Don't step on the spiders!".

The Sound That Scares

In a 'jack-in-the-box" room, playing ghost sounds or growling, gnashing monster sounds will often not be as effective as a children's "pop goes the weasel" or other nursery rhyme song. Here an expected sound works to help deliver the action. Modifying the song by varying the tempo, pitch, or echo will produce an exciting, action-heightening, attention-getting experience. Using a growling monster sound will have everyone looking for the monster. But using a nursery rhyme will heighten the effect, because there is no good clue about what is about to happen next. Everyone knows something will happen, sometime around the "Pop! goes the weasel", right? But, they won't know what! Having expected, or situation-familiar sounds will 'disarm' expectations, enabling a highly effective scare when the six foot Jack the clown monster jumps out from a 2 foot tall box (it can happen!). This orientation to the familiar 'forces' a perspective for the guest, and effectively sets them up for the scare.

For another example, one of the most unique sounding instruments is the theremin. Its electronic, haunting, edge-on sound is always guaranteed to get attention. By now, everyone has heard it in sci-fi movies. But, few have ever had a chance to experience one personally. A good setup is to place a theremin at the entrance or in one of the first rooms of the haunt, and let guests play with it. As soon as they just begin to play - blast them through the wall with a crazy guy screaming "stop it!". Or have the theremin speaker blast out "stop that!".

In each case, the audience was entirely focused on the sound. In the jack-in-the-box, to 'tell' them when the scare was going to occur. In theremin example, to deliver a totally unexpected scare, or the sound itself delivers the scare.

Tell A Story

Always remember the first rule of soundscaping: Avoid Monotony! Just like constant screaming at a guest loses its effect after a while, a spooky organ playing endlessly will lose its edginess at best, and at worst, it will become increasingly annoying. Constantly delivering an interesting series of sounds keeps the ears "perked up", ready and waiting for the next aural clue. Begin your soundscapes early, while the guests are in line waiting to go in. Make it interesting (did I say that already?).

Tell a story with sounds. Sequence sounds to build from a beginning, move through a buildup in tension, then relax to the ending. Keep the audience listening for the next aural clue. Mix up screams with short silences, industrial machines with wind, thunderstorms with door knocks, seance with metal rock'n'roll, and so on. Juxtaposition is the key to keeping the ears listening. Listen to recordings to hear how composers take the listener through an aural journey of foreboding and fear. Industrial or gothic rockers use a wall of noise. Movies use textures, and juxtaposition. Classical works use dissonance.

Tell a story with words. Take a hint from Disney's Haunted Mansion, where at the very beginning, your 'Ghost Host' begins with a simple, effective description of your journey into the unknown. This immediately sets the mood and gets you tuned into the experience. You can use this idea while your guests are waiting in line, or as with the Haunted Mansion, in the very first room. (side note: notice even before you go into Disney's Haunted Mansion, there is a low level ambient sound track playing!)

There are two main parts to soundscaping a haunt. Producing an overall background soundscape is called ambient sounds, and specific sounds that support the action in a scene is the scene sound.

Ambient Sounds

The overall background soundscape sets the mood for the haunt or a scene. It can be rock'n'roll, haunting ghost sounds, banshees, organs, clanks, creaks, howls, or all the above and more! It sets an aural background and doesn't intrude on the scene sound. It also hides unwanted noises and maintains an atmosphere for the guest. For example, dishes clattering in a kitchen or restaurant, wind sounds in a forest, or mechanical sounds in a factory. These sounds provide expected clues to give the guest important background information that locate them in place and in time.

Usually ambient sound is lower in overall volume than the scene sound. Just like detail scenery should not distract from the main part of the scene, the ambient sound should not mask the scene sound. Remember, its the 'background'!

Scene Sounds

The scene sound delivers the action. Its the slam! of the door, the banshee's scream, the monster's roar. The scene sound should be heard above any other sound in the area. The key to an effective sound performance is how well the ambient and the scene sound work together to deliver the intended effect for the audience.

Work Together!

The sound for a room in your haunt should help set the mood for the performance. Both the ambient and the scene sounds must work together! Go for the best balance. Try several different sound effects. Work for the overall sound effect that produces the best environment in your room. Try different volume levels. Find the best volume that doesn't hide the main sound. Experiment!

Simple scenes where a quick scare is delivered should not demand as elaborate a soundscape as would benefit a fully produced theatrical scene. If your guests are only passing through a scene, the sound effects must be quick and repetitive, to ready for the next group, while a theatrical scene needs sounds to accompany and enhance the action with some time to reset.

In a theatrical mad scientist room, the electrical and bubbling sounds should enhance, not get in the way of the scientist yelling "Its Alive!", or the monster growling as it rises. Both the ambient and the scene sounds should accent the rise in action, build the suspense, then help deliver the scare.

An important point - neither the ambient or the scene sounds have to be recorded sounds! Either may be produced by the props or the actors. An actor moaning on a dungeon rack while chains rattle is the ambient sound behind the executioner's screaming "Next!".

The Cover Up

Another useful role sound plays in a haunt is to cover up unwanted mechanical sounds, like air cylinder noises, or staff conversations behind the walls. Having some sounds going on all the time in these locations help the guest to focus on the intended source, instead of picking up unwanted, distracting sounds that take away from the experience.

Minimize the source of the unwanted sound. Its a good practice to encourage the staff to minimize conversation, and to talk away from guest pathways. Filter air valve and air cylinder exhausts to reduce or eliminate unwanted air or mechanical sounds. Here's a tip to eliminate the exhaust noise from an air cylinder exhaust: Try wrapping and taping a bit of open cell foam rubber around the exhaust line, or insert a section of pipe cleaner into the exhaust air line.

What's That Ringing Sound?

Don't forget your staff! A good rule of thumb: If you have to speak loudly to carry on a conversation, its loud enough to eventually hurt your hearing. Leave a place in the room for your actor to avoid constant, direct exposure to loud sounds. A niche around the corner from the speaker, a hole to hide behind, or a nearby exit will help relieve the fatigue that comes from working in a very noisy environment. Give the actors frequent breaks, by rotating other actors in from break, or rotate actors from other rooms.

While playing sound tracks, place yourself where the actors are positioned to hear what they will have to hear for hours and days on end. Your guests only hear loud sounds in a room for a moment, but your staff will need to avoid continual long exposure to excessively loud sounds.

Keep a supply of those simple, foam ear plugs for the actors who have to work around loud sounds. Encourage your actors to use them. This will keep you actors from experiencing prolonged hearing loss. It will also keep that 'screamer' from piercing your eardrums, too!


Just as your eyes see details that may take away from a scene, your ears can tell you what sounds need improving. Listen intently for details that "just don't sound right". Again, experiment to see what works. Change speaker placement, the kind or size of speaker, the volume, the timing. Remember, sound direction, volume, timing, frequency, and clarity each affect the quality of the sound, and the quality of your presentation!

Try recording with a tape recorder while you walk through your haunt with all the sounds going. Listen to the recording away from the haunt. You will quickly discover where the sounds need improving. Your soundscapes should be able to work on their own to build an environment, even without the haunt!


In Sound Ideas - Part 2, Reliable Reproduction, the mechanics of sound sources, amplifiers, and speakers are covered.

Index      Sound Ideas, Part 2


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