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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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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