How Haunted Houses Went From DIY to Major Moneymakers

Haunted houses have become a Halloween tradition, with millions of people attending them each year. Throughout history, these attractions have received a boost from some surprising sources.

Haunted House Origins

While sharing scary stories has been a source of entertainment for thousands of years, haunted houses are a much newer phenomenon. Their roots trace back to 19th-century London, where a series of new exhibits and illusions were introduced to the public. One of the major contributors to the development of the “haunted house” was Marie Tussaud, who has remained a recognizable name in attractions to this day.

 

In 1802, Tussaud debuted an exhibition of wax sculptures featuring decapitated French figures, including King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre. The likenesses were incredibly accurate, as Tussaud had created death masks of the guillotine victims of the French Revolution. Tussaud later created a permanent London exhibition and named her collection the “Chamber of Horrors.”

 

The wax museum continued to house a “Chamber of Horrors” exhibit for over 200 years until it was permanently closed in 2016 to make way for more family-friendly displays. Throughout the years, the Chamber of Horrors exhibit included scenes that depicted infamous murderers and graphic deaths. Some of the subjects featured prior to the closure included Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler, and Hitler.

DIY Haunted Houses

In the 1930s, haunted houses surged in popularity in America thanks to an unlikely source. For years, Halloween had been a night of revelry for children and teenagers. This included pranks that were often disruptive and sometimes dangerous. One disturbing example occurred in 1900 when University of Michigan medical students stole a headless corpse from the anatomy lab and propped it up against the building’s front doors.

 

When the Great Depression hit, Halloween antics escalated across the country, leading to increased public outcry. In 1933, hundreds of teenage boys engaged in major acts of vandalism including flipping cars and sawing off telephone poles. The holiday was referred to as “Black Halloween,” in reference to the “Black Tuesday” moniker given to the stock market crash four years prior. After the chaos, some communities decided to arrange Halloween entertainment to keep children out of trouble. They organized activities like trick-or-treating, costume parades, and haunted houses.

 

A party planning pamphlet from 1937 includes instructions for creating a “trail of terror,” which provides a glimpse of haunted houses of the era. It advises, “Hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps. Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face… Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel.”

The Haunted Mansion

Most haunted houses remained non-profit, community-organized entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. But in later decades, companies began creating their own haunted houses as commercial attractions. The most influential one by far was the Haunted Mansion, which opened at Disneyland Park in 1969. Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, points to the Haunted Mansion as “the start of the haunted attraction industry.” She explains that what made the ride so influential and successful was its exceptional production value and use of new technologies that were revolutionary for the time.

 

Once visitors make it past the impressive facade inspired by the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, they’re taken on a tour of the Haunted Mansion via an Omnimover ride system. The Omnimover system was designed by Disney Imagineers. It consists of a chain of vehicles operating on a track, maintaining constant motion at a specific speed throughout the entire course of the attraction. The Haunted Mansion was just the second attraction to use this ride system, with Disneyland’s Adventure Through Inner Space (1967-1985) being the first.


One of the most iconic moments in the Haunted Mansion is the ballroom scene, where ghostly apparitions materialize at a lively party. This effect is achieved using the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, named for John Henry Pepper who popularized its use in 1862, over 100 years before the debut of the Haunted Mansion. To create the illusion, animatronics are positioned below the ride tracks, out of view of the riders. A large pane of glass separates the animatronics from the ballroom set. Lights are then shone directly on the animatronics, which causes their images to reflect off of the glass and appear as transparent, ghostly figures within the ballroom scene. Disneyland guests were blown away by the immersive experience of the Haunted Mansion, which provided a huge boost to the development of haunted houses as commercial attractions.

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