This week Pittsburgh hosts HAuNTcon, a convention and tradeshow for the haunt industry. Among its featured guests is its own founder, Leonard Pickel, a horror industry vet who has contributed over 100 haunt designs for Universal Studios, Six Flags, and the Playboy Mansion, among scores of others.
To further cemented his name in the haunt industry, Pickel coined and trademarked the term “Hauntrepreneur®”, and is also the namesake of “The Pickel Theory of Haunted Houses,” described as “a high startle, low gore, high throughput, low theatrics approach to dark amusements, this unique nonoffensive style of attraction design revolutionized the industry, challenging its reliance on blood and gore to ‘gross out’ rather than frighten.”
Ahead of HAuNTcon, running May 3rd to 6th, Pickel answered a few of our questions. After you’ve had a chance to read, be sure to leave a comment for him pushing him to make Los Angeles a future city for the convention.
When did you realize you could make a living in the haunt industry?
I started haunting as a hobby, but soon found myself thinking about it non-stop. I was working in architecture at the time but more and more I found myself thinking about haunted attraction design during my day job. It became apparent I needed to make the leap into haunting as a profession. I quit my job and moved to Myrtle Beach to open my own summer seasonal haunt, and continued design haunted attractions fro clients across the country. Architecture then became my side job to make ends meet in the early days. My architectural background greatly influenced my haunt design and provided expertise in structure vs. function.
When and where was the last time another haunt actually scared you?
While you won’t see me jump, I can be startled in a haunt. Usually because I am looking “behind the curtain” to see how an effect was done, not seeing the actor disguised as a wall. I go to as many haunts as I can in October and I get “scared” once or twice a season.
Have you ever experienced the supernatural – seen a ghost? If so, please describe. If not, do you believe in ghosts?
I am a TRUE skeptic! I would love to have a paranormal experience, that would make me believe in ghosts, but I create my own ghosts all the time. I don’t think even seeing one would convince me it was really the spirit of the dearly departed. Part of me would always think it was just a well executed special effect.
Are there any emerging trends or changes in the haunt industry that you either predict or simply hope for?
I am a big believer in timed ticketing for haunted attractions and hope to see more and more haunts converting to this practice. By selling tickets in 30 minute allotments, much like buying movie tickets for a specific time slot, an attraction can better manage the audience flow and minimize the impact of large crowds on peak nights.
This strategy eliminates the long lines and makes the overall haunt going experience more enjoyable for all patrons.
One emerging trend also worth noting is the level of detail in the attractions. With the help of conventions like HAuNTcon, many of the haunts are increasing the realism of the scenes, rising to movie quality set decoration. This is a very exciting area for growth and creativity and greatly adds to the suspension of disbelief of the customers.
I like to pitch that Los Angeles and SoCal has more to offer haunt lovers than any other geographic location in the United States… who do you think we compete with (or who leaves us in the dust?)
The Detroit metroplex has as many as 60 haunted attractions each year, which makes California’s numbers appear small relative to its population. California haunters are doing some creative things no one else in the industry is doing, inspired by the local film industry.
Ohio, Texas and Michigan have the most attractions overall. Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Atlanta have some of the best attended. As a whole I am very excited to see the growing popularity of haunted and Halloween attractions nation-wide.
Even in a down economy, haunting seems to be holding it’s own, and many new people are starting attractions.
Where do you go, or what to do you watch or read, for haunt inspiration? Is there one resource that you keep returning to? Anything that may strike people as an unusual creative resource?
I have read several non-fiction books by horror writers on how they write and create suspense in their books. Steven King and Hitchcock are my inspirations, but Walt Disney is also a great motivator. Movies have a big influence on what I do as a designer, but attending other people’s haunted attractions is my biggest source of ideas. I have attended as many as 200 haunted attractions in a single October. I don’t ‘steal’ ideas, but I like to take something I saw in Dallas and pair it with something I saw in Salt Lake City, putting them together for the first time to create something entirely new and unique.
Besides being fun, what sort of positive influence do haunts provide to society, if any?
Fear is an emotion, and like any emotion we need to experience it before we know how we will react in a critical moment. A haunted attraction puts us in as close to a fight or flight situation as possible without creating any real danger. It gives people the chance to know how they will react to a chainsaw wielding maniac for example, and still live to tell about it.
But apart from an opportunity to conquer our fears, haunted attractions are mostly all about the adrenalin rush. Haunt goers are usually the same people who ride roller coasters and bungee jump. They want to feel alive… by coming as close as they can to death, but still walk away.