It’s hard to do market research on haunted attractions when you own one yourself. That’s because when the haunted attractions open up for the season, you’re too busy to go see them yourself. It’s a bummer in a way, but for us, during the short 4 year interim when we shut down Cornstalk Haunted Attraction in Grant, NE and opened School District 13 in Brule, we were able to go see some Denver haunted houses and get a feel for what was going on in the industry.
Of course, one of the biggest, most obvious differences between School District 13 and urban haunted attractions like those you see in Denver, is technology. In Denver, it’s possible for a haunted attraction to gross hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because they have a huge patron base. In contrast, in a small town like Brule, there are fewer people which means fewer patrons, and also fewer profits to use to buy the latest and greatest animatronics or pneumatics for our haunts. In short, we have to call on other forces in the universe besides technology to inspire fear in our patrons…namely those forces that made haunted houses in America a thing of legend in their earliest days: the human imagination.
There are ways to incite fear without all the glitz and bling of the big city haunts. In my free time I spend most of my waking hours reading about and experimenting with ways to hijack the human brain…how to make myself or other people feel or think differently without a lot of big, fancy tools. Theater (which is mostly what haunted attractions are) is all about manipulating emotions, after all. This is at the root of all haunted houses, Shakespeare festivals, and high school musicals. The goal in all of these cases is to make the audience care; to make the audience feel something and usually, the emotion the audience feels is synthetically produced. It’s fabricated out of a storyline or a situation that evokes empathy or awe. We don’t have deep pockets to make obnoxious and shocking sets at School District 13. Instead, we have psychology. We have each patron’s imagination. That’s the beauty of our small town haunt.
Halloween as a holiday wasn’t really formalized until It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown came out and I believe that at the root of our fascination with haunted houses is the desire to feel what it’s like as a kid to see the full moon rise in the east and how mysterious it is that the moon could be so big and orange. We want to feel the mystery of Halloween and experience the way the wind blows, at least here in Nebraska when autumn comes, and how the corn stalks rattle in the fields and the leaves blow across the streets near twilight. We want to believe in ghosts and the possibility that there’s more to life than what we KNOW. Halloween is about mystery which is the lighter side of fear…because mystery is filled with hope and possibility. And this is the Halloween that I fell in love with as a kid.
It’s also the Halloween that we celebrate at School District 13 outside on the streets that lead up to the Prom Night Massacre, Dr. Doom’s Science Room, Mr. Wiggle’s, and the Corn Maze.
Though Colorado haunted houses may have some amazing sets, we have some amazing volunteers working for us at School District 13. And our sets are real! Our set is the whole town of Brule, NE! We may lack some of the technologies of the big-city haunts, but have a different kind of awesomeness that we’re promoting here. School District 13 isn’t just about the latest and greatest technologies, but how to tweak the human imagination. It’s about mystery and the unexpected. It’s about the leaves blowing across the street. The feeling of being utterly alone in a big world. It’s about the yellow lights cast dimly through a window on an autumn night. And zombies on street corners. You won’t have the same experience here at School District 13 in the tiny town of Brule that you’ll have at Denver haunted houses…but is that really what you want anyway? Halloween is a big holiday with lots of possibilities that are just waiting for you here in Brule.