For many people, haunted house attractions have been a part of Halloween for as long as they can remember. Whether it’s community center productions featuring peeled grapes for eyeballs or bigger-budget scare-fests with Hollywood-style special effects, haunted houses have created some of America’s most chilling, thrilling memories for almost 100 years. But have you ever wondered how they came to be?
A Scary Start
The distant origins of today’s haunted attractions may lie in ancient Greek and Roman theater. Such dramas often depicted heroes and ordinary people struggling against monsters and beasts and featured rudimentary special effects such as fog and fake gore. (Some even included contraptions to make actors appear to fly.)
In later centuries, as Christianity displaced older religions, the traveling plays and pageants of the Middle Ages also used scare tactics — like animal parts standing in for severed limbs — to frighten European peasants into piety. Although moral lessons were the intended effect, many attended for the gruesome entertainment value alone.
Another fascinating and often forgotten forerunner of haunted houses arose during the Age of Enlightenment. Magic lantern shows, also known as phantasmagorias, entertained elite and royal audiences beginning in the mid-17th century. Likely invented by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in the 1660s, magic lanterns functioned a bit like slide projectors, with hand-painted glass slides illuminated via a candle or other light source and then projected through a lens. Skeletons, devils, phantoms, and other spooky imagery were a big part of the shows from the very beginning; for many years, to attend a phantasmagoria almost certainly meant you were in for a horror-tinged treat.
Phantasmagorias stepped it up a notch toward the end of the 1700s, when macabre and supernatural imagery came into vogue amid the rise of Romanticism and the Gothic novel. Magic lantern “seances” of the dead thrilled audiences in a Leipzig coffee shop starting around 1770, then spread to Paris and London. By the 1790s, a Belgian showman named Etienne-Gaspard Robertson had transformed phantasmagorias into true multimedia spectacles.
According to the magic lantern historian Mervyn Heard, “[Robertson] invited his audience to assemble at night on a roadside in the center of Paris. Here they encountered a mysterious cowled figure who led them through a graveyard full of crumbling tombs and brambles to the derelict Convent of the Capuchins.” In an abandoned chapel draped in black velvet and decorated with skulls, Robertson used his multiple lanterns (including one mounted on wheels that he called his “Fantoscope”) to project images of ghosts, skeletons, bleeding nuns, grim reapers, demons, mythological figures, and the famous dead of the French Revolution. The images “were made to appear around the room, rising from the floor, growing in size and suddenly vanishing into thin air, accompanied by storm effects, eerie music from the nerve-shredding glass harmonica and ventriloquial voices,” Heard writes.
The shows were a smashing success, and were widely copied. Soon, creepy phantasmagorias moved from elite entertainment to more democratic touring “ghost shows” in England and America. (A typical early 19th century American presentation might include a storm with thunder and lightning, plus slides of ghosts, Romeo and Juliet, the tomb of Mary Stuart, “the Apotheosis of Washington,” shadows depicting a Dance of Witches, and a three-dimensional skeleton that appeared to fly through the theater.)
But as the century progressed, magic lantern shows grew passé and competed with other morbid spectacles. Marie Tussaud traveled Europe with her wax models of guillotined heads from the French Revolution, then set up a “Chamber of Horrors” (as the press dubbed it) at London's Baker Street Bazaar in 1835. Thanks to her and the many impresarios that followed, waxworks proliferated in America well into the 20th century — when outlets like New York City’s Eden Musée created tableaus featuring heinous crimes ripped from the headlines.
Pepper’s Ghost and Parisian Spectacles
Today’s haunted attractions also owe a debt to the stage magic of the 19th century, and one spooky illusion in particular: Pepper’s Ghost. This technique involved a sheet of glass placed strategically on a stage, so that bright light cast on an actor in the orchestra pit or wings bounced off the glass to produce a reflection of their “ghost” on the stage. British civil engineer Henry Dircks invented the effect but sold it to John Henry Pepper, director of the Royal Polytechnic in London, who adapted it. The illusion was first used for a dramatic reading of Charles Dickens’s “The Haunted Man” in London on Christmas Eve 1862, and then became popular in theater, magic shows, and fairground productions.
Pepper’s Ghost was also a stock illusion at the Cabaret du Néant, one of the most famous (and ghastly) of several immersive “cabarets artistique” in Belle Epoque Montmartre. At the Cabaret du Néant (the “Cabaret of Nothingness”), the cocktails were named after diseases and poisons, served under ghoulish green lighting by waiters dressed as pallbearers. The room was decorated with skulls, bones, and candlelit coffins, which also served as tables. The evening’s entertainment culminated with a show in which a member of the audience stepped into a coffin at the front of the room and was seemingly transformed into a glowing skeleton — thanks to Pepper’s Ghost.
The Cabaret du Néant was a huge hit, but in terms of terror, it had nothing on the Theatre du Grand Guignol. Established in 1890s Paris, Grand Guignol dramas shocked and titillated both elite and working-class audiences with staged decapitations, mutilations, and much, much worse. The heavy use of prosthetics, spring-loaded devices, and fake blood ensured that few actors escaped (simulated) harm. According to Grand Guignol scholar Mel Gordon, the plays were also the first set in insane asylums — later a frequent haunted house trope.
The Depression and Beyond
The first recognizable modern haunted house is often said to be the “Haunted Cottage” constructed by fairground manufacturers Orton & Spooner around 1915 for a fairground in Liphook, England. Though pretty tame by today’s standards, audiences of the time loved winding their way though the dark on moving floors, feeling cold air blasts and listening to recorded screams. Amazingly, the attraction can still be visited: After a 2017 restoration, the ride opened for visitors at the Hollycombe Working Steam Museum in Liphook.
Yet the standalone haunted houses we know today really go back to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, American parents and authorities were eager to distract kids from more troublesome Halloween traditions involving pranks and property destruction. Groups of Depression-era parents would create “trails of terror” so that kids could go house-to-house experiencing DIY haunts, often in basements. These productions frequently featured tunnels or mazes, perhaps lined with strips of old fur and raw liver on the walls or hairnets dangling from the ceiling like cobwebs. One 1930s handbook for creating these haunts even suggested theming different parts of the maze as the “Ghouls Gaol,” “Mad House,” and “Dead Man’s Gulch.”
By the 1960s, civic organizations such as the United States Junior Chamber (or Jaycees) had realized that haunted houses were a good way to fundraise. In fact, these haunted houses became such a lucrative strategy that one chapter head in Bloomington, Illinois formed the “Haunted House Company” and wrote a manual to help other chapters — becoming America’s first haunted house expert in the process.
Like the phantasmagorias of old, many of these haunted houses included Gothic elements drawn from literature, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dracula, alongside creepy creatures like spiders and bats, plus spooky music and mist. Usually, there was no overarching narrative thread — just a trip through a building guaranteed to shatter and splatter your nerves.
Disney Changes Everything
The nascent haunted house industry transformed when Walt Disney came on the scene. Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion opened in 1969, complete with transforming portraits (much like those of the Cabaret du Néant), a ghostly wedding party, a headless horseman, and a 90-foot-long ballroom sequence of partying ghouls that relied on the Pepper’s Ghost trick. While customers were originally supposed to wander through the mansion on their own, staff had problems keeping the pace, which is how the mansion became a ride with patrons ensconced in “doom buggies.”
The Haunted Mansion was a mega-hit. In just one day not long after its debut, more than 82,000 people visited its halls. The attraction helped move the industry from non-profit haunts to bigger-budget affairs, and many of those who create modern haunts point to the high production values and more linear storytelling as a major inspiration for their creations.
In the early 1970s, Knott's Berry Farm began staging its own Halloween night attractions, which soon evolved into elaborate multi-day productions. From there, commercial haunted houses took off.
At the time, Hollywood was turning away from physical effects and more toward CGI and animation, leaving many good prop makers and creepy character actors available. A horror boom in the 1980s and ’90s (think slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street) also encouraged interest in gore-filled attractions.
The final nail in the coffin for lower-budget community productions came after a fire at a haunted house in New Jersey in 1984 led to eight deaths, prompting new and stricter safety regulations. Homegrown fundraising affairs, which were already struggling to compete, had fewer resources to meet the new codes and were more likely to get shut down.
In the 1990s, the number of haunted houses and related Halloween amusements exploded. Since then, the industry has benefited from big advances in lighting, special effects, animatronics, and more. At last count, more than 1,200 haunted attractions charged admission fees around the country. And while this year’s scares, amidst the pandemic and lockdowns, may look a little different, it seems more than likely that the haunted house industry will continue to rise from the dead each autumn with plenty of spooks up its sleeves.