Freaking the Mundanes – When Terror Goes Too Far!

by on Feb.16, 2011, under Haunting Ideas, NETHERWORLD Haunted House

Freaking the Mundanes – When Terror Goes Too Far!

Ben Armstrong – NETHERWORLD Haunted House


You have all had this moment I am sure – Your actors in full costume are attending a horror movie premiere, and some theater goer who didn’t expect to see REAL zombies just stepped out of a G-rated movie and lapses into abject terror. The actors love it, they chase the “victim” all over the place and a great time is had by all. Or is it? I love to scare people as does every haunter, but I am getting more and more aware of the fact that we occasionally take it a little too far in public places. I think we all need to take a little more care when we “Freak the Mundanes”!

Long, long ago I was very active in a medieval recreation group called the SCA or “Society for Creative Anachronism”. Basically this was a group of folks who dressed up in medieval garb, had actual tournaments and full on battles with hundreds of armored warriors bashing the stew out of each other. One of the sideline activities that some members always cherished was stopping by the local Mc Donald’s on the way to an event in full costume/armor and watching the “mundanes” or normal everyday people freak out. Of course there are three schools of thought on this – 1) The Costumer who is embarrassed by the “costume” and won’t put on garb till they get to the event, 2) The Costumer who doesn’t care and just wants a hamburger and 3) The Costumer who really wants to make a spectacle of himself, by not only looking odd but also acting odd and “engaging” the “mundanes”.

Now in medieval garb there really aren’t a lot of problems you will get into with the general public. Most people don’t mind seeing a wench in a corset, and might even get a few chuckles at the expense of a dude in tights. Sometimes however wearing real steel swords or large daggers and axes does raise eyebrows especially if you do so in a bar, or in front of local law enforcement. Another way we would encounter the general public would be at a “demo” ( what we in the haunt biz call a promo) where SCA members might demonstrate combat or any of the many arts and sciences we practiced. However, what Haunters are demonstrating is something else entirely! Now the SCA has some similarities to haunting, certainly in the costuming aspects, but we were engaging in a hobby that at its best evoked a sense of wonder. We haunters on the other hand are in the business of evoking a sense of terror!

When patrons come to our attractions it is GAME ON! They came to your haunted house to be scared and from the moment they pull up in the parking lot until they leave an actor could scare them at any time. Yes, some of us take pity on truly terrorized guests and don’t overwork them, others want nothing more than a pass out or loss of bodily functions. But no matter what your school of thought on that, at the very least these people DID make a choice to come to YOU. When you encounter a mundane person off site the rules and the consequences are much different. In today’s climate of Zombie Walks, Pranks, and YouTube many people are trying to scare or freak people out in non-haunted house environments, something that could affect us in a negative way as an industry. True the overall idea of scaring people is getting more attention, but it can just as easily cause bad publicity. Over the years NETHERWORLD has done many promo events, but these days we are a little more selective about what events we do and the level of “scary” we bring because of the following experiences:

St. Patrick’s Day Parade: Many years ago we had a bunch of actors in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade. After a careful speech to the crew about not being too aggressive, the parade began and I saw our scarecrow startle some folks. It was as if a red haze went over my eyes and I went for the crowd! The next thing you know the entire parade route population were our victims as the actors did what actors do…scare people! We had a great time! The following year I went to register for the event and learned we had been banned! Apparently we had made children cry and had several complaints. Maybe we played that one a little rough…

Dawn of The Dead Remake Promo: We had a promo company set up an odd event. In the middle of a fake fashion show at a department store in the local mall, a bunch of our zombies emerged from back stage and made for the crowd. The group of middle aged women who were our audience were not amused. I wouldn’t say they were scared but rather confused and disgusted might be more accurate. Fortunately no blood and gore was wiped off on the clothes racks at the zombie milled about. Later that week we did the movie theatre promo and that was pretty crazy! First we had 20 zombies enter the darkened theatre as the credits rolled and people were exiting. Much terror ensued! They were not ready for haunted house zombies coming at them in the darkness and many totally freaked. Several began throwing punches, and we had some serious threats of gun violence. When we worked another screening before a movie one kid totally tripped and wiped out running from the actors. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt. I was beginning to question exposing the “unsuspecting public” to haunted house actors out of context.

Prosthetics Vs Mall Security: Over the years we have done enumerable movie promos, but as time passed we began bringing fewer actors to better control the mayhem. After 9-11 many malls raised security and also banned masks. On more than one occasion as we walked to a promo we have been stopped by a seriously upset mall security officers who insisted that we “take our masks off.” When we had actor in prosthetics this proved to be a problem. Of course smooth talking often wins the day, but this began as a tense situation.

Pub Crawl: One year we all got in a rented bus and stopped at a series of bars and nightclubs to hand out flyers. If you think drunk people in your haunt is bad, try taking the haunt to the drunks! Now many people had a great time and we got a lot of good buzz (pardon the jest…!) but that was the last pub crawl we did. Similar problems can occur if you bring actors to charged up events like high school football games – sometimes the crowd loves it, other times it can get ugly.

Monsters in the River: We often visit other haunts and act at them. A few years ago in the summer we went to a “tourist destination” that had tons of folks enjoying floating down the river in inner tubes right in front of the haunted house. The owner of the haunt wanted us to get into the river (he owned the land it flowed through) and scare the “tubers.” We happily obliged! It was fun and went well until some people got very angry because their young children were scared. We pulled out of the river and went back into the haunt. The police were also called, and it was big news in the local paper. The owner got the publicity he wanted, but I was about done with scaring the general public.

The reality is this – many people like to be scared and they come to our haunted houses to enjoy that feeling. But many more DO NOT want to be scared, and approaching them out of context in a public place can terrify and embarrass them. Imagine an average Zombie Walk. A hundred or so “zombies” shamble down the public streets because they get a kick out of “freaking the mundanes”. A woman with a stroller emerges from a store with a 6 year old child in tow and runs into the zombies. The child is scarred for life and the mother is enraged. Is this a good thing? Many of us and almost all of our actors love to scare people whenever they can, and also love to “freak them out”. Is it good business to go out in public and unleash your actors onto people who might be phobic, drunk, ready to fight, small children, ill-trained security guards with guns, etc? What if you scare people into traffic or down a staircase? Think how many people in the general population are scared by mall santas, mascots, and clowns. Will they come to your haunt, the true phobics? No. Will you run into them at a promo? Yes! And when they run will your actors chase them? Yes! Now don’t get me wrong, NETHERWORLD has had maybe hundreds of successful promos over the years, and we continue to do parades and other large events. But we have learned to be very careful when it comes to haunting away from our turf.

What I am saying is this…. At your location you are in control. You have the staff, the officers and the actors on the same page. People know they are at a haunted attraction, they know they will not be hurt. You design the displays not to hurt people. But when you do promos in the general public outside of your event you are not in control and people do not know what is going on. For safety’s sake and for the sake of good will towards your attraction and haunted houses in general, please be careful! Take limited actors, be non-aggressive, and try not to lose yourself in the dark thrill of freaking the mundanes!


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