The Use of Hand Props in Haunted House Acting

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

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The Use of Hand Props in Haunted House Acting
Or “Get That !#$% Away From Me!”

Ben Armstrong
NETHERWORLD Haunted Attractions

Haunted house acting is one of the most important aspects of this industry in my opinion but for many years it has not received the same attention from many haunt owners that sets and special effects have. Why is this? Is it because it is difficult to control “monsters“? Is it a lack of well known techniques to train and inspire haunt actors? Is it because at tradeshows we cannot “buy” good acting? All of these elements may factor into the equation, but slowly and surely haunted house acting has begun to rise more and more as a topic for study and debate. This article will focus on the use of hand props in haunted house acting, but before we get to that let’s discuss some basic forms of the craft.

What is the purpose of haunted house acting?

Well the quick answer is of course “to scare people!” but that is not the end of it. Your guests (or patrons) have selected your event as an entertainment choice. If they had chosen a movie they might pick a comedy to laugh at, an action movie to be thrilled by, or a horror movie to scare them. You can assume in a general sense that in choosing a haunted house they want to be scared, but never forget that their underlying goal is actually to be entertained. Believe it or not many of your guests do not want to be scared, they are there to laugh at friends, prove their bravery or stare at all your cool toys. Unlike a movie that plays the same way every time, your most skilled actors can observe guests and shape interactive performances to give patrons exactly what they want. Now that’s entertainment!

A few types of haunt acting

This could be the subject of a ten part article, but for the sake of our discussion of hand props, let’s focus on three of the most common forms of haunt acting:

Shock Scares

We all know that most of your guests want the sudden rush of adrenaline from a good startle so usually the bulk of your staff is focused on shock scares. This is the most basic and pure form of haunted house acting that everyone is familiar with. Generally this consists of hidden or motionless actors suddenly appearing, often accompanied by loud vocals to startle the guests. Some say this is just for beginning actors, but I disagree. Proper victim selection, delicate timing and a true hunger to scare ‘em solidly and consistently make having veterans in these roles a must. Dangerous looking or noise making props are great for these positions. Another variation of this is what we call stunt acting that requires special training and equipment to achieve similar effects.

Theatrical/Atmospheric

These actors bear the most resemblance to traditional stage actors. Usually they have specific lines or actions they perform, often with the purpose of relating the plot of your event or setting up shock scares. They tend to get the better make-up and costumes since they will be under greater scrutiny from your patrons and often give the rules or run the door of your event. Big focal point hand props work well for these roles.

Interactive

This more complex form of haunt acting merges the other styles in a way designed to really entertain patrons. Interactive actors will select victims and approach them in a number of ways, crafting the encounter with different dialogue and performances that shift based on the patrons’ reactions. An actor of this sort might find herself comforting a terrified child, amusing a group of tough guys, or chasing willing chickens all over the parking lot. Multi function interactive props are the best choice for these actors, tools you can use for a variety of results.

The ultimate goal of haunted house acting is entertainment and the best way to know you have succeeded is to provoke a reaction. A startle, true fear, laughter, even awe are good reactions, and let you know you are getting the job done. And one of the best tools aside from a clever mind and an urge to scare and entertain is a really good prop.

Functions of Hand Props

So how do you use a hand prop? Most of us just go out there and do it intuitively, but let’s examine some of the ways you can use one to scare and entertain your guests.

Focal points

A good haunted house scene often has one or more focal points to draw the eye where the designer wants it to go, and the same can be done with hand props. Aside from your makeup/mask or your costuming, the guests’ eyes will be drawn to your props. A large prop can be waved around and you will see their eyes follow the movement. You can hide it behind your back and they will try to peak around you. Props held over head will make them look up and away from you creating an opening. By scooting a prop along the ground, like a broom or shovel you can take the action to their feet making them very off balance.

Extension of reach

A nice long prop like a cane or a spear lengthens your reach and the area of your perceived threat. Such tools can be used, carefully, to herd guests or cut off escape routes. They can reach at guests through bars or other restraints, or create a virtual wall in the case of a large cloak. Even when it is not acceptable for you to touch guests, fabric or plant like materials can be held in such a way to make the guests pass through them, forcing them to initiate incidental contact.

Movement tools

Often more costuming than props, movement tools can shape an entire performance. Such tools include knees pads for crawling or sliding on the ground, lift boots or stilts for greater height, or even wheelchairs to roll after guests. Staves and crutches can aid in the appearance of injured or crazed characters, and even roller skates carefully hidden can provide for ghostly movement.

Character descriptors

These props tell patrons who you are instantly. A mop means a janitor, a stethoscope a doctor and a pitchfork a farmer (or devil!). But props as character descriptors are even better when they are a little off. Is that actress with a doll really playing a little girl, or someone who thinks they are a little girl? That explorer has a machete, but why is there blood on it? That guy cleaning up has a foot sticking out of his garbage can. Is he a garbage man or a serial killer?

Provoke dialogue

Some props are set ups to provoke dialogue, from the actor or the guests. A set-up is a perfect way to “get” a guest because the moment the prop is displayed, they will usually say the most obvious thing about it. The actor having heard the response of the patron dozens of times is ready with a response of his own. If I shake a metal can at someone they often say “want some change?” I can then say “I think you better save it for your education!” It is really easy to chase guests with a shovel and pop out groaners like “I really DIG you!” or come at them with a rusty knife and say “I hope you had your tetanus shot!”

There are many other functions of props…just get your mind going, and you will have tons of ideas!

Types of hand props

Here are some simple classifications of props. Some props can be used in many ways, depending on the creativity of the actor.

Transformers

Props that change shape really draw the eye. An umbrella is a great example; you can suddenly open it and really startle folks who were only half paying attention. Chinese yo-yos work well, they can fly right at a guest and suddenly vanish. The sudden flare of a cape has a similar effect, as do mechanical wings.

Threats

Fake weapons are perhaps the most common form of haunted house hand prop and work best for shock scares. Unless the weapon is very realistic, guests will quickly note that there is no threat and the prop will become a joke, so sudden attacks are best. One note on acts with fake weapons, perhaps the worst use of these is to swing at a guest and suddenly stop. Not only is there a risk of being unable to halt the movement, but after stopping the threat is over and the actor may be off balance. Better to rear back with the weapon, sort of like cocking a gun, and hold the pose, thus the threat continues and grows even greater (from Roger Miller). Another act is to “miss’ a guest and strike a pre-planned target. This sort of act should only be used with great care. Better looking fake weapons can be shown for longer times, perhaps being played with or poorly concealed from a guest as the actor approaches. Then the game is not “is that weapon real” but rather “what are they going to do with it?” Fake weapons can also be used to inflict false damage on the actor, or a shill (planted actor) in the crowd (i.e. false knife cutting an arm causing bleeding.) Then when turned at a guest the threat is heightened.

In some circumstances real weapons or tools are used by haunted house actors. These should only be used by experienced actors in controlled situations, such as in theatrical performances. A weapon can be shown to be real, and then substituted as the crowd is approached. If swinging tools around, even in a stage situation it is wise to have a lanyard or tie on the item so that it cannot fly into the crowd if it slips loose. It is never wise to use real weapons or tools where passive damage can result. For example, if a crowd is suddenly pushed towards an actor, perhaps by being scared from behind, any pointed object, even a stiff fake knife could jab a guest. In such cases even real chains can be safer than fake knives. Real chainsaws should always be used with similar care, but they have the added benefit of letting guests know where they are by sound and smell as well as sight.
“Fake” or real live animals can make wonderful acting props. Real animals should only be used in the most controlled cases, but fake ones are really effective in almost any situation. Strong phobias of many guests can make even “unseen” pets objects of terror.

Gross outs

After shock scares one of the more powerful tools in the haunt actors’ arsenal is the gross out. Often accomplished by gory/nasty make up or costuming, gross outs work amazingly well by “sharer” type characters coming at the guests with foul props. These can be bits of gore or severed limbs, nasty food products or simulated human waste (dirty underwear, diapers). Many haunts have limits when it comes to gross outs but from a practical side you don’t want to actually smear a guest with your nasty props, even passively. Actual slime or wetness is most effective visually, but dangerous to clothing. Better to use non wet items painted to look shiny, or painted props that are only wet with water. Gross out props are great interactive tools, and often feature the actors eating or gnawing on the items, or giving out bits to willing guests. I have found dangling “bait” such as worms or fish over guests heads to be very effective. Severed heads are cool multipurpose props. I have seen actors chewing on them, kissing them and talking to them. Suddenly thrust into the face of a guest from surprise, it is a safe way to invade someone’s space that might normally get you slapped!

Noise makers

Props that make noises are great. Not only can they look like something interesting they can make shockingly loud sounds and save an actors’ voice. One of the most common is the shaker can popularized by major theme parks. I like to use them not as just a jarring sound but also as a visual prop, by calling it a can of beans, or saying “a penny for your thoughts” or something like that. Then instead of just a sound that makes no sense, the guests identify it as an object that has meaning. Sometimes actors disguised as non human creatures (plants, walls of rocks etc.) will use them but not display them. It is just as logical for the creature that they are to rattle as speak with a human voice. Lots of hand percussion items like maracas and castanets have similar uses, and I particularly like strange ethnic rattles and noise makers for witchdoctors and shaman type characters.

Large noise makers can also be effective. One year we used a parade style snare drum worn by a zombie like character, who would play it loudly when a group would pass. Big metal or plastic gas cans filled with rock or bolts also scare the heck out of people, and let’s not forget animal calls, whistles and other vocal powered noisemakers. Another popular way to make lots of noise is to beat on walls and 55 gallon drums with pipes, baseball bats chains or 2x4s. I would be very careful doing this sort of thing, as it is quite easy to lose control of your impact device. Also wood props have been known to shatter, and 2x4s are sometimes hard to keep a hold of. If you are going to do this sort of thing I would recommend chains, they make the best noise for the least danger of these options, and never swing them in the direction of or anywhere near a patron. Lastly it is never wise to put any weapon like noisemaker props into general use, they should always be reserved for experienced employees in controlled situations.

Interactive props

There are so many ways for skilled actors to use hand props to “play” with guests. One of my favorite involves offering them “pills” or nasty food to eat. It is a good game to use on the punk in a group – if they back down they become the laughing stock, deflating their power and if they take the bait you call them into a hero, making them happy and a better guest. Doctor or Witch type characters can “examine” patrons with stethoscopes or magical charms and then prescribe “treatments” for embarrassing conditions you “discover”. Horrible medical equipment can be offered up for impromptu surgeries. Books are great for demons; they can have guests sign in “blood” then reveal the nature of what they just signed. Cordless leaf blowers can be used to disinfect “contaminated” guests. Creepy babies can be used in embarrassing paternity searches.
Dominator type characters can make chalk circles then dare a scared guest to leave. Gravedigger types with coffins can actually ask patrons to enter them. One fun tool we use in the haunt on occasion is the “Cage”. Guests are trapped within and told they may not leave unless they do something like sing a ridiculous song. Of course if they freak out you let them go. Often characters with bloody fingers will ask a guest if they want “the Mark”. If they agree a blotch of blood is placed on the forehead and later actors will single them out for special treatment.
Puppets are another fun interactive tool. The puppet can be the violent one, straining to attack the guest with the actor a fearful jailer holding it back. A good ventriloquist type act can be creepy, that’s for sure, as can a fake arm holding a bucket or basket that a puppet will “pop” out of.
The list goes on and on. Finding fun ways to use props to interact with your guests safely and within the bounds of your theme is a very worthwhile endeavor.

Special effects

Why should special effects be limited to your show? Walk around actors can carry personal items that can make them a show by themselves. In the realm of magic tricks there are an endless variety of personal smoke and pyro effects an actor can use outside. Personal strobe lights, squirting devices and voice amplifiers/modulators can also make an actor into a spectacle. Special make-up effects like throbbing facial bladders or hidden blood pumps are easy enough to produce with a bit of research.

The Unknown

Approaching guests with a box or sack can really freak them out if done properly. In my opinion the greatest fear is fear of the unknown – that is what makes darkness so terrifying. When you approach a guest with a container filled with the “unknown” you can tap into some of this fear. Try to get them to put their hand in! Tell them they can look inside for a price! Tell them you will take the box away for a price! Ask them if they like live rats then produce a hidden box with air holes. One of our actors, Chomper the Clown, chases guests all over the place with his cupped hands, inside them is nothing! The unknown in prop usage is a great tool you should try when you get the chance.

Summary

The use of hand props in Haunted House acting is more than fake butcher knives. It is a powerful way to develop characters, enhance costuming, add spectacle, and increase an actors’ ability to scare and entertain your guests. Once thrift shops and junk stores were the best place to find good hand props but recently haunted house vendors have been developing new products designed to fill this void. This is a short list of a few vendors that are now making or selling such props.

Enjoy!

Gore Galore – Big costumes and puppets.
Screamline Studios – Stilt costumes and prop weapons.
Screamland Productions – Prop weapons and voice amps.
Spooky Props – Electric chainsaws.
Specter Studios – Prop weapons.
MonsterTronics – Wearable costume animations.
Ghostride- Slider gear and shaker cans.
Scareparts – Roll around wheelbarrow scare.
Scarefactory – Roll around actor scares.
Bump in the Night – Scary puppets.
Shipwreck – Shaker cans, stomper boots.
Morris- Gore, body parts and magic props.
Oak Island – Worms and roaches.
Ex Mortis – Puppets and giant costumes.
Distortions- Severed head puppets, puppet like costumes.
Hallows Eve Productions- Stilt costumes.


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