The Haunted Attraction Extreme Costume Check List!
Ben Armstrong NETHERWORLD Haunted House
So you are ready to buy or build a really cool over the top costume for your Haunted Attraction! We all know that an excellent costume on an amazing actor can do wonders for your show, but its proper use is FAR more complicated than just purchasing a static prop and displaying it in a scene. The fact that an actor has to wear the thing night after night, successfully perform in it, and keep it in functioning order is no easy task.
So let’s go over some of the issues related to keeping elaborate costumes not only being used every night, but not falling apart! The following concepts are presented as a checklist when you are planning a major costume purchase… some basic ideas to consider before taking the plunge.
1) Theme: First and foremost, elaborate costumes serve the function of explaining and furthering the theme of your event. We all design rooms and effects to enhance our themes and supply matching costumes that fit the scene. But themed characters are even more important when used in marketing at off site events or even in the parking lot… they let the customers know a little about WHAT your attractions story is, and can also provide a snap shot of the production value your event brings to the table. Themed costumed actors are important photo ops for your guests and goodwill ambassadors essential in a social media driven world.
2) Emotional Effect: How does the costume make customers feel when they see it? Are you going for fear, disgust or absolute amazement? Often the scariest costumes can be very simple as they are designed to bring up instant emotions in a haunt environment, but they fall apart visually when critically viewed in full lighting. Masks or make-ups with “extreme” expressions or surrealistic looks are great for quick hits but not so much for complex interactions. This is why silicone masks and top notch make-ups are so important for interactive characters as the “expression” of the creature can be changed as the actor goes through his act. Some costumes and characters are downright comical, but that is not always a bad thing. Many of the most popular lot characters have almost nothing to do with Halloween or horror, they are just plain amusing. Ultimately folks come to your event to be entertained in addition to being scared.
3) Level Of Concealment: Many costumes are designed to be invisible until the actor moves (Ivy, Camo, Rock Wall Suits). Some are created to be seen but look like a prop (Statue, Armor, Doll Costumes and such come to mind). But the most elaborate ones demand attention with lots of details that draws the eye. Obviously if you invest a ton in a costume you want it to be seen and remembered by the customers. If you want it to be noticed, look for high contrast, reflective elements, lighting enhancements like glowing eyes or UV paint, and massive size always helps!
4) Ergonomics: One of the most overlooked areas in haunt costumes is ergonomics, i.e how safe and easy is it for the actors to wear. Looking good is not enough when a suit needs to be worn in often extreme situations for 20-30 days in a haunt season. How many times has an amazing costume or mask gone unworn because it is uncomfortable, hot, difficult to see out of or heavy? Always try on costumes when you can before purchase, and look for ways to improve the ergonomics. Once you have a actor or actors selected who will be wearing the suit, work on ventilation, padding and vision improvement. This will make the performance more impressive and cause less downtime due to breaks, training or just refusal of the actors to wear it. Proper storage of the costume is also needed especially if it is delicate or difficult to get into, with racks and hooks to hold it in such a way that the operator can ease into it.
Large stalkaround costumes are always made more effective by having “walkers” who accompany the person in the suit. They can keep unruly guests away, help customers take photos and assist the actor move past obstacles, get water, etc. A stalkaround actor at a busy haunt without a walker will quickly become overwhelmed and might even get injured by tripping or overheating. One way to keep a suit like this going all night is to have actors swap out especially if the costume is heavy.
One thing is for sure. The more complex and difficult a suit is to wear the less “acting” you will get out of it. There is a tipping point where you end up creating a barely mobile photo op that shambles about and suffers.
Make comfort and ease of use a high priority and you will absolutely get better results!
5) Maintenance: Another overlooked area is how to CLEAN the costume. Nightly cleaning is essential, and doubly so if the costume is worn by different actors. Enbac, Fabreeze and other disinfectants are a good start but they can be of limited use if the costume is actually dripping with sweat. If possible wash cloth goods often, and dry clean elaborate cloth goods as needed. Silicone masks should be washed out and disinfected every night, and similar treatments used on latex masks. Foam or porous masks need to get lots of ventilation to properly remove moisture and after spraying costumes it is also good to put a fan on them to air out and dry the suits.
Costumes and masks must be constantly maintained for the run of a show and it essential to have staff dedicated to clean, wash and do sewing repairs. Most masks will need certain levels of repainting over a season as sweat and wear takes its toll. Always use proper paints designed to stick to the type of mask or costume you are repairing or you will find all your work wasted after one night of use. If you plan to have many silicone masks, you will eventually see major damage. This can be lessened by having only one actor wear a certain mask and be extremely careful with it, but in many cases the mask will be so expensive that use by multiple folks is unavoidable if you want it worn every night. The best thing to do in this case is to carefully monitor how these masks are put on and removed, and don’t allow them be worn be actors who show signs of claustrophobia, susceptibility to heat, or general carelessness. When rips or tears develop, get the mask out of use until it can be looked at by your special effects make-up staff. There are many tutorials for fixing silicone masks, simple rips can be repaired by trained artists but for major tears it might be worth it to hold off and send the mask back to the vendor.
The more complex the costume the more time you will spend maintaining it. Without proper care expensive suits can be ruined very quickly, and your attempt to impress with high production value will be useless. If you don’t have the staff to maintain complex costumes another approach can be to only use them for major media events, assuring that they will be in good condition when it matters most. However this is sort of a bait and switch, because if you feature amazing characters in your marketing and they are not seen at your event, it might annoy guests.
Another thing to consider when purchasing is costumes with electronic parts, or mechanical features. Built in lighting or sound units add a lot of POW to a suit, but need care. Actors often rip out wires accidentally especially if the suit rigging is complex, and mechanical movements are subject to wear and tear. I suggest keeping a repair kit with replacement parts at the ready because energetic actors will break these sorts of suits usually just because they are trying hard to be good at their jobs!
6) Add Ons: Almost no costume is 100% complete when purchased. Many need masks, hats, wigs, make-up or contacts to finish the look. Some would be improved by hand props, additional layers or more detailing. Even complete massive suits do better when the actor inside is wearing the proper clothing ( Under armor, extra padding and harnesses) or a hydration system like a camelback. In suits that totally cover the actor you might want to consider a radio so that they can communicate with their handler. Always think about the shoes that will go with the costume especially when it is used outside where they will be seen, they can totally ruin the illusion.
7) Cost: In the end It all comes down to cost. So we have reviewed some of the hidden expenses like enhancing ergonomics, add ons, care and maintenance, and the effort and staff required to keep complex costumes working well and looking good, but lets discuss actually buying or creating the original costume.
So this costume is so expensive why don’t you just make it yourself? Often unless you are incredibly talented this costs even more than buying from a vendor…Why? Trial and error! You might find yourself spending a lot of cash on materials and redoing the steps again and again to get a good result. Time is also an issue.. an elaborate costume can take a VERY long time to make. You need to decide for yourself what the time of the person building the suit and the materials are really costing you – don’t forget the fact if they are working on this costume means they are not working on something else! One good strategy is to purchase elements of a costume and pull them together in such a way as to make them unique. It is always better to do some level of customization to make a major costume unique. There will be occasions where you and your staff WILL want make stuff from scratch and that is great! But you certainly need to consider what that will set you back in time and money before you do.
Another good way to get high production value costumes at your event is to hire folks who have their own suits! This approach certainly has pros and cons: PROS They are happy and comfortable in the costume, It costs you less, It might be totally custom, they might have a complete act already prepared. CONS: You only have the suit when they are working, most personal suits tend to be cosplay based on licensed characters that won’t fit your theme, If the character becomes popular and they stop working at your haunt it is not a good thing, etc. These days many haunt actors will buy $600 silicone masks that they want to wear, if it fits your needs, why not – but giving actors special privileges or roles just because they spent money isn’t always wise.
Extreme costumes can add a TON of entertainment and production value to your event! But like anything else in our industry they require planning and effort to create and maintain them. Treat them well and they will serve you for years and scare thousands! Treat them poorly and they end up being the most expensive pile of junk on the floor of your actor area that you will ever purchase!