Full-contact chaos: A scare actor takes us inside the haunted house industry

It’s officially haunted house season. And, like Spirit Halloween stores, these spooky immersive experiences just seem to pop up overnight, leaving us asking, was there always an abandoned hospital in that cornfield, or am I crazy?

But how do haunted houses come to life? As with all successful activations, guests never see the method behind the madness — like the months of planning, how the actors navigate the space and the logistics of creating a “great” horror experience. I spoke with writer, horror fan, and haunted house scare actor Danielle Look for a behind-the-scenes peek at the haunt industry, including her favorite experiences across the country and how chaos fuels her craft.

Samantha Stallard: Tell us a bit about your professional experience and background.

Danielle Look: I’m a lifelong writer who makes a living as a digital marketer. After a few years on the shop floor of a large-format screen printing company, I took a position at a hyper-local media outlet called Do317 in Indianapolis, part of the DoStuff Network. Around that same time, I started scare acting and marketing for Nightmare on Edgewood, a full-contact haunted house in Indianapolis. In 2018, I moved to Colorado, where I cover Denver’s immersive entertainment scene for No Proscenium.

SS: What are some of the best immersive experiences you’ve attended, and why were they successful?

DL: Before I even knew about the vibrant immersive community, I watched cutting-edge art by a group in Indianapolis called NoExit Performance. I saw countless performances by them before I even had a word for their production style, but the most memorable, by far, was their immersive production of 1984.

After a relatively tame first half of roaming theater-in-the-round, we gathered in a sterile environment to watch the book’s infamous torture scenes at the end. I’ll never forget when they ripped Winston’s (fake) fingernail off, and he cried out in agony as it was flung across the room and landed on the floor by my seat. One performer told me after the run that it was not uncommon for guests to get up and leave during those intense, uncomfortable moments.

Another standout was also in Indianapolis — an immersive horror experience I detailed for No Proscenium in September of 2019, called Indy Horror Story. What I loved about that production was the way they blended theater and escape room elements, then made them accessible for all types of guests. The dark subject matter was the icing on the cake for horror fans like me.

I’m overjoyed to have new kids on the block OddKnock Productions in Denver. Their recent production From On High was a choose-your-own-adventure show that took place in a satirical corporate office from the 1980s. What made it so impressive was how they presented more than four hours of content over the course of a 90-minute show, with multiple tracks available to audience members. I saw it three times and still didn’t experience everything.

Danielle guest-acting at Fear Fair haunted house in Seymour, IN, for their off-season event on Valentine’s Day weekend, Love Bites. Photo courtesy Danielle Look

SS: How is Nightmare on Edgewood unique? What marketing approaches do you take to make it stand out?

DL: Our tagline is “Indy’s Most Intense Haunted House,” and that intensity comes from physical contact with our actors and loud, violent scenes and props that never quit. One of the most fun and engaging parts of our marketing strategy is our customer reaction shots. I think those are better than the best spooky character shots, because what better testament to your level of scariness is there than a real customer caught mid-scream, dripping with fear?

SS: What makes an IRL immersive experience feel different from a virtual or VR experience?

DL: The unpredictable nature of human beings always makes an in-person show more vulnerable, more chaotic and potentially more engaging.

SS: What are some of the best immersive experiences you’ve been a part of, and why were they successful?

DL: Nothing beats the thrill of full-contact scare acting at Nightmare on Edgewood. Long before I knew what “immersive entertainment” was and started scare acting, it was always my favorite haunted house because it truly breaks the fourth wall. It feels a lot more “real” than the attractions where I know they can’t touch me, hold me back from my group, or pin me up against a wall. You can’t get that kind of experience at just any haunted house, and it’s a big part of why our customers come back year after year. I’ve acted in many no-touch haunts since then, and it’s just so much more thrilling to deliver — and receive — that type of scare.

Danielle playing Freddy’s victim at Nightmare on Edgewood in 2017. Photo courtesy: Danielle Look

SS: What makes for a great horror experience?

DL: Different people are scared by different things, so it’s really on the experience seeker to know their limits and do their research before visiting any horror experience — especially those self-described as “immersive” or “extreme.” Personally, as I’ve already mentioned, I love a haunted attraction that involves breaking the fourth wall and has elements of physical contact, but that’s not ideal for everyone. Also, in my book, horror and comedy go together like peanut butter and jelly, so I love a good punchline here or there to keep me laughing, which also opens the door to more improv and engagement. When scare acting, I always say, “If you can’t make ’em scream, you better make ’em laugh!”

SS: How is the haunt industry evolving? What new ideas and technology are out there?

DL: There are always new effects, props, costumes and technology coming to market that make for flashier sets and scarier monsters. These small and easy modifications make a huge difference in the believability of the characters. One of my favorite trends in recent years is the use of scents, which really enhance the immersion effect. The industry go-to is Froggy’s Fog. with scents like Charred Corpse, Swampy Marsh and more.

There are also a lot of softwares that provide more modern experiences, such as timed ticketing, photo ops, concession and merch sales, and add-on experiences like 10-minute escape rooms and 3D or 4D rides. These elements give customers a reason to come early and stick around after, making it a more complete experience.

SS: What is your dream horror experience?

DL: It would combine all of my favorite types and flavors of immersive entertainment. So, to give the experience a sense of urgency and purpose, there would have to be puzzles and escape room elements that must be completed as part of a mission or goal. Then, it would need to take place somewhere large and secluded where only participants and actors are around, like on a campground or a large private property. And then, of course, there has to be an element of danger or fear built into the story and mission — a serial killer is on the loose, there’s a zombie outbreak, it’s Purge Night, something like that.

SS: How are haunt attractions similar to immersive theater? How are they different?

DL: They are similar in that you are literally in the scenes, that you get to interact with the characters and that you move through the experience. They are different in that the story is usually much less developed in a haunt, and there’s not much progression of that story once you get inside. It would hardly matter if there was, because the typical haunted house goer shuffles through as fast as they can!

Everything happens at an accelerated pace inside a haunted house. Actors give 30–45-second performances every minute or so. There’s very little time to deliver a bit and reset for the next group.

My goal is always to get three scares out of every group. I start with a jump scare for whoever is in front, then move in for a slower, creepy, in-your-face scare with the middle person — they always put the biggest scaredy-cat in the middle! Then, as I’m shooing them out of my room and they think I’ve gone to reset for the next group, I go for one more jump scare from behind, on whoever is bringing up the rear.

Danielle in a photoshoot for 5280 Mag. Photo courtesy: Jason Sinn

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