Twenty years ago, haunted attractions were usually limited to charitable organizations throwing some red paint on the wall, yelling 'Boo!' at unsuspecting patrons, and asking a small fee for the exchange. Now, the haunted attractions industry is worth about $1 billion, taking in nearly $500 million in ticket sales alone each year for haunted houses, in addition to the multi-millions being spent on special effects, state of the art sound systems, and frighteningly realistic costumes. Needless to say, for an industry that relies on about 30 days of the year to turn a profit, business is booming.
According to Larry Kirchner, board member of the Haunted House Association (HHA), and editor-in-chief of Hauntworld magazine, the explosion of the haunted-attractions business can mostly be attributed to the changing perception of haunted houses –in part due to media attention and the technological evolution of special effects.
Kirchner points to television shows on the Travel Channel that film in 'haunted' locations, and competition between big-budget Hollywood horror films as examples of what helped spark recent attention to haunted attractions. "Today, haunted houses have been taken over by very creative entrepreneurs who seek to carve out their own unique storylines and their own unique creations. Instead of copying Hollywood or simply providing cheap entertainment, they've turned into these live, theatrical, Broadway-style productions."
One haunted house that has enjoyed the influx of patrons lining up to be spooked is the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride, located in southeastern Pennsylvania. Owner Randy Bates started up his haunted hayride business in 1991, after witnessing a neighbor's tremendous financial success with a similar venture.
Bates said that his business usually spends between $250,000 to $300,000 a year on improvements, which includes special effects, redesigning and building new sets, and general maintenance. Although this year has been a bit tougher, in 2008 his haunt brought in more than $1 million for 23 nights of operation.
For this season, Bates said his favorite scare is a 12-foot tall animatronics Venus Fly Trap, which sits in the middle of a new greenhouse set – specifically built for this prop – at a cost of about $25,000. On his passion for scaring people, Bates said: "When you see people run out holding their chest, breathing heavily, with wobbling knees, we know we've really nailed it. It's a really fun industry."