Early on in the process of writing The Skeleton Haunts a House, I decided it was going to be set in and around a haunted house—meaning the Halloween season kind with fake ghosts and gore, not actual spirits. So I did a fair amount of research into how a haunted house is put together and run. Not only did I want to get the background details and jargon right, I actually wanted to lay out my fictional haunted house so I could bring it to life. (Not quite in a mad scientist bringing the monster to life kind of way, but sort of like that.)
I worked in a haunted house myself back in high school, and my original plan was to have my fictional house set up the same way, with random creepy sets and costumed spooks throughout the house. It turns out that industry standards have evolved a great deal since then. These days a haunted house is very much a carefully designed experience.
The starting point is the venue. Is it an old house, a theater, a cornfield, a amusement park, a hayride, or even an abandoned location like a hospital or prison. You can haunt just about anything. The best haunted house venue I’ve ever heard of is Burg Frankenstein, near Darmstadt in Germany. It’s rumored to have been an inspiration for Mary Shelly’s book Frankenstein, and there’s been a Halloween festival there since 1978.
Since my book was going to be set in Pennycross, a small Massachusetts college town, I couldn’t legitimately plant a set of castle ruins in the middle of town, or even on the outskirts. Instead, I decided to sneak in an unused class building onto the grounds of McQuaid University, where my protagonist Georgia Thackery works. To give it some gravitas, I called it McQuaid Hall, but for Halloween, it becomes McHades Hall.
Once the venue is set, I gave my haunted house a theme. You see, the really modern haunted houses have themes that inform the details of the designs. I could have gone with haunted toy store, creepy carnival, post-apocalyptic nightmare, insane asylum, hospital of the damned, and on and on. Since I already had an academic setting, I ran with that: McHades Hall would be college-themed. (The fact that my daughter is starting to look at colleges had no influence in my view of a campus as intensely frightening.)
Even with a creepy college as a starting point, I had plenty of latitude to put together the actual scare areas and to staff them with a wide variety of scare actors. (Scare areas and scare actors are industry terms, but they’re pretty self-explanatory.) This is where I got a little fast-and-loose with the themes. I mean, for history classes I had Countess Bathory, the Black Death, and Jack the Ripper. Technically historical, but not what I studied in college. (Though Harvard used to have a great class about the repercussions of the Black Death.) For English, it was characters from The Exorcist, The Shining and Psycho. Good books to be sure.
Of course, scare actors don’t just stand around and look horrifying. They have to be doing horrifying things. The zombie frat boys have to chase you, the cannibalistic cafeteria workers have to threaten you, and if anybody is just standing around, it’s a trick to lull you into a false sense of security until they jump at you. While there’s a certain amount of ad-libbing for the scare actors, in general they do have lines to say and blocking, as in any kind of theater.
Of course, all that stuff is what the customers see. (I was hoping to find an industry-specific name for people-who-come-through-haunted-houses, but customer is all I could find. Couldn’t they at least be scare customers?) Since I wanted some behind-the-scenes plotting, I had to figure out what it looks like behind the scenes. That’s when I found out that most haunts have a host of hidden paths and passages to get around the house. They line the rooms with a fabric called scrim, so they can hide behind and look out, but you can’t see them. Now that is mystery-writing gold!
For the final touch of authenticity, I used some of the wisdom accumulated by hundreds of scare actors.
Watch out for hitters! Apparently some people lash out when they’re frightened.
If you hear somebody’s name, tell the other scare actors so they can use it. It’s scary for anybody in a zombie suit to chase you, but even worse when they make it personal.
Never do a gag with a noose. People have died that way. That is not an urban legend. Scare actors have accidentally strangled themselves.
Nobody can resist a chainsaw. Apparently the bravest of customers is prone to losing it when somebody comes after them with a chainsaw. And if you think the chainsaw is an amazingly realistic prop, think again. It’s probably a real chainsaw. They take the chain off, but I still wouldn’t grab hold of one.
Once I had all my pieces in place, I could start plotting the actual sections of The Skeleton Haunts a House that take place in McHades Hall. And it occurred to me that the process is a lot like designing a haunted house.
- Venue = Setting. I started out with the town of Pennycross.
- Theme = Genre. It’s a murder mystery in which Georgia Thackery, an adjunct English professor and single mother, solves crimes with the help of her best friend Sid. Did I mention that Sid is an ambulatory skeleton?
- Scare actors = Characters. In addition to Georgia and Sid, we have Georgia’s daughter Madison, her sister Deborah, her parents, her friends Brownie and Charles, and plenty of others.
- Action = Plot. As with most mysteries, we start with the finding the body and then progress through investigation until Georgia and Sid find the killer. And along the way, there’s some romance and secrets and what I hope are surprise twists.
- Behind-the-Scenes = Red Herrings. I have to walk that tight-walk between not being about to figure out the murderer right away while having it all make sense in the end.
- Authenticity = Authenticity. Of course, I wanted to make sure the haunted house stuff was realistic, but I also have to make sure the university runs like a real university. The same for the carnival that comes to town, and the police procedures.
I hope that once it all comes together, The Skeleton Haunts a House has some of the same excitement and thrills as a haunted house. That’s the plan, anyway.
Maybe I should have put in a chainsaw.
THE SKELETON HAUNTS A HOUSE By Leigh Perry, A Family Skeleton Mystery, Berkley, 304 pages, Oct. 6, 2015, $7.99