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The Spooky History Behind Haunted Houses

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 1, 2022 3:02 am

The Spooky History Behind Haunted Houses

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 1, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Halloween historian Lisa Morton is going to be unpacking the history of Haunted Attractions (AKA: Halloween Haunted House) which is directly tied into today’s practice of Trick-or-Treating. 

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For more information about this program and how to apply, visit slash Nissan. And we continue with our American stories. Today Lisa is going to be unpacking the history of the Halloween haunted house, which is directly tied into today's practice of trick or treating. Lisa is the author of Trick or Treat, A History of Halloween. By the turn of the 20th century, Halloween in America was nothing more than a day of pranking, kind of like April Fool's Day.

Here's Lisa Morton with the story. So it was all good fun at first, but then by the 20th century, as America is becoming much more urbanized and more populated, these pranks move into the cities. And when they move into the cities, they become much less nice. Now they are about destroying things about shattering glass bulbs and windows. They are about setting fires, tripping pedestrians.

And by the 30s, they are causing millions of dollars of damage. And this is also during the Great Depression when a lot of these cities don't even have the money to pay for all of the damage that's resulting from this vandalism. And a lot of cities at this point considered dropping Halloween or trying to ban it.

But fortunately, there were a few places where cooler heads prevailed and said, you know, maybe we can buy these kids off instead of trying to ban this holiday because that could backfire on us, which it would have. And they got together and they actually put out little pamphlets in many of the cities that would tell homeowners how to do this. So these little pamphlets would suggest that the homeowners get together.

Again, we're still during the Great Depression. A lot of homeowners don't have money to spare for parties and so forth. But if enough of the houses got together in one street, they could put something together for the kids.

And these were called house to house parties. And the way they would work was the first house might give the kids a very simple costume, probably just a sheet with two holes cut in it. The kids would get to be ghosts. The next house would give the kids maybe a little spooky entertainment like they'd have the basement. The lights shut off a little thing where the kids would have to go through the basement.

Somebody might jump out and frighten them. This becomes kind of the very earliest version of our modern haunted attraction. And then the next house would give the kids a little treat. Trick or treat, fortunately, did not go away because it remained something that was such an important part of the sort of psyche of so many baby boomers. And they wanted to share that with their kids, but they also wanted to continue their love for Halloween. So they started decorating their yards extensively.

And this really picks up speed in the 80s and the 1990s. And we start to have also huge scale professional haunted attractions emerging in the 90s. The haunted attractions had originally come, as we mentioned earlier, from things like basement parties and so forth. And there were early things called trails of terror, which were held outdoors. And these were things where kids would have to make their way through a little forest area that had been set up to scare them with people hiding behind trees or spooky things draped in the trees. And in the 70s, we started to get two non-profit groups that realized they could make a lot of money with haunted attractions. The first one was the JCs, the Junior Chamber of Commerce.

And the second one was Campus Life, which was a Christian organization. And Campus Life kind of took the haunted attractions from the JCs, which had been fairly innocent and added whole new layers of gore and violence to them. And that really became the model for the haunted attraction moving forward from there. So by the 80s, we start to get the big amusement parks in Southern California, mainly, who realized that they have this dead spot in their calendar every fall.

And maybe they can take this model of these haunted attractions and turn a serious fall profit from that. Knott's is the first one that tries it, turning Knott's Berry Farm, of course, into Knott's Scary Farm. And it becomes gigantic for them. It began in the mid 80s.

It picked up speed. Now, of course, it is a gigantic thing that Knott's does every year with something like a dozen different mazes and scare zones. And it's it's become a huge part of their yearly business plan. And it's spread, of course, to other amusement parks. And it has now even spread to amusement parks outside of the U.S. There are amusement parks in Europe, especially, that are now holding Halloween celebrations. One of the other amusement park haunted attractions that contributed gigantically to the growth of the modern haunted attraction industry was the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

It is just incredibly influential. It cannot really be understated what an important part of the development of haunted attractions that was. It had been conceived early on at Disneyland when Walt was still alive.

It was something he always wanted to do. And for years, his Imagineers debated how to put it together. They considered originally doing it as a walkthrough attraction, which, of course, would be even more similar to modern haunted attractions. Walt's idea was always to take the old dark rides that you could find at carnivals and sort of upgrade them, make them much more technologically savvy and much cleaner and and more involving, have an actual story throughout that kind of thing. And he unfortunately passed away before the Haunted Mansion was completed, but his Imagineers continued with it. They always had a little bit of a debate about whether to go more scary or more whimsical with it.

And in the end, they kind of compromised. They gave it the best of both worlds. When it opened in 1969, it was really a gigantic explosion in terms of haunted attractions. I mean, no longer was it something you might find at a carnival where you're in a rickety car and there's a nasty old skeleton on a string overhead.

They used both some very modern technology and some old technology that they repurposed in such brilliant ways. The whole idea, for example, of when you go past the haunted ballroom and you see the whirling figures uses an old technology that dates back to the 19th century called Pepper's Glass, which is a special kind of mirror that is positioned in such a way or special glass that it reflects the images and makes them look translucent and so forth. The whirling ghosts are actually figures that are below you when you are going along in your car, but the glass is tilted and positioned in such a way that you're seeing the translucent figures in front of you. And of course, the design of the haunted mansion was sheer genius and it's interesting how many professional hunters, because yes, there are professional hunters, will point at the haunted mansion as the seminal thing that they saw as a child that made them want to pursue this as a career. So this big scale professional haunt spreads to independent haunts as well. There are now around 3,000 professional independent haunts that are set up every Halloween throughout the U.S. that again is another idea that is spreading around the world. And these haunts created an entire industry. The haunted attractions industry estimates of their net worth now run as high as a billion a year. They have taken some of the sort of revenue that used to go to film industry and are putting it into these haunted attractions as they are using a lot of the film technicians, people who used to work in special effects, are now finding that they may be out of work in Hollywood because of CGI and computers, but they can go to a haunted attraction and they can get employment there.

And in some of these cases, they're getting employment all year round from this. So the haunted attractions become gigantic and are now such a a huge part of our modern Halloween. The haunted attractions kind of sit right alongside trick-or-treating for the kids, haunted attractions for the older kids, and for the adults. And great work is always by Greg Hengler on the storytelling and production and a special thanks to Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat.

Go to to find her book, the story of the haunted house, and so much more here on Our American Stories. Cheer your team on live at the FIFA World Cup 2022 final in Qatar. Frito-Lay is giving you the chance to win two tickets by joining their Pass the Ball Challenge. Look for the Golden World Soccer Ball, then find friends and score daily entries every time you pass the ball.

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