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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Designing a haunted house, part 1: Inspiration (1 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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The following is a series of excerpts from Chapter 1 of a book I'm working on, discussing how to create your own haunted attraction using professional theater and movie techniques, but on a reasonable budget. I'm sharing it here in the hope that it will be fun to read and generate some ideas for this coming Halloween season. However, please keep in mind that this material is copyrighted. It is not in the public domain. You are free to use the ideas presented here, but not to copy or otherwise distribute the excerpts themselves. If you would like to share this with someone else, please provide a link back to this article. Enjoy!

Entire contents Copyright © 2007 George F. Ledo. All rights reserved.


Chapter 1: Inspiration

Okay, so you want to design a haunted house. But where to start?

The best way to get inspiration is to do what professional designers do: spend some time looking through research material such as historical sources, photos, drawings, and previous work on the subject. In this chapter, we'll look at some types of research material and see why it's so useful when putting together an idea for any type of new design.

The movies

You’re doing a haunted house, right? What better way to get inspired than by watching a few horror or ghost movies, especially the older ones before special effects became de rigeur in this genre. Horror movies back in the 1930’s and 40’s tended to have real storylines and believable characters, as opposed to a lot of modern films where the characters are flat and the special effects try to make up for the lack of story. They also had a bit of comic relief here and there, something we rarely see in horror movies nowadays.

For our purposes, movies are good for inspiration mainly because the designers and art directors did a lot of historical and architectural research and selected specific details that would help support the story and create an atmosphere of mystery and horror. And they definitely did not take anything for granted.

Films like The Haunting—either the original version or the 1999 one—are good for visual inspiration, as are a few of the old Vincent Price films such as The Fall of the House of Usher. More recently, Ghost has a few good visuals in the medium's parlor, and the two scenes where the dark shadows come to take away the bad guys are a great example of showing very little detail and leaving it to the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps. Even more recently, Disney’s The Haunted Mansion has several fun interior shots, particularly the library. And, of course, the Harry Potter films have a number of good visuals inside Hogwarts.

The original 1931 Dracula and a couple of the early "Frankenstein" films had wonderfully spooky sets, done totally in black and white. Even the blood was black, and we often didn't see it at all, so we had to use our imagination. During this period, movies didn’t show graphic violence, so they often resorted to shadows; there is a great little shot in Dracula, right after the ship arrives in London, where we see the shadow of the ship’s captain tied to the wheel. Dead.

Incidentally, one of my pet peeves about a lot of the new horror movies is the extensive use of special effects and computer graphics to show guts and gore in absolute detail. It’s not a matter of being squeamish; I just feel that because it’s all there, in our faces, there’s nothing left for our imaginations to fill in. Therefore, although we may be horrified or grossed out, we don’t have to do any work, and don’t get as involved in the story as we could.

Think of the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds. I wasn’t around back then, but I’ve read any number of reports on how effective it was. Listen to a tape of this if you can. It’s amazing.

We saw it on radio.

Nowadays we have the technology—the computer graphics—to show a monster’s hand literally tearing out a character’s throat. We can see the claw tearing through the skin, the larynx and pharynx being plucked out, the tendons stretching and popping, the jugular vein and carotid artery bursting and spraying blood in long viscous arcs, fluids and gunk dripping over the monster’s hand, and so forth. We can hear the wet sounds, see the victim’s face contort in surprise and agony, and see all that material in the throat crushed into slimy blubber.

If I showed you a clip of this—my interpretation—in all its gory computer-generated reality, you might be shocked or grossed out or disturbed. But your imagination wouldn’t have had to do a bit of work. It was all right there, spoon-fed to you.

But reading about it above, you did do a bit of work. Your mind visualized it. The image became yours, not mine. You were involved.

I rest my case.


Books are a wonderful source of visual material and very easy and fast to go through at the local library or bookstore. Even with the Web, I still use the library: I often find it faster and more direct to go right to a shelf on a given subject—say, Tudor architecture—and riffle the pages until I find something I like, than to sit for an hour surfing the Web.

Some good subjects include:

The movies and the motion picture industry, especially up to the 1940's.

Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

Tudor (aka Elizabethan) and late Victorian architecture, especially the interiors.

The older architecture of New Orleans, New England, and San Francisco, among other places, and the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.

Castles; again, mostly the interior shots, including stone walls, dungeons, chapels, and those narrow little "lancet" windows.

Egypt: tombs and mummies. Lots of material on this. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians never went to the movies, so real mummies don't look anything like the Hollywood versions. And keep in mind that mummies don’t necessarily have to be Egyptian.

Ghost towns, especially those left over from the Gold Rush days.

Ghosts, haunted houses, and séances. The magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) spent the latter part of his career debunking fake mediums and wrote a book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which has some good photos. Not generally known is that Houdini was a good friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), and that the two spent years arguing about spiritualism.

Art books, especially the early 20th-century illustrators such as Dore, Rackham, Beardsley, and others.

Period décor, interior design, gardens, antiques, and similar subjects. A book on English secret gardens, for instance, or a book on Victorian furniture and decoration, can provide lots of inspiration.


A visit to most large bookstores will yield a number of magazines useful for visual inspiration, and public libraries often have years of back issues packed away somewhere in the back rooms. For instance:

Movie, theater, and special effects publications.

Architecture, interior design, and renovation magazines, which often have features on Victorian buildings, period details, furniture, and artwork.

Travel and local-attraction magazines.

Haunted-industry magazines, such as Haunted Attraction, are great for how-to articles, but they also often do features on large attractions.

Antique magazines, which frequently have lots of photos of period pieces and, of course, ads from dealers with Web sites.

Magazines on archaeology and similar subjects can be good inspiration.

Gardening magazines often have pieces on a featured house. The trick here is to look for the details: that cozy little corner, or a piece of statuary, or the way the flowers droop from an arbor.


Those catalogs we all seem to get in the mail, which often go directly into the circular file, can be surprisingly good resources. For instance, catalogs from stores that specialize in faux antiques and unusual items for the home, often have just the right piece for that special place in a haunted house. At the time of writing this book, Design Toscano and Basil Street Gallery are good ones, and there are lots of others.

A few years ago there was a story in a catalog from a large specialty-goods store; I seem to remember it was Neiman-Marcus but I could be mistaken. It seems the store had acquired a few authentic mummy cases from Egypt and was selling them. Empty, of course. One customer—a museum—ordered one, only to discover that it contained a real mummy. I don’t remember the exact details, but, whether it’s true or not, it’s a great story and can certainly suggest some ideas.

The camera on a Sunday afternoon

Even with the library, the Web, bookstores, and my own book collection at my disposal, I find that, when time permits, I'd much rather be out doing research with a camera and/or a sketchbook.

Take cemeteries, for instance. We are accustomed, from the movies, mostly to think of heavy, Victorian-style graveyards, complete with tilted Celtic crosses and gnarled trees. But we don’t have to take this for granted either. A casual stroll through an old cemetery will reveal a huge variety in the type, material, and color of tombstones, the way the inscriptions were carved, and their physical condition. Many of the smaller rural graveyards in New England often have only thin, chipped slate tombstones, standing up at different angles after weathering two or three hundred winters, and sometimes there are no trees in the place. I visited one of these graveyards in Vermont on a bright, sunny summer afternoon and it **** near creeped me out.

Some of the 1700's-vintage graveyards in the Southeast and the Caribbean are wonderful too, and there's not one Celtic cross in sight. There are some great ones in New Orleans also. The interesting thing about these graveyards is that, because the ground is so close to sea level, the tombs are often above ground to keep them dry.

A good source for inns is The Innkeeper’s Companion, a yearly publication put out by a bed-and-breakfast owner’s association and listing places all over the U.S. and Canada.

Old buildings in your area can also yield lots of ideas. Look for chipped and painted-over brick and stone, wrought iron, door and window decoration, stained glass, fences, wood floors, wallpaper, lighting instruments, and similar details.


So far we’ve looked at sources for visual inspiration: photos and illustrations of old houses, mansions, castles, and so on, that show us what a haunted house could look like. However, short stories, novels, and even poems can supply lots of ideas if we learn how to "see" the images described in writing. Some of the stories by Poe and Lovecraft, for instance, create beautifully vivid pictures of the surroundings. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror is a classic from this standpoint, and I can still see that underground labyrinth every time I read Poe's The Cask of Amontillado.

Other sources

Additional sources for inspiration include:

Antique stores.

Museums and historical societies sometimes have reconstructions of period rooms complete with furniture and accessories.

Old houses once belonging to celebrities are all over the U.S. and can be a lot of fun to visit.

Other haunted houses

I wanted to include this here simply because other haunted houses are not particularly good sources of inspiration. For one thing, they are someone else’s interpretation and realization of their own ideas (often tempered by budget or time constraints), which means they are at least one step removed from original material. Disney’s Haunted Mansions, for instance, are visual environments built around storylines created for a specific purpose. We can certainly pick up little details here and there in the mansion, but, generally, everything there is stylized to fit a specific intention.

Aside from the issue of ethics (which I will not discuss in this book), it’s far more effective to create something from original sources, and to carry it all the way through, than to copy parts of this and parts of that and try to turn them into a unified design.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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