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Stephen King on Haunting

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As far as I know, Stephen King has never written on the topic of designing a haunted house. He is, of course, considered by many to be the preeminent horror writer in the world. Whether that's true or not, he is certainly extremely successful at weaving spooky tales people love to read.

If a haunt is a story, should we not at least consider the thoughts of a master storyteller when designing our own show?

When King wrote "Danse Macabre", he was specifically writing about the craft or horror writing. Nevertheless, please review these words taken from his book and reproduced here. Imagine he IS talking about building a new haunted attraction, and consider his words in that context.


Let's begin in a place perhaps unexpected. The value of "talent".

"...talent is a dreadfully cheap commodity, cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work and study; a constant process of honing. Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force..."


This, of course, echoes the sentiments of Calvin Coolidge, who also had no plans to write about making a haunted house:
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

So we understand Messrs King and Coolidge agree that to succeed in creating your haunt, relying on talent alone is insufficient. I'm sure you've heard people tell haunters and other artists "I wish I had your talent", when really, it's more about time and effort. With that out of the way, let's return to Mr. king. Why create a haunt? Why do people go?

"The purpose... is not only to explore taboo lands but to confirm our own good feelings about the status quo by showing us extravagant visions of what the alternative might be."

"The danse macabre is a waltz with death. This is a truth we cannot afford to shy away from. Like the rides in the amusement park which mimic violent death, the tale of horror is a chance to examine what's going on behind doors which we usually keep double-locked. Yet the human imagination is not content with locked doors. Somewhere there is another dancing partner, the imagination whispers in the night - a partner in a rotting ball gown, a partner with empty eyesockets, green mold growing on her elbow-length gloves, maggots squirming in the thin remains of her hair. To hold such a creature in our arms? Who, you ask me, would be so mad? Well...?"

Isn't that an interesting way to frame Halloween and haunts? It's a peek behind the curtain. It's way to thrill to and even mock the terror of death. We love the adrenaline rush of being scared - and of scaring others, of course!

And what about the haunt itself? Should it be pigs vomiting into a trashcan or a specter that quietly glides by just at the periphery of your vision? Blood dripping down the walls or a chainsaw wielding lunatic chasing you through the halls? King has some ideas on how those ideas and others translate into human reactions.

“(There are) 3 types of terror:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”

"Monstrosity fascinates us because... it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings...and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these aberrations seem to imply."

"Terror...often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking."


These seem like useful definitions for haunters designing scares. I'll leave it to you to decide what levels of terror, horror, or gross out you wish to aspire to in your own haunts. What kind of haunt would Stephen King make? Well, let's let him speak for himself:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud. ”


Happy Haunting!
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