JustJimAZ

Environmental Storytelling

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What happened here?
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I can imagine an "electrician wanted" sign on a window or door in this room. Doesn't this tell you a great story? If you're a twisted haunter, perhaps it's also a FUNNY one! I know the ghost in this scene would be wearing overalls and carrying a screwdriver. Everything would be charred, every hair on her head would be sticking up, and smoke would be rising from it.

Little scenes like this are called "environmental storytelling". You tell people everything they need to know, often without any words at all. Here's another:


What do you think happened here? Does the abandoned scooter and the impressions in the wet cement suggest a course of events?

Here's another, with no comment necessary:


Whether your haunt is a "Haunt 57" mishmash or a themed haunt with one overarching story, every scene is a chance to tell a story without really saying anything. Here's a classic you've seen in a dozen movies or more - you stumble into a room with a desk. On the walls and desk are dozens of newspaper clippings about a series of girls murdered in the area. The room is dark, probably lit by only one small lamp. Perhaps there is a grungy mattress in the corner. Is that a pile of small dresses?

Even if you don't read the headlines in the clippings, you've seen this trope enough that you know instantly a murderer has been hiding in here.

What story do you think this tells?
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Would you be surprised to find it is the home of a Satanic murderer? That's what it is. The real home of self-described Satanist and convicted murderer Pazuzu Algarad. Probably not a living room many would feel comfortable in.

Here's a weird one:

This is the home of Chinese serial killer Gong Runbo aka The Rocking Horse Killer. Reportedly, when police entered his home they found a rocking horse made from the remains of missing children in that area. If I were putting this in a haunt, I'd have to add a few Polaroids of boys scattered around and of course, a meat rocking chair in the corner. Still, it's a scene of a very lonely and troubled man, for sure.

Some haunts I have been in definitely try to tell a story in some scenes. Many are just "settings".

Here's one I was in recently: I come into a black visqueen-walled box and there is a gurney inside. OK, I guess I'm in a hospital? Maybe. I need more than that to tell me what this room is, and what is happening, or has happened, or will happen. There is a strobe light on the floor. When the actor come out from behind the plastic with a knife, I'm not scared or even startled. Maybe confused. Could environmental storytelling have been applied here?

Let's say I'm building a haunt and I don't have the budget for panels, so I go with PVC and Visqueen. I get my hands on a gurney, so I'm going to use it, of course! It makes sense to use it and to make it a focus of attention so the patrons can be startle-scared from a different direction. I would prefer to decorate the walls, but that's not happening with my budget. Sure, we can bloody the sheets. Maybe some hand prints? I might have dark brown (or puce) hand prints and smears as well as fresher, more bright red ones. Maybe they are of different sizes. Maybe the top sheet is not just turned down, but mostly off and trailing to the floor, like someone was dragged out of it. These are quick ways to tell a little story and people can see them pretty quickly. I'll probably light the scene with only one white light focused on the bed. Ideally, something that will suggest more of the story. Maybe it's a clamp light with a reflector, which might suggest interrogation. Blood splatter and rust on the reflector might suggest torture. Maybe it's not a hospital, just an interrogation room?


I'd like another prop in the room. Maybe a folding chair where the interrogator might sit. Maybe a stand for a tray, and a tray lying on the floor with bloodied instruments lying on near? Let's use some old belts or straps and add them to the side of the bed. Maybe add a syringe to the mess on the floor. A bloodied gurney suggests SOMETHING, but these add some specificity.

Now, instead of a room and a "setting", I have a vignette that briefly tells a story. Someone - maybe a few someones - has been strapped here and horrible things have happened. It looks like they were still struggling as they were hauled away. Most importantly, the light directs my attention, and the story occupies my mind long enough for the scare actor to be effective. Now, it is a doctor? A commie agent? Maybe the bloodied victim himself? Any one might fit the scene and the story and provide a startle that makes sense.

Tell me about a scene you set up to tell a story, or onw you have seen!

Happy Haunting!
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