‘Darkitecture’: The art and psychology of haunted house design

For more than two decades, Phil Miller has been building a world of nightmares on a 1,300-acre farm in Delaware. With eight attractions, Frightland opens for a month each October, shocking visitors with ghoulish hayrides, a grim cemetery and a prison riddled with zombies.

Miller, a former home remodeling contractor, also turns up the terror with CGI effects and theatrics. But there is one iconic symbol of horror that he feels is essential to every haunting experience: a Victorian manor.

With a little help from Hollywood, these historic homes and their Gothic counterparts, known for their wrought iron gates and ornate, asymmetrical structures, have a longstanding reputation for being creepy.

This notoriety appears to have emerged sometime in the 1930s, when elaborate Victorian styles were abandoned in favor of a return to simpler colonial architecture. This paved the way for empty, decrepit homes that served as inspiration for films like “Beetlejuice,” “House on Haunted Hill” and even Disney’s “Haunted Mansion.”

So while many of America’s thousands of haunted attractions are simply set in large warehouses or rely on props behind a black wall, Frightland’s founder is convinced Victorian architecture makes his experience more engrossing.

There may be a deep-rooted psychological explanation for our unease, according to Frank T. McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College, Illinois. When it comes to inciting fear, “the older the house, the better,” he said in a phone interview.

“Anything that gives it the feeling of being old will help, because the longer the place has been there, the greater the chances are that something terrible has happened there,” he continued. “Whereas if the house has only been there for five years, it just hasn’t had the time to become haunted.

“But a lot depends on the reputation of the house — you get creeped out because you’re unsure if there’s something to be scared of or not.”

McAndrew said certain Victorian characteristics can reinforce our sense of fear, but any rundown home will do, as long as it’s coupled with the visitor’s preconceived expectations of what might exist inside.

Sense of unease

The layout of a home can contribute to the feeling of unease. Humans have a natural, evolutionary need to feel safe, and haunted house architects can exploit this.

“It’s what we call ‘lack of legibility’ — it means the homes have a confusing layout and it looks like you could … get lost,” McAndrew said. “There are hallways that twist and turn, and rooms that are hard to find. If you got in there and suddenly had to get out, escaping would be difficult.”

The emergence of commercial haunted houses in the 1990s gave rise to new challenges, like adhering to strict safety codes and handling big groups of visitors, according to the founder of Hauntrepreneurs Themed Attraction Design and Consulting, Leonard Pickel.

This is when the floor plans transformed from traditional multi-bedroom homes into houses with zigzagged pathways. By keeping the line of sight as short as possible, designers could prevent people from seeing what scary surprises had happened to the group ahead.

Pickel trained as an architect before going into the haunted house industry more than four decades ago, when it was still in its infancy. The secret to creating a scary space, he said, is breaking all the rules he learned in school.

“I make sure I have some lower spaces that are really wide, and some tall, thin spaces to make people feel uncomfortable,” he said in a phone interview. In presentations, he uses the term “darkitecture” — unnerving design devices like crooked towers or vertical forced perspective, which makes objects appear closer or further away than they really are.

There are plenty of other design tricks in Pickel’s playbook, from creating the perception of loose floorboards, to painting a large black spot on the floor that prompts visitors to jump over it. Interior design, he said, is becoming increasingly crucial to these attractions.

“There has to be enough scenic value and cool things to look at, because some people you just can’t scare,” he said. “You have to entertain them. One of the biggest changes (in the industry] in the last 40 years is the level of detail — the level of detail is ridiculous. Like, if you look in the wastebasket in the room, there’s probably a newspaper in there with a story about the haunted house.”

Growing expectations

At Scareventures, in La Mesa, California, owner Kris Golojuch prides himself on creating this level of detail through two-dimensional facades, constructed to look like dilapidated buildings, that tell a themed story. They’re generally made from fire-proof foam, specially textured and illuminated to create the appearance of brick or stone.

While the haunted house industry has grown over the last three decades, Golojuch believes his art is becoming increasingly rare.

“Building the facades and making the classic Victorian haunted house — that’s dying,” he said in a phone interview.

Instead, the industry appears to be shifting towards what Golojuch called “extreme haunting,” with designers using special effects game to stay competitive and find new ways to catch people off their guard.

“TV shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ have made children so immune to gore and violence,” he said. “I’ve seen little kids walking past (faux) decapitated bodies, and when I was a kid, people would be horrified to see something like that.”

Golojuch remains a traditionalist at heart. While his background isn’t in architecture, he is well-versed in repurposing everyday materials into extensive, creative facades. One Saturday a month, he meets up with other haunted house enthusiasts at the California Haunters Society to exchange ideas about creating ghostly facades and interiors that can both scare and impress.

“It’s a feel-good moment for us when you see people completely taken aback by how cool a scene was,” he said. “For the actors, the greatest achievement is a scare, but for me as a builder and designer, it’s when they come out and say ‘I didn’t know I was still in a parking lot.’

“That, to me, is the biggest compliment.”