When I was 5 or 6 years old our teacher took us on a field trip to a neighborhood that was directly across from the elementary school to a house that a guy had built a garage haunted house in. We all lined up and everyone started to go in but for some unknown reason I chickened out and didn’t go in. When I went trick or treating I was lucky enough to live near some people who put a lot of fantastic effort into their decorations with lights and sounds (heart beats would freak me out) and skeletons galore. This was long before you could get things from the store like animatronic figures (I use that term very loosely) and people generally had to make their decorations. I distinctly remember a person who had an upturned jeep in there front yard with a rotating axel and lights to simulate fire in it along with an injured someone inside. Another person had great lighting and sound and had strung fishing wire just right to open the front gate and it looked amazing. There was also someone who made a talking skeleton that totally blew my mind, I still remember the green lighting.
At the local high school and elementary schools they would put on haunted houses there and I absolutely loved it and went through as many times as I could. But the one haunted house that would completely capture my imagination came when later in elementary when my parents took us to the most elaborate haunted house I had ever seen. The haunted house was in Des Moines WA at the marina. They had full sets like from a stage production, I recall walking up to a house.. a house inside a building and walking into it at one point. The amount of sets and detail in it completely caught me by surprise and the bar had been raised so high I absolutely feel in love with wanting to create something like this.
If I thought that haunted house was amazing nothing could have prepared me for my 6th grade year when my parents took the family to Disneyland and Universal Studios. Disneyland showed me that the show can go on inside the building and continue outside, Universal showed me that people built these things and the illusions one can create with carefully crafted sets.
If I wasn’t building small haunted house effects at home before, I sure was now and continued to do so well into high school and beyond.
After I stopped trick or treating, which I pushed a bit too far to be honest.. hey..free candy. I began to add my own touches to my parents house.
My first toe dip into the world of haunting was the classic “Get your Dad’s clothes and stuff them with newspaper and put on a mask” complete with a sign asking people to not touch the dummy.
It was a lot of fun scaring people and more fun when they poked the dummy.
The following year, I upped the design and went with a weird junk tarp structure thing with me and my friend hiding inside while a strobe light obscured us. When the timing was right we would make some very loud noises and yell Happy Halloween!
The next year I wanted to add a bit of technology but keep the structure level. This was a awesome rubber skeleton in a chair, with cool lighting and a remote activated fire alarm bell. I also added a camera to the whole thing so I could see when to ring the bell from the front room.
Now the next year was after I did two things. First I took a stagecraft class during the production of a play in highschool and learned how to build set pieces and had a story drive the whole thing.
Also I sketched the whole thing out and planned much better than I had ever done before, even going as far as to research hieroglyphics and watch some awesome old mummy movies
I created a pneumatic mummy that would sit up and make some awful sounds.
I controlled the whole thing from behind the scenes using a video monitor and camera, I stereo for amplifying the audio I was running from my computer.
The pneumatic mummy was controlled by hand with a valve and a bleed that I built. I wish I could show you the sketch as it is pretty much identical to what I ended up doing.
Though this was the most elaborate year yet it triggered something in me, I was able to build all this cool stuff but the dance it took for me to operate was kind of ridiculous.
At the end of the day I thought it really turned out great and despite how you see the set with the camera and flash the lighting I had really made it look great.
I knew deep down that I needed to learn electronics because if I had both mechanical and electrical skills I could have either completely automated this mummy or at the least just have been able to press a button. If you notice, there is a clipboard in one of the photos, this was to get peoples feedback, seriously.. that’s how much I cared.
At this point I went back to college for computer engineering/electronics engineering.
When I came back from that I had bought a house in a neighborhood that I was sure would get a great Halloween crowd.
Here are the sketches I would create on my way to the final design.
The story I wanted to tell is that there was an old cowboy that was just kind of a slow, down to earth story teller. He got caught up in a fire in a saloon and died but since he is an easy going fellow, he stuck around as an animated skeleton in order to do what he does best, spin yarns of days gone by to anyone who will listen.
My first concept was a story telling old cowboy in front of an old saloon. He would chat with guests and I could even create some cool lighting and effects inside the saloon.
I looked into my bank account and noticed that given the time and the money I had I might need to scale back on the saloon a bit and my critical element I wanted to build was the talking skeleton cowboy.
I still designed the structure of the set and sketched out how I could get the skeleton to rock.
Then I had an idea to scale down the set with a good story, what if the saloon burned down and only a small portion of it was left. So it was part of a wall, the skeleton cowboy and the fireplace that caused the whole thing warming his bones.
From this first design, I did one more revision.
That is exactly how it ended up looking, I had material draped over an empty window with a fan blowing it, multicolored lighting, fog emulating smoke and fire effects.
The skeleton would tell a story then fall asleep for a while then wake up and tell the story again.
Unfortunately I don’t have the photos of the set and for the life of me cannot find it anywhere but I will keep looking.
The skeleton was animated using a microcontroller servo driver and some really great animation software that is floating out there on the web that allows you to sync the audio file with servo commands.
I spent hours just getting the mouth movements just right and it was one of my best ones yet.
The sad thing is, the neighborhood ended up begin terrible on the amount of trick or treaters we got and nobody would venture to the area I was in except a few of the surrounding kids. This was horribly depressing as a show without an audience just isn’t much of a show so when I went back to school for my masters degree I went to full size candy and some very basic creepy garage stuff. Lets say you can get away with a lot when you have a strobe light, colored lights, a fog machine and spooky sounds coming out of a cracked garage door. Hey it worked on me as a kid. Sometimes the unseen is far scarier that anything you could create for people to see.
Since this time I have been living in a flat without an accessible garage and no kids walking the block so I moved my haunting supplies into my office at work and showed my skills there.
Eventually I will get a house again and will resurrect the haunt or just volunteer at a local haunt to help really take there sets and tech to the next level, until then I am hibernating and gaining a whole new arsenal of skills.