When Haunted Houses Are in Your Head. Virtually

When Haunted Houses Are in Your Head. Virtually

By Eugene S. Robinson


Technology's terrifying enough even before it starts trying to scare the crap out of you.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Terror, real, mortal terror, is a rare and special thing in a theatrical setting. To be scared enough to be fearful, but not scared enough to actually believe that the experience will kill you? Well, there’s some special alchemy at work there. It’s what haunted houses have long relied on. Now, that industry is going one step further.

Americans spend more than $300 million on haunted house tickets each year — this includes religious-themed houses as well as off-Halloween-season house visits. So not being anchored to physical reality could be a boon and a half for creators who are now marrying technology and terror in a way that’s never been done before. They’re using virtual reality and augmented reality to create a spate of experiences where everyday settings — from a kitchen to a warehouse — turn into haunted houses the moment you put on some goggles. Such VR and AR haunted houses are spreading across the U.S. and even reaching British and Japanese shores.

There’s the Void, a U.S.-based VR company that offers at least two ghost-specific tours: Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment and Ghostbusters. VR horror has hit the Reality Check exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Beyond that? The Bane Haunted House in New York will offer a 15-minute VR horror escape room in January 2020, and Universal Studios has the Repository experience. All of these have come up in the past three years.

Hyper Reality brought a VR haunted house to the U.K. for the first time last year. And Japan’s Bandai Namco Entertainment, which opened the world’s largest VR arcade in Tokyo two years ago, this June opened another, almost as large, called Mazaria in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, featuring an exclusively horror-filled experience called the Panic Zone. Meanwhile, Night Terrors, an AR-based phone game, turns your home into a haunted house — your fridge jumps out at you like it’s a ghost.

Then everything gets dark and, with that, ominous … VR goggles yanked off. Point conceded: brain was tricked.

VR and AR haunted houses can go where their physical counterparts can’t, says Scott Bryan, a haunted house designer and a member of the horror thrash metal band Ghoul, whose latex monster heads and bloody chest plates adorn characters in the houses he’s designed, as well as characters in his band’s stage show. That’s because there are no physical objects that actually move in these virtual spaces.

“Our stage shows have no rules,” says the craggy-looking Bryan, speaking from the road on tour with Ghoul. “But we still don’t really hurt people. Same with haunted houses. Because they’re real. But in virtual reality, I think we could probably do just about whatever we want.”

The challenge of theatrically creating fear is something more than a few horror film directors have recently spoken about — none more significantly than Halloween director John Carpenter, whose rogues’ gallery of horror films are widely held to be some of the form’s best. “Horror is a reaction; it’s not a genre,” he said most succinctly to Interview magazine about why one type of scare works while another doesn’t.

A virtual reality haunted house.

It’s a fact not unnoticed by a raft of high-tech companies — Google, Facebook and Microsoft among them — that have seen increases in processing power, driven by a rabid video gaming industry, converge with advances in both virtual and augmented reality technology. While AR just adds digital elements to live viewing using your smartphone camera, like what we saw in 2016 when the world went mad for Pokémon GO, VR is a total-immersion deal that closes down the “real” world and replaces it with whatever designers want.

Instrumental to this being a successful replacement for the old county-fair haunted house is that the programming doesn’t just trick your eyes. It also tricks your mind.

“Here. Try this on.” A Microsoft engineer passes across the VR goggles. A former Navy guy, he’s been working on next-level VR technology. The kind of stuff he’s not supposed to be talking about. The kind of stuff the rest of the world won’t see for another year. The goggles are snug, and what had been a room in Mountain View, California, is now an ocean somewhere. And what had been a floor is now a weird feeling of weightlessness.

Then everything gets dark and, with that, ominous. Things are lurking in briny shadows. The fish swimming around me start swimming faster. They’re avoiding something. Fleeing something.

VR goggles yanked off. Point conceded: Brain was tricked. I was creeped out.

“Of course it works,” he laughs. Since he’s not supposed to have these out of the Microsoft lab, he doesn’t want me to use his name, but the point remains. It was scarier than the last five scary movies I’d seen. But that’s because “people who are playing these games, or doing some haunted house thing, want to be scared, so this is a little easier. It’s hard if you’re resolved not to be scared.”

Based on the fact that the VR industry, according to analyst estimates, is expected to hit $101 billion in the next eight years, it doesn’t appear there is much resistance to being immersed — in terror, and just about whatever other thrills consumers might be seeking.

This makes Bryan sort of sad. “I can’t make real masks, prosthetics and bloody heads for that virtual shit,” he says. At least with the ones that are housed in real brick-and-mortar haunts “there’s still the collective experience of fear. I mean, there’s something to people leaving their bedrooms to do something at the very least.”

Even if you’re posted up in your bedroom, these VR and AR experiences are different from your father’s (or mother’s) horror video games. You’re not sitting on your ass when you use them. Not unless that’s where you’ve fallen.

No, you’re walking, crawling and running, through places creepier than any set designer is likely to pull off — headset or goggles on, for about $40 per adult and $25 for kids.

Welcome to the future of haunted houses.