Scott Swenson, one of the devious brains behind Busch Gardens' annual Howl-O-Scream freakfest, is explaining "the angle of retreat." • In other words, when people flip out in one of his haunted houses, he has to make sure they flip out in the right direction. • "We never scare from the front," he says. "We always scare from the side or behind, to keep people moving forward." • Swenson, BG's director of creative services — a handsome, charismatic guy who takes great joy in making you eeek — excels at the science of the jolt. To better understand how they do what they boo at Busch Gardens, we paid a visit to the Basement, one of two new houses at the 13th (re)incarnation of Howl-O-Scream. Swenson took us through the theory and logistics of a key corridor in the house — an electrical hallway, or "gauntlet," that leads to an awesomely grisly twist. Behold, the anatomy of a scare:
WELCOME TO MOMMA'S MEATS
"We are creating the illusion of danger, not real danger," Swenson says. Illusion or not, the Basement's viscera factor goes from bad to worse to get-the-bleep-outta-there as you take refuge in Momma's Meats — Momma being a "prize-winning entrepreneur" known for her delicious cooking all over the "rural South." However, only the basement door to the ramshackle joint is open, so dowwwnnn you go, winding through seemingly benign corridors at first, including a laundry room, where there's a bounty of red-stained clothes hanging in your face. "Momma tries to get as much blood out as she can," Swenson says in ominous tones. This is the setup, a sly "slow-build" for what comes next: the electrical hallway. Ready to run?
"WE PLAY YOU LIKE A PINBALL MACHINE"
As far as special effects and gore, the electrical hallway is relatively low-tech compared to the mayhem that is, oh, about 20 yards away. "It's a gauntlet," Swenson says. "That's a perfect way to describe it." It's a tight space, flanked by black walls and a glowing door at hallway's end. See those electrical boxes, three on each side of you? They look 3-D, but they're merely prints. "They're actually drop doors, three on each side," Swenson says. He lets one fall: WHAM! There are two "scare-actors" behind each wall, Momma's disfigured henchmen if you will, working the drops doors and lunging at you. The doors can drop down at a loud, furious, unpredictable rate; couple that with audio foot triggers to synch with each door and disorienting strobe lighting, and well, you're in for a tough sprint, boys and girls.
"Do you notice that the drop doors are never across from each other?" Swenson says. "We play you like a pinball machine. One drop door is a distraction for the next. While you're laughing about the last scare, you don't see the next one coming. You can go down this hallway 10 different times and have 10 different experiences." 10 times? Ugh.
LOOK, THERE'S A WAY OUT ... OR NOT
At the end of the electrical hallway, looming at the top of a staircase, is a glowing door to freedom. Too bad that staircase is just an illusion. "You're not getting up in the house," Swenson says. "There's no physical scare here; instead, we're creating a sense of dread. That gets your heart racing, a palate-cleanser for what's next."
You have to keep moving forward — right into Momma's canning room, then her kitchen for the big, nasty reveal. "We want your inhales and exhales to get closer together as you get closer to the end of the house." That's where you'll meet the Butcher, Momma's right-hand (and left hands, and feet, and heads and...) man is waiting for you. "It's a family business," Swenson says matter-of-factly.
IS IT OVER YET?
Fair warning: It gets bloody in the Basement. And while it's always fun — in a terrifying, pants-wetting way — it's also relentless, which is a Busch Gardens specialty. (There are some 30 scare-actors in the Basement, all geared up for mayhem.) But for all the gross, grisly sights and sounds, there's also a rather beautiful art to the Basement, especially the canning rooms, which, despite the barfy contents, are pretty in a Better Homes and Ghouls sort of way. "We want to control your field of view cinematically by lighting certain things," says Swenson, who pauses rather dramatically before adding, "Your imagination fills in the darkness."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.