How Haunted Houses Overran America

New Orleans’ House of Shock, 2011. Photo via AP Images.

We’re well into October, and that means there is nowhere in America you could possibly hide from ads for haunted houses. Charmingly slapped-together community fundraiser versions, elaborate church-sponsored Hell Houses, haunted hayrides, SUPER XTREME horror experiences—they’re everywhere. How did this happen?

Popular Mechanics delves a bit into the history of this phenomenon. There are now more than 1,200 “haunted attractions” across the country, according to the Haunted House Association. You could trace the tradition back to the gruesome works of the historical Madame Tussaud and even further, but the modern trend has its roots in the 1930s:

The haunted house as we know it today traces back to 1930s America, where they were meant to be a family-friendly alternative to real destructive Halloween traditions like destroying mailboxes, vandalism, and harassing neighbors. In true DIY manner, parents would build these so-called “trails of terror” in their basements using props like strips of raw liver, wet sponges, and old hairnets.


In the late 1960s, Disneyland added the Haunted Mansion—an important technological advancement for the form, which demonstrated all the fun, spooky things you could do with a bigger budget.

“Customers, left, scream while a volunteer psychopath steps on severed head and swings ax at victim in Halloween Haunted House for charity at Florence, Ky., Oct. 22, 1981.” Photo via AP Images.

And then there were the Jaycees:

Around this time, the United States Junior Chamber (or the Jaycees), a civic organization for young adults, began encouraging members to put up haunted houses as a way to fundraise. It became such a dependable and lucrative way to raise money that a chapter head in Bloomington, Illinois named Tom Hilligoss wrote a manual and formed the “Haunted House Company” to help other chapters. Hilligoss was the first so-called haunted house expert, traveling across the country giving seminars about how to construct the houses, train actors, advertise, and even how to properly put on horror makeup. “When I got started (in the late 1970s), there were like ten Jaycee haunted houses [in every city],” says Larry Kirchner, owner of The Darkness in St. Louis, who is also editor of and considered one of the world’s foremost experts on haunted attractions.


These haunted houses were sufficiently popular and lucrative that, increasingly, entrepreneurial practical-effects experts were drawn to the moneymaking potential and developed the art into an industry—and that’s how seemingly every decently-sized town in America got its own seasonal scare attraction, instead of just letting horny teens get lost in cornfields all night like God intended.

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