Can anybody else hear that?
July 29, 2010 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me design a really frightening experience!

As a Halloween fundraiser we're going to let a group of people spend the night in my workplace after everybody has gone home.

The building can get pretty creepy at night when it's empty, but it doesn't have a resident ghost or tragic tale that we can use as a hook for the event. We're basically going to have to make something up. I'm pretty comfortable imposing a narrative on whatever creepy happenings we decide to go with, but I'm wondering what our starting point should be.

Is there a universal constant for scary situations? What are the building blocks of fear?
posted by the latin mouse to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Ooh, you know what would be creepy? Having things turn on when they've obviously not been turned on by a human. The ghostly copy machine, oooooOOoooh!

Maybe you could put the outlets on timers or something.

I am so square.
posted by Madamina at 2:06 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would definitely be spooked out by a noise/'presence' that started off sounding like a silly joke ghost, but was still there hours later.

Do you have raised floors, suspended ceilings, or any other architectural details that might be useful? Will these people be familiar with the building as it normally is? What's the style of the building and the content of the rooms?

Generally, though: disorientation, false identification of spookiness that then turns out to be real, characteristics of serious modern human events (maybe hard to fake a radio broadcast/worried texts from loved ones, etc, but think War of the Worlds), a less privileged viewpoint than the source of the spookiness, one or two people acting in the group from some extent to aggravating the threats to being sinister themselves (without instigating some hero taking them down). If you've historic elements in the place, and I'm guessing there's something very special about it, strains of music or photos floating out might be good. Writing appearing where it wasn't previously - bathrooms might be good for this, spooking people on their own and the rooms not permanently occupied.

I guess this is where I note my response to non-mystical spookiness and things that are legitimately dangerous is about the same, so if this seems a bit extreme...
posted by carbide at 2:13 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Electronic door locks which randomly lock and unlock the door through the evening, loudly. Use CCTV cameras to see who's doing what, and make sure the door locks/unlocks when most of them are far enough away to not hear it, but some of them are. The ensuing discussion - and discovery that the door is, in fact, locked, would freak me out for sure.
posted by mdonley at 2:16 PM on July 29, 2010

Spookiness derives from the setting so you should describe the place a bit... is it a spooky old house? An office park?

To answer your question directly, this kind of fear is mostly a primitive reaction to the unknown and uncertainty about one's own safety and sanity, so the trick is to build enough of a backstory and let everybody's imaginations color in the rest. People will tend to color in what is scary for them. So I wouldn't go into much detail on anything about the haunting you intend to create.

The best foundation for a ghost story is going to be local history. Research the property records to see what was there 50-100 years ago, look at old newspapers, and ask any old-timers you know about the property. It looks like you're in the UK, too, which has many decades of amateur ghost research that might tie into your location and give you some fodder to draw on -- also WWII events may have transpired in the area.

Maybe you can hide a few hidden bits of nylon fishing line in the building that are tied to objects in the other room, which can be tugged covertly at random, infrequent times to cause odd noises. If the line is attached with tape instead of knotted around the object, you can give a quick, severe tug to break the line and pull it in in its entirety when people get up to look and then discover the item. You can also do things like tape together two red laser pointers... instant glowing eyes... but if I did that I'd dim them and cast them quickly and subtly so people aren't sure if that's what they really saw.
posted by crapmatic at 2:18 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: I recommend watching the movie Paranormal Activity for inspiration.

OK, here's the thing: the participants will know to expect Ghostly Happenings, because that's the point of the event; so to be truly scary you'll have to create the impression that things have got out of hand, and beyond the control of the organizers. The classic ghost-movie way of doing this is to imply that messing around with the world of ghosts in a jokey way (via ouija boards, for example) has inadvertently angered some.... OMG real ghosts! I know this isn't a very focused piece of advice, but somehow the narrative structure you build around this has to acknowledge that there's some scary play-acting going on... and then have things go "horribly wrong". If you're using live actors, there needs to be a very well-managed point where they cross over from "woo, I'm a ghost" to "oh shit guys, this is serious, actually."

Don't forget those waiver forms to spare you liability for the heart attacks!
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:18 PM on July 29, 2010

Slam doors, intermittently, all night long.
posted by saladin at 2:19 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: false identification of spookiness that then turns out to be real

Also this. The creaky pacing back-and-forth upstairs that turns out to be some guy who then comes and joins the rest of the group... and then the pacing back-and-forth starts up again.

Could you have people as plants in the group? Depends on their acting skills, I guess.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:21 PM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

what kind of workplace? an office building, a factory, and a Macy's make for very different haunted houses. :)

One good general rule of thumb from Scott Rogers is misdirection; telegraph a "fake" scare, but instead of following through with it, throw something completely different at the guest instead!
posted by luvcraft at 2:31 PM on July 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far.

I'm after the general stuff about "what makes something scary" rather than specific suggestions for this particular building, but for the record it's a theatre.

Which makes it easier, because we have access to a shitload of cool equipment like trapdoors and smoke machines, but also harder because the participants will show up expecting trapdoors and smoke machines. I'd rather use headology.
posted by the latin mouse at 2:58 PM on July 29, 2010

it's a theatre.

Oh, but this is perfect. And you'll surely have access to actors or would-be actors! Like I say, start with silly theatricals and then... gradually... have things get really weird...
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:01 PM on July 29, 2010

A scary thought for me has always been suddenly seeing strange people in unexpected places. For example, presuming that you are alone, turning on a light as you're about to go down a flight of stairs, and suddenly realizing there is someone standing at the bottom of them. Or alternatively, spending a night alone at a hotel with double beds, only to wake up in the middle of the night and see someone sit up in the bed opposite you.* These are just general examples.

Basically, seeing weirdos where there aren't supposed to be any, and who unexpectedly put you in a position of vulnerability. This seems like it would work particularly well if you could somehow get individuals alone when they encounter said inexplicable weirdo. If they are always in a group, they will feel more secure and it will detract from the pants-shitting scariness.

*Stolen from a ghost story by M.R. James
posted by Lobster Garden at 3:41 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Forgive me if I'm stating the obvious here, but generally horror depends on a location where something really terrible has happened, and that terrible thing coming back and biting the protagonist on the ass. Everywhere from Norman Bates' house in Psycho, to the crashed alien spaceship in Alien, and the woods in The Blair Witch Project abide by this rule.

If it's not the location, it's generally a person to whom something really terrible has happened; the girls in Paranormal Activity and The Exorcist, the killer in Scream.

So, to make your night really scary you could combine both. Have some horrific tale of murders that happened in the theatre a few years ago, but also have it that one of your party is also the murderer, and the ghosts of the dead want revenge. Something like that.
posted by hnnrs at 3:52 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: What makes thing scary? Here are some building blocks:

- Subtle things that let your imagination run wild. When you need to strain to hear something, or when you don't notice something right away. Scratching sounds. Corners hidden in the dark. Ambiguous words written on the wall.

- Turning around and having something be changed. A door that's suddenly open, when no one was there. Looking up into a mirror and having something suddenly there behind you.

- Mirrors, windows, open doors, darkness. Spaces behind you or above you. Open spaces. Places where something could be watching you without you knowing. People feel safe in a small space where they can see absolutely everything around them and have their back to a wall: the opposite of that is very scary. E.G. The beginning of Jaws, where something is observing the girl from beneath the water and she doesn't know.

- Things not acting like they should. Creepy children, people standing silently with their back to you. A rocking chair by itself beneath a spotlight.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:53 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have computers emit a clown laugh, at high volume, randomly. It doesn't even have to be an 'evil' clown laugh, just a clown laugh.

One job I had involved software testing on Windows XP, at Microsoft. At the end of the workday, testers would kick off some 'stress tests', which would be a set of automated tests that would run overnight on the various components of the OS - network traffic, monitors, and the like. This included the speakers. They would be turned up loud by the testing software, and then, for 10 seconds, they would play a clown laughing, followed by some circus music. Then, they'd go silent again. Hundreds of computers in a test lab would do this, at random intervals, multiple times a night.

Now imagine the poor tester working in that environment after everyone else had gone home. I still hate clown laughs, to this day.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:58 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: Maybe you could plant an actor or two in the group. Someone they think is just along for the ride like they all are, but this person is really there to get freaked out and act scared and heighten everyone else's paranoia.

Want to get technical? Introduce some infrasound into the building for the night. A super low noise on the edge of hearing apparently goes a long way towards making people feel creeped. Get some subwoofers cranking out a tone somewhere in the neighborhood of 20hz.

Something else you could do is try an EVP experiment, but rig it so it ends up extra scary. Tell people about EVP, record a random part of the night, sneak away to doctor the recording on a laptop with some barely audible voices saying creepy stuff.
posted by cirrostratus at 4:06 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also think it might be a good idea to try to act/get scared yourself. A scenario where you were supposed to be in charge but things kept going awry and out of control until you were scared too and didn't know what to do would get people going pretty good.
posted by cirrostratus at 4:11 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: What a cool idea for a fundraising event! If you have access to the building at night prior to the event, you could have some fun by using a video camera to "time shift" supernatural events that happen throughout the evening.

Basic prep: Cut all power to the building except for the 'home base' where the guests will sleep. Set up a TV or projector in the room.

The set-up: Explain to the group that certain areas of the buildings are hotspots for supernatural activity, especially on Halloween (someone died in a broom closet on the third floor back in the 60s, multiple people throughout the decades jumped from the exact same window on the top floor, etc.). Perhaps show a 'shopped photo of the 'suicide' window, taken from the street, that shows a ghostly image. Or pass around old archival photos, discovered in a rusty filing cabinet in the basement, of employees in the 20s-50s that died in the building (old photos of people are inherently creepy).

The big show: With the seed of fear planted in your guests' minds, tell the group that you will check for activity in each hotspot alone, armed only with a video camera w/ night vision. Step out for 20 minutes. Come back frazzled, claiming that you recorded some seriously freaked out scary shit. Connect the camera to a projector and play back the video tour that you pre-recorded a few nights earlier with the help of your special effects crew: unidentifable dark liquid dripping from the walls of the broom closet, scratch marks appearing on your back as you exit a room, a door down a dark hallway slamming shut, etc.

After the screening, challenge your guests to retrace your steps using nothing but handheld video cameras -- with no power in the building, they'll need to use the night vision setting as a light source. At this point, you don't need to simulate any ghostly events--your guests' senses and fear level will be sufficiently elevated to play tricks on their own minds -- they'll see things, hear whispers, feel breezes and basically freak each other out in ways that no simulated trickery could match ("did you just touch me...omg who just touched me....I'").

At the end of the night, transfer the digital footage to a server where each guest can download their video tour as a souvenir of the event. You can also edit together the pre-recorded and guest footage documentary-style, and offer it as a DVD (an additional fundraising source, perhaps).

Other ways to enhance the experience:
- suspend their disbelief: for the 20 minutes that you're supposedly recording your solo tour, go to the 'hotspots' and recreate all your yelps, howls and freak outs in time with the tape. Hearing you freak out in real time will convince them that you really did just record what they're seeing.
- stage the guest tour: before the event, change the setting in each hotspot in a way that seems impossible given the short time between your solo tour and the guests' tour. Scrawl a message on the wall of the broom closet in fake blood ('get out' or 'May 6 1952 I died'). In a room that, on tape, had chairs scattered across the room, create an elaborate chair pyramid or tower that reaches to the ceiling. The challenge is to stage each hotspot in a way that would seemingly take hours, without making the staging so elaborate as to clue them in that your tour was previously recorded. Maintaining suspension of disbelief is key to pulling off the evening.
- broadcast "live" security cams: when your guests arrive, explain that you're broadcasting live security camera feeds on TVs in home base. A week or so before the event, mount your video camera where the fake cams would reside and, during the same hours as your event, record 8 hours of footage. Use editing software to add weirdness to the footage every 60-90 minutes -- a wispy shadow moving across the lobby floor, a cloaked figure slowly walking down the alley, testing doors to the building; the front desk shaking violently for a few seconds, camera images momentarily flipping upside down, etc. Run the footage on a computer display or TV during the course of the event. Don't point out the events -- just let a guest here and there freak out at something they saw ("OMFG, someone's in the lobby! No really, I saw it on the camera just now....")
- Plant several friends in the group. Every few hours, one of your friends will disappear without a trace. Bonus fun: around 4am or so, one of your friends appears on security cam in the lobby covered in blood, staring expressionless into the camera, then shuffles away. After the event, if any guests ask if the guests were found, deny that the "disappeared" were in attendance.
- Best of luck for a successful fundraiser, however you pull it off!
posted by prinado at 4:16 PM on July 29, 2010

Google "flying crank ghost". It's a common home made Halloween prop. Lots of people have seen these but the effect is pretty good so people keep making them.

Somewhere out there I found a page where a guy tells his story about getting involved at the local Halloween haunted house. He had planned to make a crank ghost but quickly caught on that everyone and their dog had seen them. So what he did was made the ghost, but instead of making it an automated marionette, he made it a stick puppet held up by this PVC harness he worker. So the big night comes and he and the harness were all in black in front of a black screen going through the motions a normal flying crank ghost would have. He even screwed an old can opener to the ceiling so that you could faintly hear the motor. When the first cohort of haunted house explorers were all in the room he lunged at them. And everyone freaked the hell out because the cheesy prop had just gone off on its own.

I highly recommend hitting Halloween Forum. Lots of amazing people there who are REALLY into Halloween and will give you a ton of ideas if you ask them.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:28 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: Exactly what game warden said. For instance, tell them you were really disappointed that you couldn't get the smoke machine working because it would have been really cool to have a mist around when people arrived. Then fill a single room adjacent to where the smoke machine is completely with smoke so it billows out when the door is opened. Make sure to look shocked, and swear the only smoke machine you have has been non-functioning all night.

Put red food coloring in a spray bottle (insta blood), and mist it onto windows/mirrors that were obviously clean before. Bonus points if you do it on something that everyone has been near all night, but never noticed until the "blood" appeared.

Take a few pages of plain paper and write "don't look behind you" with your non-dominant hand as small as you can right in the center of the page. Crinkle them up a bit, then slip them into people's packs or put them inside draws so people read it when they're opened.

Have someone completely change the contents of your fridge or cabinets several times throughout the night. "I swear this cabinet was full of glasses" There is also something disconcerting about completely barren cabinets.

It's a theatre? How about darkening and blocking off the seating area so there is "obviously" no one there. Good spot to lob things at peoples turned backs from. Use long cardboard tubes to make sudden hissing and whispering sounds directed at one person/area. Play it subtle though.

How about having someone record the moonlight sonata in a really slow/messed up fashion, setup some speakers near the piano area, and play back small sections of it when no one is in eyesight of the piano. Be sure to put a sign on the piano that says "Please do not play the piano" and leave the key cover down.
posted by parallax7d at 4:42 PM on July 29, 2010

This might work.
posted by parallax7d at 4:47 PM on July 29, 2010

These are all super ideas. Could you slip small toys into folks' jacket pockets or such? Jacks, or tiny dolls or that sort of thing? Wow, would that creep me out.
posted by GriffX at 4:56 PM on July 29, 2010

Best answer: They're expecting to be scared, right? They go into this knowing it's meant to be spooky? Well, then a few noises and creaks and that will just be exactly what they're expecting and easily explained away. Why not properly mess with their heads?

I say let them in and start with all the usual things suggested upthread. A few noises, some bumps in the night, chains dragging, that sort of thing. Just as the group gets all cocky, thinking 'whatever, a bunch of fake ghost noises', have the culprits come out and make it clear they're not trying to be frightening. Chains dragging? Spooky, spooky, spooky, then the building's caretaker comes out from behind the curtain, dragging chains, because he needs to set them up over on the other side of the room for the show next week. The door slamming upstairs? Turns out it's someone working late who can't get their lock to work. That eerie woooo noise? A window that's jammed and can't quite shut, with a bit of wind outside. There are a few people around who aren't part of the spooky night and are just finishing up their day's work. Lull your guests into a false sense of security, let them think they're on top of things.

Then it's time to play. I'd start with some small problems. The director working late wants to leave, but her key won't open the door. The caretaker suggests the rear door, but it's blocked by a heap of old props and he'll need some help. Can a few of you lend a hand? He takes four or five of the group away to help move a bunch of giant, intimidating props and scenery pieces. Unfortunately, the light blows the moment they turn it on, so they're working in the dark. The caretaker says he's keen to get home, as this is the first year they've done this halloween gag since that accident last time.

From there you can do anything. Last time they tried this a girl disappeared during the night and was never found again? Or was she hanging from the highest beam of the ceiling, which she surely couldn't have reached? Maybe the caterer cuts their arm badly and needs the attention of some of the group while a few others need to head off into the basement to find that old first aid kit, since the one in the kitchen can't be found. Maybe one of the diners (planted by you) has an allergic reaction, even though the chef is adamant there were no nuts in the food. Maybe in order to get dinner going they have to send someone down into the bowels of the building to switch on a gas pipe that hasn't been used in years. Maybe you almost cancelled the event because of that spate of gruesome home invasions and burglaries that have happened recently. Maybe one of the guests (planted by you) disappears while on some task, and their body is found suspended from that highest beam. Maybe one of the little groups doing a job ends up locked in the room they're working in, even though everyone else in the building can be accounted for and couldn't have locked it themselves.

I think the key is to humour them with cheap noises and predictable gags, then start to play with them in a way they're not expecting. Split them up to diminish some of the security that comes from a big group. Have a few outsiders playing the roles of people who aren't meant to be involved in the first place, and a few planted actors helping along the terror from within. A few others will wander the building in darkness, creating all sorts of scenarios that can't be explained by the people there. Don't invent some mythical ghost story based in the past, make one happen that night.
posted by twirlypen at 5:53 PM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Weird transmissions or phone calls wig me out. Maybe have a phone (especially if it is a pay phone or public phone) ring, and when someone answers it have a recording of creepy static or a distorted, desperate voice on the other end. OR if people have cell phones and you have access to their phone numbers, have someone do this to random members of the group.
posted by evilcupcakes at 8:08 PM on July 29, 2010

Plant several friends in the group. Every few hours, one of your friends will disappear without a trace. Bonus fun: around 4am or so, one of your friends appears on security cam in the lobby covered in blood, staring expressionless into the camera, then shuffles away. After the event, if any guests ask if the guests were found, deny that the "disappeared" were in attendance.

This is what I was going to suggest. Blood isn't necessary to be creepy. Also, you can have them go "odd" - such as standing in a corner, become unresponsive, have them speak gibberish, etc.
posted by deborah at 8:46 PM on July 29, 2010

I haven't finished the thread so someone may have mentioned this, but what's really spooky in large buildings and offices is silence. Turn everything off. Air conditioners, refrigerators, unplug all the computers, fans, heaters, etc.
posted by gt2 at 10:19 PM on July 29, 2010

Personally, I find the dark terrifying. My overactive imagination sees murderers and zombies everywhere given the slightest excuse. A pitch black room and just the verrrrrry faintest sounds - so faint I'm not sure if I'm imagining them - would be guaranteed to frighten the life out of me.

Being alone makes it worse, of course, so to make real use of this you'd need to thin out the herd a little :)
posted by citands at 1:38 AM on July 30, 2010

To me, stuff that is totally out of place is scary. A child's doll laying on the floor, or a bunch of old photos in a pile. Also, young Asian girls. Hire a 12-year-old Asian girl with long black hair to walk around all night in a white gown. Make sure her hair obscures her face.
posted by jbickers at 4:52 AM on July 30, 2010

Levitation. Things levitating, or even the suggestion of things levitating, wigs me out. For example, someone outside a second story window, scratching to get in. ::shiver:: I think I have Stephen King to thank for that one.
posted by anemone at 6:52 AM on July 30, 2010

Things that would generally freak me out:

Muffled talking / moaning / singing / humming in the next room, especially if everyone who is supposed to be there is in the room with you.

Weird smells, especially electrical burning smells

If it was pitch dark, and I felt a teeny little breeze across my face, I'd shit my pants.

Are they spending the night in the seating area? Put nasty yucky stuff on the floor under the the seats. Sometimes at a movie, I have to suppress the screaming heeby-jeeby feeling that something gross under my seat that is going to rise up and ooze all over me.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:26 AM on July 30, 2010

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