Home » 6 Ways Terror on Church Street Revolutionized the Haunt Industry

    6 Ways Terror on Church Street Revolutionized the Haunt Industry

    Spook houses have long been attached to dime museums and carnivals, with still-existing memorabilia dating to at least 1915. However, these attractions were typically short add-ons to larger main attractions. The modern stand-alone haunt industry began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the United States Junior Chamber began mounting their famous walk-through Jaycees haunted houses in parking lots across the country. Those haunts, and the imitators that followed, were open for a few nights over Halloween each year.

    In 1984, a tragic fire at the Haunted Castle attraction inside New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure park took the lives of 8 teenagers who were trapped inside. The aftermath shined a spotlight on safety practices, and haunts around the country quickly closed down to improve their emergency procedures. This was an important step in the evolution of the haunt industry, and paved the way for haunts to be taken seriously as legitimate entertainment options.

    In 1991, Universal Orlando hosted its first-ever Halloween Horror Nights, then called Fright Nights. Three nights long, featuring one walk-through haunted house along with roving scare actors and several shows, Fright Nights’ success proved that Orlando was ready for a high-dollar haunt.

    Based on a massively successful touring European show, Terror on Church Street opened a few nights later. As one of the first permanent haunted attractions and earliest theatrical haunts in the United States, Terror changed all the rules. Here are 6 ways that it completely reinvented the modern haunt industry.

    1. Big Budget

    Beyond the Limits of Fear

    Terror on Church Street’s tagline was elegant in its simplicity: “Beyond panic, beyond the limits of fear, there is Terror on Church Street.” A two-story haunt developed by entertainment industry moguls, Terror on Church Street spared no expense in creating an experience that had never before existed. It was among the first haunts to use lighting, fog, temperature, sound, and other sensory experiences to fully immerse visitors in their fears. The goal was to take audiences inside horror films, casting them as the victims in a highly theatrical experience. This model has since become the industry standard, as haunts search for new ways to ramp up the fear.

    In addition, Terror was big by any standard, featuring 23 completely realized sets. The sheer size of the production and number of cast and crew were unlike anything visitors had ever seen. The full walk-through experience took around 20 minutes to complete, depending on the speed of the group. And speaking of groups, they were paced, with only a few people admitted at once. Although this affected the number of visitors per hour, and lengthened wait times to get in, it heightened anticipation and gave each guest a highly personalized show.

    2. Professional Actors and Crew

    Legends Haunted House Actor

    In an era when haunts were generally staffed by volunteers or minimum-wage teens, Terror was a professional theatrical production. Creative Consultant and Artistic Director Ignacio Brieva, of the Monsters & Monsters Production group responsible for the original concept, had an extensive resume that includes running a school of magic and consulting with Fortune 500 companies for their European product rollouts. Daily operations manager Maria de la Roza had a strong background in advertising and marketing, and previously served as the Director of the Art and Art History departments at a high school in Orlando. Show Director David Clevenger had spent 8 years as the Managing Artistic Director at the Ice House Theater in Mount Dora, and was an occasional Guest Director for the international award-winning Theatre Winter Haven. Up-and-coming makeup guru Alan Ostrander, who went on to design makeup for TV and film, was hired as Head Makeup and Character Designer.

    Under the guidance of these talented professionals, the best of Orlando’s local talent was carefully auditioned, groomed, and developed. Actors had to show a great deal of natural ability to pass the audition, but once they were in, their talents were taken to the next level. Terror was a proving ground for many who would go on to careers at the theme parks or in television and film.

    3. Movie Quality Settings

    Halloween Horror Nights Hearse

    With the goal of putting visitors inside the horror, Terror on Church Street relied heavily on movie-quality props and sets. While most haunts of the era used black plastic or plywood backdrops with a  few highlight props, all of Terror’s sets were fully realized. From the attic to the boiler room, each set was packed with items that enhanced its theme and ramped up the horror. Lighting designs were carefully crafted to heighten the realism while providing the actors with places to hide, and the sound designs added to the feeling of foreboding. With such a laser focus on detailed realism, Terror wrote the rules that are still followed today. Now, entire haunt industry seminars focus on such details as how to make props look aged, how to create realistic-looking stage blood, or how to properly dress a set.

    4. High-End Makeup

    Halloween Horror Nights Storyteller

    Alan Ostrander and his team really knew their products. They designed many of the prosthetics themselves, ushering in a new age of special effects makeup for the haunt industry. But they also knew that even in the most basic pancake makeup, quality makes a huge difference. They selected high-end formulations that were easy to apply and blend, held up to a long night of sweating in the theatrical lights, and were reasonably easy for the actors to remove each night. The attention that Terror paid to the makeup and special effects showed the world what could be done with the proper tools in the hands of professionals.

    5. Location, Location, Location

    Rosie O'Grady's

    Terror on Church Street could not have asked for a more perfect location. Located inside Downtown Orlando’s historic Woolworth Building, Terror on Church Street was allegedly home to at least one real ghost. Dubbed the Yellow Man, the apparition quickly became part of the attraction’s lore. Actors reported other paranormal activity as well, from contact via a Ouija board with a spirit that claimed to know the actor from the Attic set, to the indentation of an unseen person lying on the Exorcist bed. Whether the ghost sightings were real, a marketing ploy, or the figment of highly creative people’s overactive imaginations, there was no denying that the sense of history added a layer of atmosphere that would be impossible to recreate in a newly constructed building.

    Terror also benefited from its positioning at the corner of Church Street and Orange Avenue. When Terror opened, Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island was only 2 years old. Universal Orlando’s CityWalk was still 8 years in the future. Orlando’s Church Street Station had been the high-energy nightspot for locals and tourists alike since the early 1970s. It was at the apex of its popularity, drawing more than a million visitors per year. Church Street Station was a collection of nightclubs, shops, and restaurants, and Terror on Church Street was at the end of its block. This created a seamless transition for those wanting to add a little fright to their evening. This successful marriage represented a radical departure from reigning haunt traditions, which generally placed haunted houses in parking lots and other out-of-the-way locations.

    6. Marketing and Public Relations

     Alfred A Si, Wikimedia Commons

    Before Terror on Church Street, haunt industry marketing was practically nonexistent. A local haunted house might print up a few small flyers to place on car windshields, or take out a brief radio ad, but without today’s social media, advertising was expensive and hardly seemed worth it to haunt owners.

    Terror on Church Street came in with a splash worthy of a blockbuster movie premiere. Esteemed horror icon Anthony Perkins, best known for his portrayal of serial killer Norman Bates in the “Psycho” films, was signed as celebrity spokesman. It was a natural partnership, as Perkins had attended nearby Rollins College and had recently filmed “Psycho IV: The Beginning” at Universal Orlando.

    With Perkins on board, the marketing team went to work, creating a multi-pronged approach that ultimately drew visitors from around the world. The media helped, running story after story about this brand-new theatrical playground where guests could celebrate Halloween 364 days per year (closed on Christmas Day). Terror was an early adopter of the Internet, building a small website with basic information, photos, and a catalog of available merchandise. Selling logo merchandise was not frequently done by haunts in those days, and online catalogs were relatively rare. But Terror recognized and harnessed the power of the Internet, as well as the ability of merchandise to serve a valuable promotional role.

    Today, of course, none of this sounds extraordinary. Big-budget haunts in great locations with movie-quality sets, logo merchandise, and heavy promotion are the norm. But without Terror on Church Street, the modern haunt industry might never have come to be.

    Terror closed suddenly in May 1999, despite having signed a 5-year lease the previous year. The name and some of the props and sets moved to a new location in the Church Street Exchange, but the writing was on the wall. Pleasure Island and CityWalk had taken over the tourist trade, and Downtown Orlando was in serious trouble. Terror 2 soon closed quietly, with little fanfare. Yet the legend endures, with numerous haunts around the country taking some variation of the Terror name. Most recently, a small group with connections to Terror on Church Street opened Legends, a permanent haunted house in Kissimmee’s Old Town. Only time will tell whether this highly theatrical haunt will become a true successor to the magic that was Terror on Church Street.