After four years of planning and anticipation, we finally opened for our first year at School District 13 in 2014. Our goal was simply to prove that we could draw people into town that first year. In 2015, we completed our proof-of-concept trial period with the four haunted attractions: Mr. Wiggle’s Wood Shop, Dr. Doom’s Science Room, the Prom Night Massacre, and what we referred to as the Enchanted Forest (this year the Enchanted Forest has been repurposed and amped up as The Detention Fields).
All of our haunts “temporary”, which means that the entire layout of each can be removed and rebuilt from year to year. This is ideal because it makes it possible for us to keep the environments fresh. A lot of the haunted attractions in Nebraska are “permanent” haunts, which enables the haunt owners to build extra details into the sets. The results can be really cool, but the ability to make extreme changes from one year to the next is really important to us. And at School District 13, we rely less on set details and more on psychological principals to scare our patrons.
Jennifer Shipp, the haunt designer and developer, has an advanced degree in psychology and specialized training in altered states of consciousness from her travels all over the globe. John, her husband, is a professional musician, and the two work together to use visual and auditory effects, technology, theatrics, and other tactics to create an immersive experience inside and outside the haunted attractions at School District 13. Each haunt has been designed to hijack the mind in some way. Our goal is to create an immersive reality that’s different from the day-to-day grind.
The first two years of School District 13, the haunts were constructed out of black plastic walls, but in 2016, we replaced these scrims with hard-sided walls that are both safer and more immersive. The hard walls made it possible for us to incorporate high-quality special effects into the haunts and isolate sound effects more easily. We added special safety features to the haunts as well as new costumes and characters.
Much of the building is done by Jennifer. Lydian has helped a lot with the building over the years when she’s not overloaded with homework. John does the lighting and sound effects on the weekends.
A lot of haunted places in Nebraska actually follow pre-made diagrams to build their haunts, but at School District 13, all of our haunts are designed by Jennifer. They’re all unique creations made specifically to fit inside the buildings they inhabit.
Haunted attractions in Denver, CO tend to be really detailed in terms of their sets and their props, but they’re less psychologically challenging. This is in part due to the myth among haunt owners that patrons really notice all the details as they go through the haunt. Some patrons, invariably notice the details, it’s true, but fear causes a person’s vision to shut down. People develop tunnel vision when they’re afraid. In fact, in dim spaces, it’s not unheard of for people in seriously traumatic situations to lose their eyesight temporarily. The brain adjusts to funnel information from the most relevant senses when the body is faced with trauma. So detailed props and sets aren’t necessarily the most effective way to scare people inside a dimly lit haunted attraction. Haunt owners still compete with each other on these details, though, in part because it’s fun to build a piece of art that’s totally immersive. Knowing that the average person can only take in +/- 7 details about their environment in any given moment, fewer when they’re scared or overwhelmed, is enough for Jennifer to spend most of her time putting the tiny details into the sets where people are apt to linger rather than inside the haunts.
When the Shipps are successful, patrons don’t even notice the details at School District 13. Rather, the patrons become a part of the details. At School District 13, we strive for patrons to see a re-creation of reality created through their own eyes and for to meet their own needs. The Halloween environment becomes many things to many different people based on each of the patron’s individual needs. That’s because the Shipps work more with human consciousness rather than with static sets and props in their design efforts.