Netherworld’s Ben Armstrong Discusses the Pains of Haunt Adolescence and the Future of the Haunt Industry!

Netherworld

We interview the 20-plus year co-owner of Atlanta’s Netherworld Haunted House about graduating from hobbyist to professional haunter.

Ben Armstrong, Netherworld

Last haunt season, Atlanta’s biggest haunted house and one of the most popular attractions in the entire Halloween industry moved from its’ original location to a new building in Stone Mountain, GA. “We’ve always wanted to own a building, own our own land,” says Netherworld Haunted House co-owner Ben Armstrong. “because that’s always the preferred situation to be in.”

“Change of ownership in our original location meant the new guy wanted more money, and we had already started looking for a new location, but the news broke a year before we moved,” admits Armstrong. “All of our employees were like, ‘What’s going on?’ causing some confusion the night the news broke, but as it turned out the leak ultimately made it easier to promote the move because there was so much interest in the news.”

Netherworld currently operates three escape rooms year-round at the new location with themes including “Sasquatch,” “Nosferatu” and “Haunted”, as well as a $5 upcharge Monster Museum made up of elaborate displays and movie props collected from Armstrong’s work in the Atlanta TV and movie production business. “We are very tied into the Atlanta film industry and rent out a lot of pieces to local productions,” says Armstrong. “Our Monster Museum contains props and oddities that include movie costumes, Tom Cruise’s airplane from ‘American Made,’ tons of space sets from ‘Passengers’ staring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two dark ride carts from ‘Hell Fest’ and a lot of props from ‘The Hunger Games’.”

Netherworld

The main attraction at Netherworld, however, is clearly its’ massive seasonal haunted house. “Netherworld is an extremely thematically based attraction,” explains Armstrong, “and even in its’ inception there was backstory. Now every year, a new backstory is created. I start with an idea and then I write a longish narrative, then a boiled down version. Then I reduce it to a three-sentence version and then a single tagline.”

“You have to make it simple enough for the customer to grasp it. I used to have a theory I called the 80/20 Rule. Eighty percent of your customers just want the basics: They want to be scared. They want to have fun. They have a sense of quality, but they’re not really fixated on the details. The other twenty percent are focused on the details and want to know the whole story behind it.”

Over a 20-year period, Netherworld has set the bar not only for haunted attraction quality, but for financial viability. “This industry is built on dreams & fantasies and filled with people who want to create something and want to scare people, and often they might be creating products that are not financially viable.”

“When you first start out,” Armstrong explains, “you can have a smaller attendance and give people a really good show with minimal stuff; All actors, all atmosphere. When you have tons of people going through your attraction, all of that breaks down. The actors can’t keep up. That’s when you require a lot of spectacle or ‘eye candy’ as they call it.”

Netherworld

Netherworld

“That point is as difficult a phase for a haunted house as adolescence or teenagerhood is for a human being. Making it to adulthood is the biggest challenge most attractions will face and not everybody makes the transition successfully. You want to scale back the number of people you let into your attraction so that you can provide a quality show, but if you can’t get more people through the show, you can’t make the money to make the show better.”

“A lot of people struggle with getting passed that point. If you can get to the point of having a highly attended show and still maintain guest satisfaction, then your growth can be great, but it’s a difficult phase to work through. Getting over the hump is tough.”

“It’s a challenge every haunt will face on peak nights,” Armstrong admits. “Every haunt generally has three or four nights per season when the wheels start falling off of the vehicle. Everybody is tired and everything starts breaking. That’s when people are less satisfied. They’ve waited in line longer than they were in the haunt. If you try to time them out so that they don’t run into other groups in the haunt then they end up waiting in line for 4 hours and nothing they will see inside is going to be good enough.”

“I’ve seen haunt reviewers say in their reviews, ‘Oh, I saw another group while I was going through the haunt,’ and they grade you down for it. As a result, I’ve seen haunters in some markets react by saying, ‘I can’t tolerate running my haunt where anyone ever sees another group.’ Those people will never make enough money to succeed. That simple mentality means they are going to be hobbyists the rest of their lives.”

Netherworld

“I’ve seen major attractions manage to continue on this way,” Armstrong continues, “but they put so much back into it making it better that they can’t make a living with what the attraction brings in. They’re actually making it better than it should be. So much effort and so many resources go into creating an event that are all done for free. Any business with a pure profit motivation could never do it as well as these haunters do it. Maybe they could market it better, but they could never make a better attraction.”

“We used to have a concept we called Crank Mode VS Theatrical Mode, but that’s very hard to maintain. What we’ve ultimately decided to do was to make the show a constant barrage to the senses. It ceases to become, in my opinion, a horror movie and becomes an action movie. It’s hard to do suspense when you have a hoard of people in the attraction so most of the interaction with the actors happens on the outside at that point in the queue line or in the front or exit of the show. We want sensory overload throughout.”

Armstrong is convinced that the future of the haunted attraction industry is strong. “We are living in an Experience Economy. A lot of people growing up now are not as interested in having possessions. They’re more interested in experiences. I did a whole seminar on how people just want to go places and take pictures of themselves. People will go out just to have experiences as part of their history on social media.”

“I think haunted houses are good solid theater and people want to have a real experience. A lot of people talk about virtual reality, but I think what we’re creating is better than virtual reality. It’s hyper reality. The future is strong but it’s an extremely hard industry, and there is constant turnover because people come into it with grandiose dreams of success.”

Netherworld

 “Haunted houses are in some ways interactive, but more often than not, they’re passive. You experience them,” admits Armstrong. “That’s what’s more fun about escape rooms. I think in the future people will be looking for more intermediary things where they can actually interact. I feel we’ll see more hybrids, but that’s very difficult with a high put through. You can’t have a huge cast.”

“We’ve been experimenting with events where you use laser guns to shoot the monsters, which is very basic but you are interacting. You can be killed by the monsters and your gun will shut off and say, ‘You’re dead!’, so all of a sudden you feel the stakes in the game.”

Armstrong concludes with this piece of advice. “Unless you’re serving an underserved population or have a unique thing to sell, your chances of success are limited because this is a huge market. How are you different?”

The Phantom of The Ville

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