Using local lore to enhance your Halloween haunt
by Courtney Llewellyn
Corn mazes and pumpkin patches are hallmarks of autumn agritourism front, but there are those who want to go a step further and offer a spooky experience – a haunted attraction. The question is how do you host a haunt without falling into tired tropes and corny clichés?
You can incorporate your local history and legends, which are often rife with eerie or disturbing stories, if you know where to look. That’s the advice of Kyle Potter, owner of Atypical Tours. After working as an actor in haunts, Potter became a full-time tour guide, leading ghost tours in New Orleans, Baltimore and New York City. He discovered that the little-known stories in history can be more terrifying (and marketable) than anything we can dream up.
“I feel very strongly about this [topic] because I see so many missed opportunities,” Potter said. “I took a ghost tour in Japan, and they told a story about a ghost turtle who got so big it couldn’t really move – it died and became a hill. I found it kind of bizarre, but really reflective of the culture.” Local culture connects and resonates with people, he continued, and this will benefit you and your haunt. People are more likely to be scared by something “new” and more likely to come back, and it allows you to be a little more creative.
How do you find the local stories? Everyone knows how to use Google and Wikipedia, so Potter suggested asking people what stories they grew up with. Also, don’t be strict with staying super local. You can expand your region a little bit.
“I did a virtual ghost tour for Baltimore in 2020, but I had never been there,” Potter said. “I did a lot of research but I felt something was kind of missing, so I also looked at what was happening in rural Maryland. German immigrants had stories of a monster called a snallygaster – a very visual thing you could incorporate. There will be something weird somewhere.” In New Orleans, for example, they talk about the legend of the rougarou – it’s not in the city itself, but it’s part of Cajun culture.
“Consume things all the time,” he continued. “Always try to learn new things.”
How do you make narratives for your haunt? Telling a “story” is just as important as giving guests a good scare for their money. The first thing is finding the hook. Find a weird thing, like the rat pits in New York City, then think about rat ghosts, and then think what a rat ghost would do, Potter said. Consider all angles to find your hook.
Finding your “place” is crucial too. New Orleans and New York City have hundreds of years of history, but so do many places in a country more than two centuries old. To prove this, Potter once went to Google Maps and randomly chose a place to try and find a great narrative or story to try it out. He ended up with Litchfield, IL (population: 6,939). With a quick internet search, he found the town’s history was very involved with the railroad and Route 66 and immediately thought about the fact that old trains and conductors can be creepy.
A lot of farm-based haunts rely on scarecrows, so Potter said you need to push yourself and find something different. “If you’ve seen it in a haunted house before, you can’t do it again,” he stated. “But if you want to do something for the first time, find people who are passionate about the job” – they’ll be more invested in telling your story.
“Most towns have a historical society, so look into that for records and photos,” Potter recommended. “It’s easy to form narratives around stuff like that. All of my Litchfield planning took me about 10 minutes. And you could do this with any town.”
How do you avoid common pitfalls? “You may tempted to ask about what horrible historical events happened where you are. Don’t,” Potter said. “What will happen is someone will know someone who went through that gruesome, grisly event.” Before you do consider adding something like this, though, take into account the recentness and the awfulness. If it occurred too recently, don’t do it. A few decades may be enough time, but really consider your local attitudes before diving in.
“If you’re just starting out, start basic and then build,” he said. “Stop going for easy, low-hanging fruit like zombies and vampires. Look, talk to people and think about what makes a local legend scary.”