Thursday, November 30, 2023

Establishing a Halloween Haunt in mainland China is a maze of business risks and rewards, competition and thrilled customers

Photos: Darklight

IPM guest blogger and haunted attraction specialist Quan Gan is President of Darklight, a manufacturer of precision lighting systems. He actively conducts business in China and the US.

In the fall of 2009, my wife and business partner Charlie Xu and I decided to create “Shanghai Nightmare”: what we believe was mainland China’s very first Halloween haunted attraction. We were confident on the commercial viability, granted we would be allowed to open such an event; in a country where media is monitored and censored, bringing in a haunted attraction full of frightening ghosts and ghouls may meet some government resistance. We had to find a fine balance between what customers would like versus what can be allowed; therefore we favored technology and surreal experiences (with a few good scares in between) more than blood, gore, and violence.  

We built Shanghai Nightmare in a 107-year-old cotton warehouse that had not been occupied for years. The building was established as a cultural relic so no permanent renovation could occur. Perfect for a haunted attraction – as the building already looked haunted, and our installation was only temporary. We built animatronics, Pepper’s Ghosts, fake elevators, spinning tunnels, fog curtains, projections, and mirror mazes just to name a few and dazzled (and frightened) our guests with never seen before (in mainland China) special effects. The end result was a profitable business from year one with over 20,000 guests in October 2009.

Many Western people have asked us, “What’s scary to Chinese people? Are chainsaws scary? Are zombies and vampires scary?” The answer is ABSOLUTELY YES! It doesn’t matter where you’re from: the sights and sounds of approaching blades, gnarled teeth and blistering skin are scary to anyone! The cultural differences are in the way people react.

A few differences we observed between our Chinese guests and their Western counterparts : 

1. Chinese guests, overall, had smaller reactions to scares. It may be an inappropriate gauge of “success,” but a typical American haunt will have a handful of guests claiming to have soiled themselves in the haunt each season; we had none. Perhaps they had a higher tolerance, or the culture teaches them to be more reserved in their expressions (or they just don’t publicly share such mishaps).

2. Contrary to our expectations, a larger percentage of Chinese guests couldn’t complete the haunted house and bailed out in the first few scenes than Western guests.

3. The overall response from Western guests was more positive than our Chinese guests. Many Westerners thought it was one of the most thrilling haunts to which they’d ever been while many Chinese guests wanted it to be scarier and bloodier – and even wanted us to touch them! (Perhaps the Westerners were also really happy to see a familiar event in an otherwise unfamiliar environment.) 

Seeing those interesting results allowed us to hone our tactics for year two. We made more interactive guest-triggered experiences such as path choices and big unknown buttons that looked very tempting. The logic was, if we can’t scare you, at least let us entertain you.

Beyond the content and the guest reactions, what was more important than the show itself was the process of getting the show opened. Because there was no haunted house industry per se in China, there exist no applicable laws or safety regulations for such an event. This makes for an “interesting” process to get the proper licenses to legally open the show. No one department (fire dept, police dept, business bureau, cultural bureau) wants to deal with you because a “haunted house” isn’t listed under their jurisdiction – so it sounds like you don’t need a license, right? Wrong! If you just opened up shop, every one of those departments would come after you asking why you didn’t get their approval. At times it felt like getting a round peg to fit into a square hole. Our haunted house was finally approved to be a “theatrical performance”… close enough, right? 

Charlie Xu and Quan Gan

For our second season, following the success of 2009, we decided to expand and make the event larger and more thrilling by partnering up with Erebus, the former world record holder for the largest haunt (in Pontiac, Michigan USA). On paper, the event would have been very successful, however, the nature of the beast changed during 2010. A copycat haunted attraction sprang up during the summer, a few months before we were set to open. Concerns about safety and crowding led to the venue being shut down on opening night. This put a nasty stain on the reputation of a newly sprouted business genre in the eyes of the local government. When we went to apply for our licenses, the government resistance (or lack of support) was even stronger due to the World Expo taking place in the same city. No department wanted to take responsibility for a haunted house during the operation of an international event, especially after what happened with the one that was shut down.

We eventually trudged through the bureaucracy and were allowed to open, but our media outlets for publicity were muted by the overwhelming coverage of the Expo. We survived year two, but it was a tough season. 

Shanghai Nightmare is dormant for 2011 while we refocus our energy on a spinoff venture and think about possibilities of re-opening the venue in the future. The Chinese market is one of high fluctuations; to survive, you have to think quickly on your feet. Haunted houses in China are liable to come and go as an independently operated seasonal business, but the theme parks are sure to have Halloween related events as their attendance is more stable, they have more government support, and their Halloween marketing can piggyback onto their existing campaigns for the rest of the year – things we wish we had had, but survived without. — Q.G.

Related: Halloween 2011 at Ocean Park Hong Kong

Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin
Judith Rubin ([email protected]) is a leading journalist, content marketing specialist and connector in the international attractions industry. She reports on design and technical design, production and project management, industry trends and company culture. From 2005-2020 she ran communications and publications for the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). In 2013, she was honored with the TEA Service Award. She was development director of IMERSA and publicist for the Large Format Cinema Association, and has contributed to the publications of PLASA, IAAPA and the International Planetarium Society. Judith joined World’s Fair magazine in 1987, which introduced her to the attractions industry. She joined InPark in 2010. Judith earned a BFA from Pratt Institute. She has lived in Detroit, New York, Oakland, and now Saint Louis, where she is active in the local arts community.

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