It’s Haunted House Season: When Did The Popular Tourist Attractions Become A Thing?

Note that here we're talking about the attractions you pay to walk through and be scared by costumed performers, and not actual haunted houses.

how big is the haunted house attraction industry
aliaksei kruhlenia / Shutterstock

Note that here we're talking about the attractions you pay to walk through and be scared by costumed performers, and not actual haunted houses.

It’s Halloween season, which means that, in addition to spending money on candy, costumes, and decorations, you can also give your money to someone so you can walk through their attraction and be scared pantsless by costumed actors. So when did people start giving their money to other people to scare them, and just how big is the haunted-house industry?

Raising A Little Money And Keeping Kids Off The Streets

Lest we get bogged down in history, we’re going to cover a couple of centuries’ worth of spooky tradition in the course of two paragraphs. In 18th-Century London, according to Smithsonian, theater-goers could pay to be scared by then-groundbreaking special effects (indeed, at least one of the special effects in Disney’s Haunted Mansion attractions uses an effect that dates to the 1800’s), as well as gruesome wax figures. A century later, Paris’ Grand Guignol Theater was shocking attendees by putting on shows that were hideously gruesome even by modern standards.

By the 1930s, kids in the U.S. experienced Halloween not by trick-or-treating, like they do now, but by vandalism and harassing strangers. To keep the kids in line, parenting publications of the day suggested taking kids through “trails of terror” – basically basement or backyard haunted-house attractions – to keep them occupied.

where did halloween haunted houses come from
Halloween back in the day was a lot more hardcore than it is now, apparently. MikiMouse88 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Raising A Little More Money, For Good Causes

The forerunner of the modern haunted house attraction dates back to the 1970’s. You may have heard of the Junior Chamber, colloquially known as the Jaycees (a sort of Rotary Club for children and teens). Taking a page from Walt Disney’s book, local Jaycees chapters began putting on their own haunted houses to raise money. They were similar to the Haunted Mansions in that they used special effects and jump-scares, but they also used costumed characters and upped the frights.

Then, the haunted houses went fully commercial, when California theme park Knott’s Berry Farm began adding haunted house attractions. Those were then copied by other theme parks, as well as standalone attractions here and there, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Raising A Ton Of Money

These days, haunted-house attractions are a cottage industry (no pun intended) unto themselves.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly how much money these things generate, as many such attractions are themselves part of a larger experience, such as Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios’ theme parks. Similarly, finding current data is also quite difficult.

But as a starting point, Forbes noted in 2016 that a 2013 report had determined that the haunted house industry was worth $300 million. And of course, the industry has grown exponentially since then, so the value of the industry could be as high as a billion.

So the next time you buy a ticket to a haunted house attraction, remember this: you are not only contributing to a potentially billion-dollar industry, you’re also paying homage to a process that goes back centuries.