Pier reveals the tricks (and treats) of the terror trade

22 Oct 2019

Hollie Otley, Events Manager at Weston-super-Mare’s Grand Pier, and Events Co-ordinator Cat Stiles offer a behind-the-screams insight into staging a successful Halloween scare event.
From Hollywood horror films to white-knuckle thrill rides, people have been getting a kick out of being terrified for generations, never more-so than at Halloween.
While the season of the witch has been big business in the USA and Canada for decades, the UK is rapidly catching up, with many top tourist attractions doing their very best to blend fear with fun.
Halloween Unfairground at The Grand Pier is now in its fourth year. We previously offered a ‘Ghoul’s Ball’, which had a single scare zone, three-course meal, live music and a DJ disco. It was very different to the event we now deliver, but in some ways was our stepping stone towards the ‘scream park’ we have become in recent years.
Halloween is a time when you can really push the creative boundaries and blur the line between fear and fun. We can creep out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves to explore some dark and scary stories in a way that’s still entertaining and enjoyable.
Ultimately, who doesn’t get a bit of a buzz our of making someone else jump, shriek and shudder?
Halloween Unfairground has grown exponentially each year; it’s a constant process of learning, adapting and expanding.
When we launched it in 2016, we used our existing attractions as they are, opening them after dark and with some live actors added. While elements of this original concept remains, we now operate on a significantly bigger scale, with many more actors, more theming, more attractions, more storytelling elements and, most exciting of all, a custom-built scare maze which we introduced in 2018.
This year we’re adding a custom-made extension to one of our permanent attractions and making more changes and adaptations to several others.
The scare industry has really taken off over the past few years, with more and more attractions offering live scare events, and the big theme parks setting a very impressive standard, which is definitely reflected in the expectations of our guests.
It’s not enough to just put some actors in a maze any more, people are looking for new and innovative concepts, intense scares and high production values, and it’s very important to our Halloween Unfairground team that we meet, and exceed, those expectations.
We start planning Halloween Unfairground in January, as soon as the dust has settled on our Christmas and New Year’s Eve events. We begin by reviewing what we did the previous year, analysing feedback from guests, looking at current industry trends, attending exhibitions and seminars and visiting other scare attractions.
There always needs to be something new. We have a mixture of guests who come to us every year,  as well as people who are visiting us for the first time. It’s really important that those who have been here before go away as scared and surprised as those who have absolutely no idea what to expect.
While we don’t necessarily need to re-design every scare zone each year, there are inevitably changes or adaptations we can make, as a response of feedback or inspiration from previous performances. We are constantly learning, which means our attractions are changing all the time.
One of the great things about the ‘scare industry’ is that it’s very collaborative. We’ve been fortunate enough to have visited major sites such as Avon Valley in Bristol, PrimEvil in Norfolk and Thorpe Park in Surrey, and the teams there have been so helpful in showing us round their attractions, sharing their experiences with us.
We were lucky enough to attend the annual ScareCon at Alton Towers this year, which brings together scare attractions from all over the country to share ideas, tips, tricks and inside knowledge, which was invaluable to us. Every attraction is different, but we are united by a passion for Halloween and horror.
We are always looking for constructive feedback on our own attractions, including from the actors we employ. It’s a very collaborative process. All our graphics are designed in-house, as are all the sets for our custom-built attractions.
Lighting and music play pivotal roles in helping to create a creepy atmosphere on the Pier, which by day is full of bright lights. It’s really effective to turn this on its head and play with darkness in a venue renowned for being bright and colourful.
Our lighting concepts are central to all aspects of the event, from hiring in specialist lighting to bathe the outside of the building in an eerie green flow to strobe-lighting inside the scare mazes, to those dreadfully dark corners with no lights at all.
Music is highly emotive and evocative; the right soundtrack can enhance the atmosphere and raise the fear levels, but the wrong choice can shatter any illusion we create, so we take time to research and select the right playlist to suit our theming.
We use other special effects sparingly, and only where they will genuinely add an extra dimension to the experience. The best effect we have is our live actors, specially trained to adapt their performances for each group. There are no effects that can replace the live interactive experience.
Our acting team has grown again this year, attracting interest from a huge range of performers, all of whom bring something different to each role. We really like to embrace our actors’ skill sets, and we let them develop their roles to really make it their own
The whole concept of Unfairground is designed to embrace our status as a leading tourist attraction; day-to-day, we’re a fun-filled fairground and by night, we turn that on its head and transform the pavilion into a petrifying palace of peril. The dichotomy between the familiar, fun Pier and the horrors of Halloween adds to the tension.
Because we ARE still a family-friendly attraction by day, we plan our builds to have as little impact on ‘business as usual’ as possible, as we don’t want to impede the enjoyment of our every-day guest.
We do have to close some of the attractions during the Halloween period so that we can adapt them for Unfairground, but we keep others open by day, and transform them between closing to the public and re-opening for Unfairground, which presents a challenge as we need to incorporate enough theming to make the experience impactful but we only have a short window in which to work, and everything needs to be taken down each night after the event, ready for the next day.
But this challenges us to think creatively and it means that we put a lot of effort into considering what is integral to the Halloween experience and what is unnecessary or not impactful enough.
Visitor feedback plays a key part in how our Halloween events grow and develop; we love positive feedback, of course, but also welcome construction criticism and suggestions on what people may like to see at future events. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve.
The staff here love Halloween, as it offers a chance for everyone to get involved in something a little different, and be creative, and that includes the acting team, too. We’ve used live actors since we started in 2016.
Last year’s team had a points system and a leader-board to see who was the scariest, based on audience reactions. Bonus points were given if you made someone inadvertently swear, although no one – thankfully – earned the 100-point bonus for prompting fear-induced incontinence!
This year, the team building the maze in our conservatory have been getting into the spirit early, attempting to scare each other during thee build work, so guests have heard a few screams from time to time coming from the conservatory.
The Grand Pier is a unique venue, located a quarter-of-a-mile out to sea, where no one can hear you scream, and where we fully embrace the line between fun and fear. It’s a Halloween experience like no other; where else can you find Killer Clowns in a real-life fun house, and then enter a real museum taken over by a fiendish serial killer?
We’re also entirely under-cover, so no queuing for mazes in the rain, although that’s cold comfort as there are plenty of chills – and thrills – waiting for you inside.
But don’t take our word for it. Come and find out for yourselves – if you dare!
Halloween Unfairground takes place on October 24, 25, 26, 31 and November 1 and 2. For full details, visit www.grandpier.co.uk

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Pier reveals the tricks (and treats) of the terror trade
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