Goblins, ghouls, and mission drift: What’s scary about haunted house fundraisers?

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

This Halloween week, we present: fear.

To make their “extreme haunt” trail extra creepy, Acres of Darkness plays up local legends and natural spooks like wolves, Bigfoot, and scary old men with chainsaws. (photo courtesy Kyle Simpson)

Your pulse is racing. Your palms are sweating. You’re paralyzed with metallic fear.

You totally went over-budget on fake blood. Welcome to the charitable haunt director’s worst nightmare.

Actually, if you’re one of the many directors or volunteer leaders who run haunted events for charity this time of year, you’re probably too preoccupied on Halloween to be spooked by much.

And you’re certainly not alone on your busy day: The Haunted House Association (yes, that’s a real thing) estimates that 80% of haunted houses in the U.S. are run by or for mission-driven organizations.

Despite the ubiquity of the “scare because we care” fundraising model, haunts are a huge challenge to plan, staff, and execute.

The money and volunteer hours it takes to set up a haunted site—not to mention moving potentially thousands of guests through the site or grounds—is enough to strike terror in the heart of even the most experienced project manager.

We asked two nonprofit leaders who rely on haunts as an important source of revenue to tell us what freaks them out about haunts and how they deal with their concerns.

Kyle Simpson is the sanctuary manager of the Chattanooga Audubon Society, Tennessee’s oldest wildlife preserve. Since 2010, they’ve been putting on a spooky fundraiser called Acres of Darkness, which sends people out into the dark woods to be chased by chainsaw-wielding forest monsters.

Sean Kelley is Director of Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) outside of Philadelphia, which hosts Terror Behind the Walls. The event is one of the largest haunts in the country and features night tours through the abandoned prison, complete with creepy zombie inmates.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its namesake.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its name.
(photo by Andrew Garn)

Fear #1: Staying on mission

Since so much energy goes into preparing and executing this one event, both Kyle and Sean have concerns about spending a ton of time on something that isn’t necessarily a perfect fit with their mission.

“Sure we’re getting kids out in nature, but that’s kind of a stretch. We want to encourage people to be out in nature, not make them terrified of it,” says Kyle.

At the Eastern Penitentiary Historic Site, Sean and the staff work hard to differentiate the content and focus of the historical tours from the haunted tours to make sure their visitors don’t get the wrong idea.

“We have a strict ‘no discussion of real or implied history’ at the haunted house. This forces the content to be a lot of startles, large props, special effects, and actors dressed as zombie guards and inmates with vague and ambiguous lines,” he says. “We never imply that a visit to our haunted house is either educational or an accurate depiction of this or any other prison. It’s a distraction from the mission, no question.”

Fear #2: Safety

When the point of your event is to scare your audience, it’s really important to make certain that nothing bad actually happens to them. Sean stresses safety above everything.

“Startling people in the dark, many of whom have been drinking, is more risky than walking them through during the day,” he says.

To stay safe, Terror Behind the Walls has security and an EMT on site at all hours. They also do extensive emergency training with every employee.

Fear #3: Keeping volunteers happy

The spookiness of Chattanooga’s haunted woods comes mostly from the efforts of the Audubon society’s many dedicated volunteers. For Kyle, making sure his volunteers are having fun is just as important as getting people out to the event.

Last year, Kyle says, one of his volunteer actors had an issue with some older kids who were walking through the haunt and wanted to cause trouble. They laughed and made fun of him for not being scary.

“He wasn’t even really supposed to be scary. He was dressed as a gatekeeper and it was his job to direct people down the path,” he says. “They were really mean to him.”

The volunteer got his feelings hurt and ended up working in the coat trailer for the rest of the season.

“That’s really disheartening to see. Here we have folks coming out to volunteer with us and they’re doing it for the right reasons. We just want them to feel appreciated and have a good time.”

To keep everybody energized and happy, Kyle says he matches his volunteers with the jobs that excite them the most. He also makes sure they feel really appreciated by providing a warm dinner for his actors each night and hosting a volunteer appreciation event later in December.

A pretty good trick for getting treats

Though it can be scary to put on a capital-intense fundraiser, the payoff is good for most organizations. In its third year, Kyle says Acres of Darkness already brings in more than 10% of the Chattanooga Audubon Society’s annual operating revenue. For Sean and the more established haunt at ESPHS, it’s 60%.

It also brings in new audiences and donors by inviting people who might not otherwise know much about the site to come for a fun, seasonal event.

Sean likes to think of the haunted tours as a kind of spooky disguise for the organization as a whole.

“The Penitentiary puts on a costume, throws a big party, and we get a chance to meet broad new audiences.”

Have you hosted or attended a haunt for charity this year? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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