Why haunted houses are Hollywood’s next big thing

It’s late at night, and I’m standing with seven other people on a loading dock in downtown Los Angeles. We’re masked, our faces hidden by bandanas that bear a single word: CREEP. A nearby door opens, and we walk single file into a darkened room. There, an empty chair waits, and a timer tick-tick-ticks the moments away. Crumpled balls of paper are piled against the wall, and when I reach down to unfold one, I discover a portentous warning: Your wife may not be who she seems.

That was the first few minutes of Lore — but not Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast, or Amazon’s new anthology TV series adapting it, either. This is Lore: A Haunting Experience, an interactive haunted house put together as a companion piece to promote the show’s launch. It’s part theater, part marketing, and the latest example of how Amazon is at the forefront of using immersive marketing to expand the world of its television shows in exciting, fascinating ways.

“When you can create an experience around a show that’s bigger than the show itself, and have people believe there’s something real about it, you get more engaged with the show,” Amazon Studios marketing head Michael Benson tells me over the phone. ”You create a deeper emotional connection between the show and the audience.” Benson would know. At ABC, he helped launch Lost, and was instrumental in that show’s use of alternate reality games, and fictional, in-world commercials as part of its broader marketing efforts.

For Amazon, that’s meant exploring initiatives like Resistance Radio, a fictional radio station tied to The Man in the High Castle that lets the world of that series spill out into fans’ everyday lives. For Lore, however, it was about offering audiences the opportunity to physically step into the show’s creepy tales of folklore and terror. To realize the idea, Amazon partnered with Just Fix It Productions, an LA-based immersive theater company that first became known for its Halloween season show, Creep. Earlier this year, the group expanded with The Willows, an updated take on the murder-mystery dinner party concept, that invites guests into the home of an eccentric family that recently lost one of its own under mysterious circumstances.

“When this partnership came around from the studio, they sort of caught light of what we were doing with The Willows. We have to congratulate them for being on the forefront of trying to reach and target their consumer differently,” company founder Justin Fix explains to me over the phone. Lore is part of a wave of immersive tie-ins that have emerged this year, including an one-night-only show for the home-video release of Big Little Lies, and most recently, a re-creation of the Neibolt House from Stephen King’s It that popped up in Hollywood to promote the release of Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation. “If we just focus on what Lore is, it’s stories passed along from mouth to mouth, pretty much,” Fix says. “So what better way to do that than in a live event space with performers, where you can fully get immersed into these stories and become part of them — and then tell the tales that follow for yourself?”

Lore: A Haunting Experience is like a walking tour through the six episodes of the show’s first season — only the characters talk to audience members, and physically interact with them every step of the way. In one scene, echoing the show’s “Black Stockings” episode, audiences are drawn into a conflict as a husband decides his wife has been replaced by a changeling, with devastating consequences. In another, which riffs on the vampire folklore episode “They Made a Tonic,” audience members may end up in a coffin, or get led away by a woman who was buried alive. In another sequence, audience members become involved in a séance gone awry, while still elsewhere they may find themselves in the midst of an appointment with Dr. Walter Freeman, inventor of the transorbital lobotomy.

It’s a varied collection of scenes, but what really makes the show stand out from previous productions by the company is the larger resonance that comes from working in concert with the TV series itself. When I went through the experience, I had seen the three episodes of Amazon’s show that had been provided for review. And every scene that called back to one of those episodes had a deeper sense of emotional investment — making them both more tense, and emotionally unnerving. The argument between the husband and his alleged changeling wife wasn’t just a creepy look at puritanical values; it was a slow-motion car crash in which I knew the horrible, inevitable fate of the characters involved. The encounter with Dr. Freeman, calling back to the episode “Echoes,” played out the same way. Since I was already familiar with the tragedy of Freeman’s life, the in-person encounter had an extra layer of gravitas — and visceral body horror — that would have been that much more difficult for the show to create purely on its own. Other scenes worked as standalone elements, but I found myself constantly reminded of the power of visiting the same story world through multiple mediums, where the emotional investment in one can parlay into the other, and back again.

As a whole, the experience is lighter in tone than the jump-scare fests that some may look for in Halloween haunted houses, and it stops short of the psychological theatrics of something like Blackout. But that’s part of the overall vibe of both the TV show and Mahnke’s Lore podcast as well. The events are disturbing, but the true human failings the events expose stick with the audience long after they’ve stopped watching or listening. That’s the key to folklore itself — and one of the reasons Mahnke thinks his show has been able to travel to so many different mediums.

“One of the things we have to step back to is just this idea of story,” Mahnke explains to me a few days before the show premieres. “I’m a storyteller, and story can be explored in a lot of different formats.” He’s referencing his podcast, the show, and his trilogy of tie-in books. (The first, Monstrous Creatures, was released in early October.) “What I love about this interactive thing is it’s interactive storytelling,” he says. “It was a really good opportunity, not just to promote the show, but also to bring some of these folklore-ish elements to life, and let people live inside them.”

The way Michael Benson and his team at Amazon see it, incorporating interactive and immersive experiences like Lore: A Haunting Experience isn’t just a one-time opportunity, either. In many ways, he says, it’s the type of approach modern audiences expect — a way of looking at films and TV shows not as siloed objects, but as pieces of a larger puzzle that allow audiences to be enveloped by their favorite stories on all sides.

“Yes, I’m always trying to ‘sell an audience on a show,’” he says, “but I really believe I’m creating content just as much as our development team is creating content. And I think marketing really has to include experiential [entertainment] in many cases, because the audience demands it.” The larger expansion of immersive entertainment as a trend certainly seems to support Benson’s viewpoint. It’s still a nascent form of promotion, but marketing companies are leaning into it heavily, as evidenced by installations like the It haunted house, Resistance Radio, or HBO’s Westworld: The Experience.

“Just from an entertainment perspective, it really is about creating more of a 360-degree approach, instead of, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get some ads done and push them out.’” The company is already using the approach to raise awareness for its upcoming show Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which had a voice-activated escape room — powered by the Amazon Echo, naturally — at New York Comic Con, with more immersive initiatives on the slate for 2018.

And for immersive theater and interactive experience creators like Justin Fix, these marketing efforts don’t just present an opportunity to work with a big-name brand like Amazon. They’re a chance to broaden interest in a form of entertainment that, while poised to explode in 2019 with the opening of Disney’s immersive Star Wars lands, is still a niche area.

“I think we’ve been able to pull off quite a lot in these last few years, but this type of work is expensive to make, you know?” he says. “If the studios start investing into really great storytellers, I think we can, as an entertainment , start to really evolve and change what people’s night out in Hollywood is. And give people some lasting experiences, and moments, and memories, and impressions.”

Lore: A Haunting Experience is running in Los Angeles through November 12th. Tickets are available now.

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