Students transform Playhouse Theatre into haunted ‘CarnEvil’

Lauren Ingram
October 19, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There was a time, before TV and the Internet, when traveling carnivals roamed the United States offering curious families a rare glimpse of the bizarre and exotic. Throughout the early 20th century, these attractions and their sideshow acts — mysterious fortune tellers, bearded ladies and fire eaters — were big ticket sellers. 

But, imagine a carnival where instead of laughter and joy, the performers, rides and attractions provoke fear. A place where — especially on Halloween — reality becomes a little twisted.

That’s the idea behind the Penn State School of Theatre’s 1920s carnival-themed haunted maze — dubbed CarnEvil — that will weave its way across the Playhouse Theatre stage Oct. 28–31. Instead of sitting in the audience, visitors will be able to walk (or run) through the throwback carnival gone wrong. 

Every two years, students in the School of Theatre’s theater design and technology major collaborate to conceptualize and build a spooky haunted house that shows off their technical and storytelling skills. 

Instead of using blood, cobwebs and ghosts to enhance the spooky mood, the Penn State students are using technology — in the form of lighting, sound, video and digital projections — to add scream-inducing tricks to the haunted sideshow acts. 

And like most carnivals, this one has a ring leader: Sasha Scherlinsky. 

As art director and production designer for the haunted maze, Scherlinsky, a Penn State senior who wants to work in event and concert production when she graduates, is charged with overseeing lighting, sound and costume designers, as well as teams of students who are each responsible for one of the carnival’s 13 rooms. 

“It’s fun to create a world where we can alter people’s perceptions. Without giving anything away, the audience will experience everything they imagine an old-time carnival to be — rides, oddities and attractions — but with a twist,” Scherlinsky said. “We want people to scream, but not because of blood, guts or grabbing. Any haunted house can do that; we want to tell a story and scare people in a more cerebral way — plus, blood is really messy.” 

And while she gets to decide how each macabre room in the carnival will look, Curtis Craig, associate professor of design and technology in the School of Theatre, is using IT to help bring her visions to life. 

About eight years ago, Craig had the idea for the haunted house as a way to introduce his undergraduate theater design and technology students to alternative techniques and career paths. And today, students in his themed-entertainment class are in charge of creating the tricks — using automated show controls — for each room in the haunted house. 

Show controls enable the students to link together and operate multiple entertainment control systems — lighting, video and audio — in a coordinated way across the entire haunted house. For example, in CarnEvil they’ll be able to link a digital projection of a carousel with a number of lighting cues and have soundtracks trigger animatronics movements.   

“Show controls are like puzzles within puzzles within puzzles. They’re the connective tissue of a show that, for example, synchronize a puppet’s lips with the sound coming out of its mouth, the lights, and the rest of what’s happening in the scene,” Craig said. “Factory tours, rides at Disney World and museum exhibits employ these technologies, which are put together largely by theater people with very specific skill sets. There’s a huge market for people with this kind of expertise.”

While rides at Disney have relied on these technologies for many years, commercial haunted houses across the nation are now also using more affordable and readily available technologies to elevate the quality of their shows. As people become desensitized to the horror genre, hi-tech lighting, sound systems and digital projections are contributing to the scare factor as much as traditional costumes and props.

“This technology doesn’t come pre-assembled; it’s all trial and error,” Craig said. “We’re creative end users who take everyday objects like garage door openers and motion detectors that are intended to do totally different things and figure out ways to manipulate them. For my class, it’s learning how to do a trigger-to-trigger sound effect, so that instead of manually hitting a key on a keyboard to make a sound, it’s triggered by a person walking past a prop in the haunted house.” 

To ensure everything goes off without a hitch, Craig and a few student operators will be stationed in a control room at the Playhouse Theatre to turn rooms “on and off” using show control software.

Infrared cameras, actors and volunteers with radios will be on hand to alert the control room about where people are in the haunted house. As attendees walk through the carnival, the operators will be busy making on-the-fly decisions about queuing up the lights, sounds and tricks in the appropriate rooms. Because groups move through the carnival at different speeds, the operators are integral to maintaining flow and delivering tricks at the right times.

Craig’s hope is that the tech-enhanced haunted house will be just as terrifying — and educational — as in years past. 

“Students have told me they come to Penn State specifically to work on this project,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but hearing that makes it worth it. About half of our theater design and technology students end up working in theater, so the haunted house is great preparation for those who want to take a different route — several students have gone on to careers in haunted house design and show control.”

And while students like Scherlinsky join for the professional experience, it’s the thrills that keep Penn Staters and community members coming back to the haunted house year after year. 

“Technology helps us augment the realism of being in a carnival,” Scherlinsky said. “Our goal is to get you outside the real world and, if only for 10 minutes, immerse you in this haunted world and make you feel like you’re really there — like it’s 1920 and a fortune teller is revealing your future while a carousel revolves in the background. But, don’t get too comfortable, we’re really going to scare you, too.”

The School of Theatre haunted house will take place at the Playhouse Theatre Oct. 28 from 7–10 p.m. and Oct. 29–31 from 7–11 p.m. A family friendly show will also be offered Oct. 30 from 5–6 p.m. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at the event. 

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu.

  • Curtis Craig (center) works with students in his themed-entertainment class.

    Curtis Craig (center) works with students in his themed-entertainment class. 

    IMAGE: Lauren Ingram
  • CarnEvil logo

    CarnEvil will take place Oct. 28–31 at the Playhouse Theatre. 

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Sasha Scherlinsky
  • Haunted house prop of a large dartboard

    Theatre design students created each prop in the haunted house. 

    IMAGE: Angela Kendall
  • Sasha Scherlinsky

    Sasha Scherlinsky is the art director for the CarnEvil haunted house.

    IMAGE: Angela Kendall
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Last Updated October 19, 2015