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Oct. 24, 2022

Day 53: Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano, TX

Day 53: Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano, TX

At Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano, TX, a cover of 13 witches is using your fear to cast a spell of eternal darkness! Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano TX is a 50,000 square foot facility with theme park quality sets and show control. For those in the...

At Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano, TX, a cover of 13 witches is using your fear to cast a spell of eternal darkness! Dark Hour Haunted House in Plano TX is a 50,000 square foot facility with theme park quality sets and show control. For those in the haunt industry, it’s an iconic venue. Today, we’ll explore how Director Allen Hopps is creating a unifying band aesthetic using costuming, story, and show control. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Alan Hobson: I am Alan Hobson, I'm the creative director for Dark Hour Haunted House. Dark Hour Haunted House is a haunted house in Plano TX. We have a lot of good haunts in this market and a lot of old haunts in this market. When we came in, we just wanted to be larger in scope and scale. So, we are in a 50,000-square-foot facility, we have Broadway-quality lights, theme park quality sound, we're very high tech, and we just try to bring the best possible experience to anybody coming through.

Alan Hobson: The back story of Dark Hour Haunted House is there's a coven of 13 witches, and their entire goal is to bring about one spell called the Dark Hour, which is eternal darkness. It is the world is cast into eternal darkness, and the way that they can make that happen is by building an engine that harnesses people's fear, and that's what you're going through, that's what you're traveling through. So, each witch has her own minions and acolytes that she brings to the table, and when you come through Dark Hour, you're going to travel through 13 different areas and each one is representative of a different witch.

Alan Hobson: They're all from different areas, and they're all from different backgrounds and time periods. There's a nightmare witch from the nightmare realm, there's Annabelle Noir who is from the 1600s right before the Salem Witch trials. From ancient Egypt we have the Witch of Swarms, her thing is that any creatures that gather in a swarm, she can kind of control. So, it's kind of like the anti-mob, because most monsters and witches are undone by a big mob of people, but as soon as they swarm up then she has them too.

Alan Hobson: So, there are all kinds of fun things that we can play with when we have magic that lets us do almost anything. There's Baba Lupina who's the Mother of Wolves. I'm a huge werewolf fan, so there's a big werewolf area. It's just that it's all of these different points of fantasy that we're able to explore. I think that's the big deal here at Dark Hour, that we really put you in a space that you wouldn't be in normally. Nothing you see here is going to remind you of something in the day-to-day world. It's a whole different horror-filled fantasy.

Philip Hernandez: How did you choose the different witches and the different themes for the different areas? Alan Hobson: When COVID and 2020 happened, we were given the one thing that every haunter needs, time. I used the gift that I had of time to redesign our entire show, and I actually started with the silhouettes of the 13 witches. That's what I started with. I wanted every witch to have their own silhouette, so if you saw her back lift from 30 feet away, you knew what witch that was, and none of them looked alike. Once I had that, it's, OK, where are they from? We got ancient China, we got ancient Norse, we got so many options, American North, indigenous peoples, we have so many cool things that we can draw from. So, it was that silhouette and then their silhouettes are different, and then I made sure each one had a different culture, a different background, and a different layer.

We have the Goblin Queen, she's a Fae witch. We have the vampire witch. So, any horror genre that we love, there could there's a witch for that.

Philip Hernandez: Why was it important to make sure that diversity was there? Like why didn't we just do like the classic monsters, but like classic American?

Alan Hobson: I wanted Diversity in it because I wanted to hit a lot of different notes. If people come out and I asked them what was their favorite thing, and they all say the exact same thing, then I failed. I want them to all say different things, so, "I like this. I like this. I like that." Basically, I want to appeal to all these different aspects of people. There's also a bit of pop culture, wendigo is on a pop culture up right now. So, I look at pop culture, I track that, I track what's been around too long and maybe we phase that out.

Alan Hobson: With the coven of 13, there's always infighting, so each year I kill a witch and I get to redo 13% of my show because of how it's divided up. So, it's a great framework story, but being able to hit all those different notes, and sometimes a jarring transition is exactly what I want. If I put Ancient Greece right next to Ancient Egypt, that wouldn't be that big of a change. But if I put feudal China in between those two, then you have something to cleanse your palate from the last thing that you hit.

Philip Hernandez: t's all part of one story, right? So how do you maintain that while also keeping that difference in tone?

Alan Hobson: Part of the framework story is the Dark Hour coven, so there are Dark Hour coven acolytes and Dark Hour coven characters that are the base army that are not necessarily connected as heavily to any witch. They have coven duties, they have coven areas that they work through. There are also characters that we call stitch characters because they work with several witches, and the way a haunted house layout works, you're going to have some actors who can hit in both realms, and it's not uncommon to see a werewolf pop out of the Vampire witch's area, but those two kind of work very well together.

Alan Hobson: We're also doing a lot with costuming this year. I went on some haunt tours, and I saw actors at different haunts, and I could not tell you what haunt they worked at from the way they looked. That was a message to me, I need to have an iconic look. So, if you see my characters at a convention, or anywhere else, you're going to know that's some Dark Hour, that's a very distinct look. Ricky Dick and Castle blood, they have a very distinct look to their characters. No matter where they are in the world, or if I just run across a picture on the internet, I know that's castle blood, because I can tell by their iconic look and that's something that I want for us.

Philip Hernandez: Can you give any specific examples about how you are making your costumes iconic, so they fit, but they're also totally different?

Alan Hobson: We're in this process now. This isn't going to be a one-year process, snap, everything is exactly the way I want it.

Philip Hernandez: Reaffirming the brand basically, it takes time.

Alan Hobson: Yes, so, right now what we're doing is we're working all the costumes that have a real shreddy, ragged look, like heavy shred, 12 inches long and lots of layers. Here's a couple robes that I've seen that kind of have that look, but a lot of it's from fantasy art, like the Warhammer 40K is beautiful stuff. Basically, everybody is in like a version of a robe, not everybody of course, the witches all have their own look and their own silhouette, but then everybody under them is unified in that they have a base robe-type costume that they might add a bag to for their character, they might have a cool backpack, theirs might have no sleeves. If you look at 10 Catholic school girls, they're all in uniform, but one has a sweater tied around her waist, and they all have made it look their own, one has their buttons a little bit too undone. They've all made it their own by what they wear with it and accessorize with it.

Alan Hobson: So, we're doing that base look, and we have the base look now, I think, solid enough where we can vary the color of that based off of what witch they're affiliated with. But just that robe is the look, and then make up. If it is a Minotaur, he's sort of in a shorter version of that robe, but he has the Minotaur hands of the Minotaur head, and probably a big Minotaur belt on. It's all about how we're accessorizing for these other characters.

Philip Hernandez: A lot of haunters find it easier to lean into other IP, and you're suggesting the opposite. You're suggesting, invent your own baseline so that anywhere people see your stuff they know it's you.

Alan Hobson: They know it's you.

Philip Hernandez: So why is it important? Because they know it's you?

Alan Hobson: OK, so some of the most popular horror franchises out there. Silent Hill that has a look, that has a design language. Hellraiser, that has a design language, and it sticks with you. If you look at Star Wars, all the good guys wear earth tones, and all the bad guys are black and white, like that's a design language that they have throughout the whole series. When you look at, who is the rogue character of Star Wars? Well, why is he a rogue? Because he's wearing a black and white shirt, that tells you he's a little bit bad guy because all the bad guys are black and white. So, Han Solo is obviously a little bit bad guy, a little bit good guy. That's part of that design.

Alan Hobson: It's the design language of anything that's going to do physical harm to you is tight, and anything that's going to do spiritual harm or hurt your soul is flowing. The Grim Reaper, he's all flowing robes. If I go back to Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wasn't very strong enough in the force in Return of the Jedi, but he was good with a lightsaber, so he had that tight black outfit on. Darth Vader, he's good with the force and he is good with a lightsaber, so he has tight black armor and then a flowy Cape. The Emperor, he's only good with the force, he has this flowing robe.

Alan Hobson: So, it's taking. That they're all doing magic, they're all doing the Dark Hour spell, they all have this shreddy, a little bit flowy to them, even though they're a Minotaur, even though they are orcs, even though they are goblins. They have those elements as well, which is having that base, and now nothing is just yours anymore. There's no secrets in haunting.

Alan Hobson: So, the way that social media works, the way that it has to work is, when you see my stuff online, when you see Dark Hour stuff online, anywhere, that's Dark Hour. Isn't that what you want? I'm speaking now to haunt people, I'm not just talking to the public at this point. I kind of think in some ways we've been done a little bit of a disservice by haunt vendors who think that they're doing very good, because they're giving haunted attraction owners what they ask for, and I'm not going to say we're not creative, but no group of people can be supremely creative. We're getting this cycle of the same thing over and over and over again, and it's regurgitated. There are just little improvements, there's little changes, but design wise we're a little flat.

Alan Hobson: I'm old. When I started haunting, haunts didn't talk, and I became a haunted house genius because I went to the haunted house where their guy developed drop panels, and then I worked at another haunted house, and their guy developed the kick-down door scare. So, if I went to a haunted house and said, "why don't we do a drop panel, I want to do a kick-down door scare," and they had never heard of that because they didn't mix. Well, now all of that you could buy, all of that you can buy at Transworld and just get, and everybody has it.

Alan Hobson: I teach people how to make masks, and I've had some people say, "Why are you teaching everybody how to do this?" Because once we all have the tools and the knowledge, the only thing that separates us is our ideas. We are at a point in haunting where the only thing that separates us is our ideas, because everything else is easy to get. So, we have to have better ideas, different ideas, and be the first one to bring that up. If you have a first one to bring that bring it up and you really make it your own, then it's yours.

Alan Hobson: A haunted house that is a single standalone haunt, it's only open in October, and they only have one show, one main show that people go through, it is perfectly OK and fine for them to have a clown room, a Grim Reaper room, Texas chainsaw beef room, laser swamp, whatever, all in a row, and all jumbled up together. It's when you have two shows, and each one of those has to have their own identity on that same property, or you're in a market where there are five standalone haunts, are they all going to be the same? Then what separates you? Your ideas, your story. The story is 100% for us, because the guests don't know it. It's for us and it helps us figure out what to do next. We have to police ourselves, not just put it in because it's cool, but put it in because it helps us tell our story.

Philip Hernandez: What do you see as the future going forward in that? If we're all on that level and it's just going to be the ideas? Is it really just going to be ideas and execution, or are we going to see pendulum swing in one direction?

Alan Hobson: The majority of haunted houses are still going to be that, but when you step above that 25,000-customer threshold, I think you're going to take bigger risks, and I think you're going to need to craft a stronger identity. That identity is formed through social media throughout the year as well as, obviously, your show during the season. Showing the world what you have is more important now than it ever has been. Now is not the time to keep secrets, no one should look at a haunted house's social media and say, "I don't want to go there." It's like, "I want to go, I want to see that because we know that social media is just highlights. If we're only seeing the highlights, what secrets am I missing? Because everybody thinks they're smarter than everybody else, they think they're smarter than everybody else who's viewing that too, and if I go there, I would see things that these other people miss. Be that rich, and be that detailed in what's happening, and in what you're putting out. The people who want Easter eggs and people who want to find secrets, that's who's following on social media, that's who's following a page, not just happens upon one of your posts. If you can build your following by like 10%-15% a year, that's amazing. Build that by 10%-15% a year, that's your word of mouth.

Philip Hernandez: We talk a lot about on the show about how the thing that we all competed for is attention, it's the attention economy, and a lot of other companies will be entering into this soon. If you're building your audience to retain them, that's hedging your bets against other people trying to come in and disrupt that.

Alan Hobson: It used to be that our competition was other things to do on the weekend. Are they going to go to the movies? Are they going to go to a football game? Are they going to go to something else? Now, we have to convince them to leave their home, because their house, their device, Netflix and Amazon Prime, movies, and honestly, who hasn't lost just an hour scrolling Instagram reels or TikTok? That's an hour that they should have been getting ready to go, and now it's too late, they might as well stay home and watch a horror movie instead of going to your house. We're competing with them staying at home, and you better have a good lure and good bait.

Philip Hernandez: Yeah, and good super fans as well. I would say to your point, you're building your followship 10%-15%, and if you can convert a percentage of that into super fans...

Alan Hobson: Because if they see on that, other people going to your show, reporting a good time, and that was something different, then that's a huge positive, and I think that you're more likely to get your average baseline consumer out.

Philip Hernandez: Yeah, there are just two things I want to wrap up on here. You talked about how the guests don't necessarily know your story, but we also talked a little bit about the importance of making sure that you give that information. Can you give examples of how you are conveying the story of your attraction to guests here, and then beyond the physical experience?

Alan Hobson: So, the very first set that they enter is actually a Portrait Gallery of all 13 witches. So, we kind of shove it down their throat. We did an animation where we have drawings of all the witches, and we animated it to tell them, and that plays for the queue. So, they see all of our witches before they come in. We sell posters of the witches in the gift shop, cementing them as Icon branded characters. Of course, on social media, we do witch of the week leading up to October.

Speaker 2OK.

Alan Hobson: So, you learn about the Goblin Queen and the Goblin Queen is actually in the Fae realm, she's not really in this world. Who are you going to see with her? You're going to see dark fairies, you're going to see goblins, and you're going to see giants. Those are all the people that she brings into the Dark Tower Army.

Philip Hernandez: And are you making videos with that character to explain?

Alan Hobson: We don't necessarily have them narrate their own stuff. But we...

Philip Hernandez: Do a video for one.

Alan Hobson: Each witch kind of has like a one-minute or two-minute, like commercial story almost. That's all social media based, a little bit on the website, but I don't want to muddy up the website. The website is, you can delve a little bit, but I want you there to buy a ticket because the website is money and story of social media. Like I don't have characters in my ticket booth, that's money, story is the haunted house

Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about what you have planned for this 2022 season.

Alan Hobson: OK, so we used to have two attractions, we had a much smaller attraction, and you always went through the big attraction first then you went through the small attraction. That's how it is at most shows, you have a secondary, smaller attraction. The problem is, the smaller show normally doesn't leave as good a taste in your mouth as the big show. We just did away with that. So, now you come through Dark Hour's one show, and you're going through the whole thing. Now, instead of an awesome 20–25-minute experience and a 15-minute experience, it's an awesome 35-minutes. That's what I'm going for, I want you to have that good taste in your mouth when you leave. But that allows us to tell the story of the whole expansion, which is 20% larger for the show, it's a significant chunk. We're adding the Witch of Swarms Korva Hive, which is an ancient Egypt feel, but she has control of all these different types of animals that swarm up and group together. Then Annabelle Noir who is very pre-Salem witch trials, American colonial witch. A lot of flavors from the movie, The Witch, and just from classic witchness.

Philip Hernandez: The last thing we didn't touch on yet is the technology.

Alan Hobson: We have an amazing technological infrastructure. Our whole building, we're blessed with 20-foot ceilings, and we have lots of big source four lights. Every light in the show is actually color-mixing DMX that we can control the flicker. We have seven DMX universes total, five of them are in the show, one of them is our lobby and one of them is our stage. Our stage is another thing that a lot of folks don't have a great entry stage, we're able to tell stories there, and we have video wall there. Our video wall really sets people up and gets them primed for the story of Dark Hour.

Alan Hobson: Then inside, every speaker is controlled digitally. We can send any sound we want to any speaker. When we change for an event, we have a big change just by changing all the lights and all the sound, and that's digital. A little bit of refocusing and things, but we can make a big change from a Christmas show to Valentine's show just in lights and sound. If We're really busy and people are taking too long to go through, I can bump up all the hallway lights 10% and they travel through a little faster, then I'm using that to help control my flow.

Philip Hernandez: Why else would you say the DMX is important?

Alan Hobson: We do a lot of buttons for the actors so that it changes the lights and sounds in the room and gives the actors a little bit more power over that level of interaction. But, in all honesty, the season changes. I don't want the same volume level on the first weekend that I need on the 4th weekend, because I don't have 6000 bodies coming through, that change is sound. So, I want to bring those levels down a little bit, then make them a little louder, and change that intensity.

Alan Hobson: Lighting is the same thing, I don't necessarily want the same lighting profile. Our eyes are on a clock, because our eyes know sunup in sundown. So, we're not going to get nighttime eyes until like 9:00 o'clock. So, beginning of our season, it's daytime, it's daylight out for the first two hours we're open, it has to be a little bit brighter because those eyes haven't adjusted, so that's an adjustment that you can make with DMX and that would be a lot harder without it.

Philip Hernandez: And scene transitions too, same thing like adjusting eyes and adjusting stuff between scenes.

Alan Hobson: Absolute. Just the ability to blind them a little bit before they go into a section if you want them to see less and allowing them to go through dim before you want them to see more at a set.

Philip Hernandez: You do use Gantom fixtures in the haunt, right?

Alan Hobson: Of course we use Gantom fixtures.

Alan Hobson

Creative Director for Dark Hour Haunted House