SALEM — As a chorus of screams gushed from deep within her haunted house — known as Salem’s 13 Ghosts — Penny Van Dell couldn’t help but beam with pride.
Inside, a gaggle of teens sporting 3-D glasses tiptoed through a maze of neon paint and props that flew into their faces.
“I love 3-D, I just love it,” said Van Dell, who owns the haunted house with her son. “Since the ’50s when they had 3-D movies — I always thought it was like magic.”
Salem’s 13 Ghosts, like other haunted attractions around the country, has exploited technology — 3-D, video effects, animatronics, visitor-tracking sensors — to put more fright into the night, 21st-century style.
But a few blocks away, inside Frankenstein’s Castle, a haunted house run by the Salem Wax Museum, there’s an altogether different experience — actors in ghoulish masks and black robes get up close and personal with visitors, bursting out of secret windows with a shout, chasing men and women out the exit with a growling chain saw.
Al DeLeon, the haunted house director, said he has the secret to a genuine spine-tingling experience — and it’s not powered by wires.
“We hear it all the time,” DeLeon said, arms crossed over his chest in the haunted house gift shop. “There’s nothing better than live scares.”
In America’s oldest witching neighborhood, the question remains: When it comes to scaring the bejeezus out of Halloween haunted house visitors, is the job better left to man or machine?
“There are a lot of people I’ve debated with about this, and they say, ‘It’s all about the actors,’ ” said Mark Van Dell, 34, Penny’s son. “But I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I can pretty much do anything I want with animatronics.’ ”
Inside the most cutting-edge haunted attractions, animatronics are no longer jerky and robotic. They’re more like the ones used in big-budget films. They move fluidly, almost impossible to distinguish from a real human in a darkened room.
Visitors to other high-tech houses encounter state-of-the-art upgrades: 3-D video, walls that shock visitors when touched, sensors that trigger lights to dim automatically and cause trepidatious patrons to move more slowly through the attraction.
At Salem’s 13 Ghosts, Mark Van Dell is planning on incorporating many of these new features — along with bigger and better 3-D — in coming years. “Now, it’s not just huge movie productions that can afford this stuff,” said Van Dell, a mechanics buff. “It’s pretty wild.”
And one of the most important considerations: Actors, which Salem’s 13 Ghosts has a few of, cost money by the hour. On a slow day, most haunted houses can only afford to pay two or three. An automated haunted house system ensures that every guest has the same experience — whether or not it’s the busiest night of the year.
Someday, he said — and he’s really dreaming big here — they might not need actors at all.
“The actors do add to the experience,” he added, “but they’re not the experience.”
They are, however, at Frankenstein’s Castle.
It’s all about the timing, DeLeon explained. Actors acquire a subtle sense of when exactly to jump out, what tactic to use — the growl? the roar? the creepy voice? — and whether to prey on the shrieking girl or the tough guy. It’s different every time.
“You cannot make a robot do what a human can do at the right moment,” DeLeon said.
Plus, he said, there’s a practical reason not to invest too much time and energy into the latest newfangled gadgets on the Haunted House market.
“What we found was that people were so scared their eyes would be closed,” DeLeon said. “So they would miss the whole point of having 3-D.”
Favoring technology over the human factor is a common mistake, said Steve Kopelman, a haunted house producer with headquarters in Houston. Over the last 30 years, he has become an expert in the field, traveling the country to design haunted houses — including New England Fear Fest at Fright Kingdom in Nashua.
Don’t get him wrong. He loves the newest gadgets and gizmos. One of his houses in Phoenix has even integrated with Facebook, asking visitors to sign into their accounts before entering. Inside, they see a tombstone in a digital graveyard scene , with their name and birth date inscribed. And on a wall? Framed photos of their friends and family members, zombie-fied.
Though those features are attention-grabbing, Kopelman said, they won’t strike fear into the hearts of attraction-goers.
“There are very, very, very few animatronics that are actually scary,” Kopelman said. “They’re neat, but people don’t go to haunted houses for neat. They go to be scared.”
An integrated approach is what the folks from SpookyWorld and Nightmare New England are going for, said Mike Krausert, director of the joint attractions.
They’ve got big ideas for coming years: Think of walking through a hallway and behind steel grates and air vents, digital zombies come alive, grappling toward patrons.
“These are really believable, really scary-looking effects,” Krausert said.
But those effects work best, he said, as part of the old haunted house one-two: Hit them on the left with a diversion — a maniacal robotic clown, or a lifelike video of a person melting alive in a boiler room. Pause for one, two seconds. Then, on the right, a hidden actor, and — BOO!
“It’s all about timing,” Krausert said with a chuckle. “And it works great.”