Universal Studios this month unveiled a maze based on "The Walking Dead" that lets guests experience the TV show as they roam jail cells and prison cages -- while being tormented by zombies and the undead, naturally.
America loves a good scare and the entertainment and ad industries are obliging with big-concept haunted houses and theme parks, real-life zombie chases, scary TV shows and even creepy TV commercials and branding stunts.
It's a frighteningly big business: The appeal of evil drives the $500 million haunted-attraction industry and $400 million at the box office for horror films each year. With spooky storytelling on TV, zombie obstacle courses and theme-park sponsors, the horror industry shows little sign of slithering away.
"If you look back through history, horror tends to be popular when there is stress in the population," said Leonard Pickel, owner of Hauntrepreneurs Themed Event Consulting. "When the economy is bad, stress levels are high, people are having trouble, their future is uncertain -- that tends to increase the interest in horror and apocalyptic entertainment. It's an adrenaline rush."
Enter "Paranormal Activity," "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story" as recent standouts in a crowded space that has encouraged Adland to embrace things that go bump in the night. Benjamin Moore and Booking.com are just two advertisers who added some chills to their campaigns this year. Benjamin Moore conceived a haunted-house prank to scare contractors into finishing their work faster to promote a quick-drying paint, while Booking.com launched an integrated push that included everything from horror-themed trailers and posters, to a new search for haunted hotels on its site.
Creating a genre of its own in the market is the zombie run, a race or obstacle course in which costumed zombies chase runners. The popularity of zombie runs boils down to escapism, according to Bill Ward, VP-marketing for Reed Street Productions, which created the Run For Your Lives zombie race.
"I think the popularity of these events is really about supply catching up with demand, as business-minded individuals noticed the convergence of two trends -- adventure runs and zombie intrigue," said Mr. Ward. "I think everyone was surprised to see how much latent opportunity the zombie craze held."
Reed Street Productions projected $18.8 million in revenue last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ticket sales for scary movies, meanwhile, have commanded a steady 4% of the total movie market since 2008, based on box-office data from The Numbers, and sponsorship for haunted events is steadily climbing about 8% each year, according to industry trade group America Haunts.
The horror theme also proves a major draw for marketer sponsorships. Six Flags Fright Fest 2013, for example, is presented by Snickers, and ties in McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and other sponsors along the way. It's good exposure for marketers big and small: major amusement parks such as Universal Studios or Knott's Scary Farm attract over 300,000 paid guests in October alone, according to the Haunted House Attraction Association, and generate $150 to $200 million in sales each year.
Independently owned attractions have joined the fray. The Bates Motel and haunted hayride in Glen Mills, Penn. promoted Lifetime's new series, "The Witches at East End," in early October. A street team from the show hung signs around the fence of the property and handed out posters and cards at the Motel to spur interest in the series. Bates Motel owner Randy Bates said sponsorships and cross-promotions are an integral part of marketing his haunted attraction.
"We've got so many competitors in this business, especially in the Philadelphia area, that now the idea is not just to do your traditional marketing – radio and flyers and TV commercials – but to try to find alternative methods of marketing," he said.
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