When you tell a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. If you are setting up a large scale haunted house, it is like telling a story. Even if you haven't explicitly developed a story, you have a series displays. For each display to have its full effect, you want your guests to focus on the effect without being distracted by other effects.. If they are looking at all the effects at one time, they won't get as much out of it. By creating a walk through maze, you can create individual displays viewed one at a time, in the order you want them to be seen. Plus, in a walk through, you have more control over the environment. You control the lighting, the sound, what people can see and what they can't see. Props designed to surprise guests loose their effect if everybody can see them before they get close to them. With a maze, you can make props respond to sensors so that only a small group will see a prop action and then it can reset before the next group comes through.
Getting people to walk through your display and to go where you want them to go is basically crowd control. You can use posts with a rope strung from post to post and create a friendly barrier. Use two ropes alongside each other and you create a walkway for guests to follow. But what if you want to have more control over which way they look or to prevent them from seeing stuff that you want hidden? Well for this, temporary walls are useful. Building cheap, sturdy and temporary walls can be difficult. However, there is a low cost option; metal conduit and "canopy" fittings.
Canopy fittings are specialized fittings used in conjunction with inexpensive metal electrical conduit. You have probably seen this stuff in use in places like flea markets, street fairs and swap meets. All those vendors who set up temporary booths use canopy fittings to build a tent, of any size or shape.
Canopy fittings come in a wide variety of shapes. Essentially, any rectangular structure you wish to build can be assembled from the assortment of fittings. To create a pitched roof for a structure there are angled fittings for either a shallow or a steep pitch. Additionally, sliding fittings allow you to position conduit along perpendicularly conduit without having to cut any conduit to size. It is a very versatile system that allows to you to create different configurations and reuse materials because few pieces have to be cut to size.
Canopy fittings come in several sizes to work with different sizes of conduit. They range from 3/4" up to 2". The larger diameters provide greater rigidity and strength. Reports of bending and shaky structures suggest that 3/4" conduit should be avoided and instead use 1", at a minimum. For our walk-through maze, we used 1" conduit and have excellent results. As an example of the strength of the 1" set-up, a section of overhead horizontal pipe supported the weight of a grown man doing chin-ups. The segment was a little over 3 feet wide and supported on either side. Trying the same on a 10 foot length (the standard length of conduit) resulted in the conduit bending. We created a series of hallways that doubled back so that they shared common walls and saved on material.
Practical Considerations for a Maze
The fittings add length to each piece of conduit, so plan your dimensions accordingly. Don't assume that your conduit is exactly 10 feet long and thus joining two segments will yield exactly 20 feet. Your conduit may not be exactly ten feet and the fittings tend to add roughly 1.5 inches where ever they are placed.
For our hallways, we cut our conduit to 83" for the uprights, which left pieces about 37" long for cross pieces for the width of the hallway. We wanted our hallways wide enough for a parent to walk next to a child or for a person to be able to pass another (to avoid traffic jams). We used 10 foot lengths (uncut conduit) for the hallway lengths.
Typically we wanted one side and the top of the hallway covered and for that we used poly tarps. You could also use plastic drop clothes or rolled plastic sheeting (the thicker the better). Of course you can use bed sheets or whatever you have available. The chief consideration is that it which not tear at the fastening points and that it will stand up the rigors of wind, rain and people poking at it. Poly tarps have grommets which allow easy fastening to the conduit. You can use zip-ties but we used ball bungees which hold tight but are easily removed and reused.
Poly tarps are sold in a range of sizes, and the actual size is usually slightly smaller than the advertised size. To cover the top and both sides of a ten foot section of hallway, 18'x 10' works well. For the top and one side, the 10'x10' size is closest and for one side choose a 8'x10' tarp.
A couple drawbacks to using tarps include that they are noisy when brushed against. Not exceeding loud, but they make noise that can distract guests from quieter spooky scenes. Another drawback is that some cheaper tarps let a lot of light through. This may not be a problem, but if you are trying to block bright strobe lights or other ambient light, be sure to select heavy tarps. Finally, poly tarps don't look particularly spooky. They can be painted, but the paint tends to flake off. Use of primer or special paints for plastic might solve this, but we haven't tested it yet. Alternatives to tarps include plywood, which can get expensive or drywall, which isn't weather resistant and can leave a big clean-up job afterward. Landscaping fabrics such as jute have a cool look that lends itself to the appearance of cobwebs, vines, tatered fabric and so on.
One final note, we used both totally enclosed hallways and partially enclosed hallways and the totally enclosed definitely felt spookier. Next year we will definitely fully enclose the halls. We are developing a gag where the guests stop to look at one prop and then suddenly the hinged roof pops open and a startle prop drops down from above.