3D Sound in Haunts

Imagine walking through a haunted attraction and suddenly hearing breathing behind you, only to turn around and see that nobody is behind you. Not long after, you’re surprised to hear a ghostly whisper of “Beware” in your left ear. You can hear a thunderstorm moving overheard as you pass through a corridor, and later distant dripping and screams can be heard in a seemingly abandoned dungeon. In another room, an unseen ghost flies over your head screaming, which chases you into a cave, where the sounds of a swirling swarm of bats surrounds you, along with the flapping wings of something much larger…

Sounds impossible (or at least extremely expensive), doesn’t it? The truth is, the technology exists. Rather than use a complicated sound system or variations of the expensive “projected sound” method used to promote the TV series Paranormal State, all that is required is a variation of those “audio tours” used in museums utilizing binaural audio.

You might remember binaural audio (aka 3D sound) from my review of the ZBS Foundation’s adaptation of Sticks. In fact, several of the effects noted in this article’s introduction where based on effects used in both Sticks and other ZBS audio recordings. Some might question the wisdom of having customers wear headphones when they can normally hear actors and haunt soundtracks without them. But if people can see things lunge out at them without 3D glasses, then I can’t see why they’d skip a haunted attraction because they can hear sounds in a non-3D sound haunt. It could also be used to enhance certain scares. For example, a cave with dangling rubber bats and a hidden fan would work wonders with the bat swarm effect I mentioned at the start of this article. The sound of a screaming ghost headed your way could be greatly aided by a hidden assistant armed with an airzooka. The possibilities are endless! Given the widespread popularity of visual 3D effects in haunted attractions, 3D sound could be the next big craze in the industry. However, as far as I can tell, the only use of 3D sound in regard to haunted attractions is how the Rotting Flesh Radio utilizes it while recording walkthroughs of haunted houses for their podcast.

Why hasn’t 3D audio been embraced by the haunted attraction industry yet? There are many potential factors, the most obvious one being that nobody has thought of doing it yet. Another is the perceived expense in doing so. Unless licensed from a company specializing in such recordings, a 3D audio soundtrack would have to be created from scratch using special equipment. On top of that, there’s the headphone issue. Putting aside how 3D audio doesn’t work as well on certain types of headphones, headphones present more challenges than 3D glasses. While the glasses can be easily reused, most modern headphones (especially earbuds) can’t be used that way. If even you use ones that can be reused, there’s also the possibility of patrons walking off with the headphones before they can be recovered, leading to spending extra money on replacements. This would be especially true for wireless headphones.

However, there may be a less expensive (and even profitable) solution. Given the increased popularity of smartphone, many people already have a portable audio player and earbuds. In theory, one could advertise a discount for those who bring their own smartphone/headphones, with access to the 3D soundtrack being available as a free downloadable app (not unlike the ones mentioned in the above-linked article on audio tours). Audio players loaded with the soundtrack would be available for rental for the few that lack such devices and inexpensive earbuds could be sold as well. As time goes on and technology improves, we might see dramatic reductions in cost that would make selling/replacing headphones as feasible as what’s being done now with 3D glasses. I suspect this is what will have to happen before the use of 3D audio in haunts takes off.

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