Halloween: the ultimate participatory visitor experience

By Eric Dorfman

What is (or could be) a visitor experience? Eric Dorfman links the traditions of his childhood Halloween celebrations with the world of museums.

In my last post I wrote about thinking around what it takes to make a visitor experience out of a demonstration home built by Victoria University of Wellington students as part of the Solar Decathlon competition. It’s catalysed me to start thinking a bit more laterally about what a visitor experience is (or could be) and the generalities that can be gleaned. A lot of thought has gone into what makes an effective visitor experience. For instance, author on architecture and neuroscience Maria Lorena Lehman provides an insightful list of ten “must do’s” for museums creating visitor experiences. (See her whole article here.)

  1. Motivate Visitors: Target an audience — the general public and/or specific communities
  2. Focus Content: Filter content so visitors are not bombarded with information overload
  3. Immersion: Engage visitors within a “story”
  4. Modularity: Present smaller themes instead of one larger complex topic
  5. Skimmability: Information should be easy to take in because visitors are often standing and/or have different levels of education
  6. Patterns: Incorporate traffic/circulation patterns, exhibit sequence patterns and pre-existing framework patterns (architectural elements)
  7. Capture Curiosity: Use storytelling techniques to engage visitors
  8. Interaction: Give visitors a “fun” experience by tapping into their emotion
  9. Integrate Technology: Technology should enhance visitor’s experience, not detract from it
  10. Layer Content: Present information in a hierarchical manner

At the end of the month it will be Halloween. It’s not a big deal in New Zealand but, having grown up in the United States, I have vivid memories of trick-or-treating: wandering around leafy neighbourhoods dressed as a pirate or ghoul, along with hundreds of other children extorting the neighbours for sweets. Most of the houses welcomed us with open arms, many complete with glowing jack-o’-lanterns and sheet-clad ghosts to thrill us into shrieks of laughter. While no official statistics exist for trick-or-treating, people have had a go at estimating the participation, and it’s in the many millions every year.

I would argue that this tradition is the Western World’s biggest facilitated participatory visitor experience, especially considering the lengths that people go to ensure that kids earn their candy by being truly petrified. Even though produced by enthusiastic amateurs, Halloween experiences share many of the features of Lehman’s list: the target audience is well defined and the best examples are completely immersive, enhancing a sense of mystery and engaging visitors emotionally. Although the experiences are not truly interactive (because visitors usually don’t themselves alter the experience), the sense of theatre contributed by the costumed kids is integral to success.

On one level, it might be considered surprising that the phenomenon should be mentioned in the same breath as the pedagogic world of museums (Disneyland is perhaps okay) – clearly some component of Halloween revelry is driven by the manufacturers of candy, costumes and Styrofoam gravestones. However, these traditions go back to pre-Gothic times, and speak to us on the archetypal level of good versus evil – something dangerous that can be conquered just by facing it. This is, to me, why it continues to be popular and grow, connecting us to our ancestors over a thousand years ago. For Americans at least, this is intangible cultural heritage.

Image credits:

1: Jack-o’-lantern

2: Millions of households across the United States go to great pains to dress up their homes for the entertainment of trick-or-treating kids, in a participatory visitor experience of massive proportions. From Full Halloween, Paranormal Magazine

3: Many people now spend up big with prefabricated set dressing. See more

4: Humour is a large part of the proceedings. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Eric DorfmanDr Eric Dorfman is a Wellington-based author of popular natural history books, short fiction, articles and documentary scripts. His critically acclaimed book Melting Point (Penguin 2008) explores New Zealand’s responses to the issue of climate change. He is also Director of Eklektus Inc., a collective that produces strategic and visitor experience services to the international cultural sector, and a Teaching Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Museum and Heritage Studies.

Twitter: @eklektusinc