Framestore’s Brothers Grim on Putting on the Perfect Horror Show
For most people, Halloween is an amusing annual event of vague Celtic-y origins where seemingly ordinary individuals dress up as sexy zombies and binge on sugar. For brothers Gavin Fox and Jason Fox, it’s a way of life.
Each October 31st, the Framestore Creative Directors transform the front garden of their house in Romford, Essex, into an elaborately spooky experience – in the past they’ve even turned their garage into a haunted graveyard and in 2010 the built a time machine that transported their neighbours to the streets of Jack the Ripper’s London. For the other 364 days of the year they’re spend their free time indulging their love of all things ‘experiential’, visiting theme parks, ‘haunted’ houses and immersive theatre… and contributing their skills to Secret Cinema.
It’s an obsession that dates back to their childhood, explains Gavin, as we squat in Mike McGee’s office in Framestore’s Noel Street studio. “We’ve always been fans of Halloween and haunted houses and ghost trains and things like that… and we’ve always been huge theme park fans. We used to go on holiday to Blackpool pleasure beach and things like that. When our Dad finally got some money from a saving scheme at work, we had enough to go on a family holiday to Disneyland when we were early teenagers. We started scrimping and saving to go back to the big theme parks again and that led us onto doing things in our garage.”
They had decided to get a few friends together one Halloween and at the last minute decided to put together something a bit fancier. A few flashing lights, draped rags and spooky accessories later and their garage was suddenly a walking ghost train. “Everyone loved it and we had to do something bigger the next year and again the year after that. We’ve done about six or seven of these things, the most elaborate being the time machine.”
The time machine – Fangoria – became their calling card, with the video clocking up thousands of views on YouTube. Framestore brought some clients along (the Fox brothers were friends of Framestore but not employees at that point). When the award-winning studio started to collaborate with Secret Cinema, Framestore insisted that Gavin and Jason get involved too.
Soon the brothers were so busy creating online experiences for Secret Cinema and working with Framestore that their extravagant garage shows took a back seat. These days they do a lot of However, Halloween is still a major appointment in their calendar and these days they create simpler (but still scary) experiences in their front garden.
“Now we do these things in the front garden, which are just trick or treat things,” says Jason.
“It’s still a theatrical experience but the audience is mainly kids so you have to make it fun. It’s fun and spooky and scary. Maybe a bit too scary – we usually get a few kids running away in tears which is a bit of a goal,” chuckles Gavin.
Moreover, the rest of their street joins in. Families drive from all over the area to visit and last year 400 kids came to the Foxes’ garden.
“Our town has become a bit of a Halloween town now. Lots of people down our road and in other roads do things in our front garden. It reminds me of that scene in ET where there are gangs of kids dressed up for Halloween, that’s what our road looks like now,” says Jason.
The ‘home haunt’ community is well established in the States, but in the UK it’s still a relatively new phenomenon, so the brothers find a lot of resources (animated ghosts to project on windows, coffins and more) online – and they usually schedule in visits to specialist warehouses on their road trips around America.
So what are the secrets of creating a truly immersive experience that will have visitors jumping and shrieking, rather than rolling their eyes? The first thing, Jason says, is that the experience has to be held together with its own internal logic - even if the audience never see that backstory, it has to be there.
He highlights one example from Fangoria. “When you’re trying to go back to the future and you’re in the time machine and it’s whirring and buzzing, Jack the Ripper is trying to get in. The machine is transferring time zones and you land in present day and there’s one detail that no one’s picked up on – because Jack was on the side of the machine, that’s why they never found Jack the Ripper. He’s lost in time somewhere.”
What’s more, says Gavin, it’s good to give the audience a reason why they’re there, to create a bit of narrative that takes them from the real world into the fantasy. “With all the rides and experiences we go to, to us some of our favourite rides are the ones where they give a reason to why you’ve gone from present day to the middle of the jungle. Our mate’s Star Trek one in Las Vegas is one of the best ones from that.”
Rules – and the breaking of them – are also important if you want to make people really nervous. “The rules play a big role for the audience in a physical environment. Everyone expects certain rules. When they feel they have to break a rule that’s the sort of thing that makes them feel more involved,” says Gavin. “It’s really tactile, it feels really immersive and quite scary. In our shows there’s normally a bit where people don’t know what to do next. There’s really only one way they can go but they don’t know that.”
The importance of rules can be something to really exploit. They explain that most people expect a ‘no touching’ rule when they visit a haunt, and for good reason. But plant a stooge or two in the group, jump out and grab them, drag them into a grave or a closet and suddenly that ‘rule’ is broken in the minds of the audience.
Related to this, another point that they’ve discovered through years of visiting haunted houses, and building their own, is that less can be more. ‘Not everyone has to see the scare’. If someone at the front of a group sees something terrifying and then shrieks, the ripple spreads through the rest of the part as everyone conjures up the possibilities in their mind. One show they created was themed around a haunted circus and in the hall of mirrors, one mirror would suddenly swing open and a clown would grab the person at the front of the group and pull them inside. The victim, of course, was a complicit plant – but the rest of the crowd are left puzzled, intrigued and jumpy.
The brothers are constantly looking around themselves for clues and ideas that can make them more efficient scare-mongers. Not only when visiting themeparks and haunts, but when watching movies, playing video games and just going about their normal daily life. ““For me, if a werewolf were to burst in right now I’d jump but I wouldn’t be scared,” says Jason. “When I sit upstairs in a bus at night and a bunch of youths come on that’s so much more scary. It’s more apprehension, a feeling of wariness. It’s not like I’m going to be cursed and sent to hell but I might get mugged and that’s scarier because that’s a real threat. If you can achieve that for a second in an experience that’s enough.”
But when every day weekend is Halloween, spent at ghost trains and thrill experiences, it seems that the only people they have trouble scaring are themselves. When they go to theme parks and immersive events, they go to see the craft of it, to appreciate the story telling and to learn. You’re unlikely to find Gavin or Jason shrieking like cockatoos.
“It’s impossible. We have to go with a bunch of other people because otherwise it’s embarrassing,” says Gavin, before Jason chimes in… “Someone with a chainsaw will jump out on us and we’ll say ‘alright, how’s it going?’”