Embracing the Dark Side of Event Planning

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Death and destruction don’t have to be bad things. Some crowds actively seek these thrills out, at least historically speaking. Take a look at the trend of “dark” event planning. It’s not a scary as you think. Or is it?

Zombie runs. Haunted houses. Abandoned prisons. Mental asylums.

These aren’t Halloween happenings or the latest season of American Horror Story, these are examples of a new-ish trend in event planning. In travel, it’s referred to as “dark tourism.” Here, we’ll call it “dark event planning,” or how to lure an audience based on fright factor and an interest in the macabre.

You can blame it on The Walking Dead or all of the post-apocalyptic entertainment out there, but we have long had a fascination with the ghoulish. From people visiting sights of great disasters to events with an undead theme, scaring people is becoming more and more lucrative.

According to Dr. Philip Stone, Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, UK, dark tourism is merely a “contemporary commodification of death and disaster sites.” But in event planning, it can be much more. You’re not relegated to merely revisiting something tragic that happened on the spot of your event. Instead, you can create an experience that doesn’t have to be historically accurate, although that can be a thrill in itself.

Darkness can be applied as an influence in your theme, venue, food and beverage, and even entertainment. Adding a dark quality to your events can make a lasting impression and improve your word-of-mouth marketing. You can use touches of historic darknesses or embrace the Hollywood-side of it all.

Why the Rise in Dark Events?

Morbid fascination is no mere interest of the 21st century. It’s been around for hundreds of years but not all preoccupations with death were created out of curiosity. The Victorian custom of photographing the dead, for instance, helped assuage grief. Sometimes the death of a family member gave them a reason to have a family portrait taken. People of the past often packed picnic lunches and watched wars like the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War as if it was the Super Bowl. There was nothing macabre about that for them.

But today’s interest in visiting places of death and destruction has taken on a Hollywood-type appeal in many situations, creating adrenaline-pumping fear fests. As special effects become more and more realistic, are we simply needing more fright to feel? Or are these visits to heighten our understanding and serve as reminders that the world continues even through these dark times, helping to allay fears and our growing societal anxieties?

It’s difficult to say for certain what’s behind the growing interest but if you think it will fit your audience there are many easy ways you can incorporate death and destruction in your events, in a figurative sense of course.

How to Incorporate the Dark Side in Your Events

There are organizations already embracing these concepts of death, destruction, and the macabre. Often the group walks the tight-rope between tourism and event, like the many ghost tours out there. But if you want to incorporate some of this morbid fascination, there are easier ways than putting on a theatrical extravaganza.

There are very few historic venues that don’t have some association with death, destruction, or violence just from the mere length of time they’ve been around. Old hotels, former prisons, and converted “insane” asylums will get your attendees to take notice. Do your research. You’re bound to uncover something questionable about an older venue.

Tell the Story

Whether you create it yourself or get it from the history books, make sure you tell the story of your venue. While featuring it in your event materials is a good way to ensure everyone sees it, a word-of-mouth campaign is much more alluring and gives attendees something to talk about. All it takes is a few well-rehearsed, “Did you hear the history of this place?” conversations and your audience will be talking.

Add a Zombie Theme

The dark tourism purists would argue zombies have little to do with tourism that’s focused on death and destruction, but the idea of the undead fits nicely into the fascination of the macabre and it’s wildly popular. You can add a zombie theme to nearly any event but one we’ve seen grow in popularity recently is a run. There are zombie 5Ks and zombie mud runs. There are also zombie fests and zombie survival camps. There’s even an abandoned shopping mall in the UK infested with zombies.

Adding a zombie theme is easy. It just takes a few people willing to wander around groaning and lots of makeup. Zombies can be funny (in a kitschy way) or adrenaline boosters as you try to escape. Whatever type of zombie you decide on, your event will stand out from other traditional events.

Incorporate it in Décor

If the story of your venue is tainted in (real) death, use newspaper headlines and accounts of the happenings as part of your décor. Play with the lighting. Uplighting, for instance, can be extremely creepy when used on the right object. A beautiful tree that has lost its foliage can suddenly appear menacing with the right up lighting.  

Let Food Fit the Theme

Most caterers can help you put together a very inventive menu. From shaping regular foods into things no one wants to eat to serving items with a notorious past. Even your menu can play a part by announcing the meals served are popular “last meals” for infamous killers.

Host Photo Opportunities

One of the biggest draws of dark tourism and dark events is recounting your experiences there. One of people’s “most turned to” ways of telling their story is through selfies. If you are hosting a dark event you need to provide plenty of photo opportunities.  

In Conclusion

Dark events are becoming very popular from subtle incorporations of themes to large-scale movie-worthy productions. Make sure your intention is solidified before diving into this realm. It’s possible to be shooting for creating an American Horror Story experience, and instead end up with American Werewolf in London. Are you trying to scare or make people laugh? Are you providing a historical representation of a tragic event or merely giving people a reason for cosplay?

Before incorporating extensive use of the dark side, make sure you understand your audience well. Fear fests are not for everyone. But as we are all human, death is unavoidable. With death brings a curiosity that these sorts of events fulfill.