Is Your Halloween Program Off-Theme?

scary Halloween image (church in Rome)

Surely we can accomplish more with a valuable new audience than just jump out of a dark corner and go “boo.”

Are you planning a thematically vapid Halloween event? Are you busily training volunteers to jump out at people from behind half-closed doors? Are you dusting off your wacky grave stones and firing up your howling-and-cackling sound systems? And are you completely ignoring your site’s history and stories in the process?

Well, you’re not alone.

Before I start to preach to you about making your Halloween events more meaningful, let me assure you that I’ve been there. I have, more than once, planned and delivered oh-so-spooooky Halloween events that had zero interpretive value. I’m not proud of it, but there you have it.

“Lighten up, Don. Sure, our Halloween event isn’t thematic, but it gets people through the door.”

And that’s great—but to what end? Fewer and fewer organizations are interested in amassing great numbers of bodies as an end in itself.

(When I was a young interpreter, numbers were the only measure that mattered—and we kept our clickers in hand at all times to prove our worth. Now, it’s numbers plus revenue, numbers plus engagement, numbers plus learning, and so on. Numbers-plus-revenue is, of course, the big one these days.)

If your Halloween program is free, AND its thematic link to your site’s messages is tenuous, you should probably be honest with yourself about its strategic value. I suspect it’s not benefitting your organization in a meaningful way.

Sure, it’s great to get people through the door with free events—but in the heritage sector we need to think of those free events as a product sampler, the way the food and beverage or merchandise sectors do: “Have this free soft drink so you can understand what our product tastes like, discover you enjoy it, and go out and buy it.” If your free product—the Halloween event— is nothing like your paid product, you’ve wasted your customers’ time. If they do come back for your daily product, they’ll be disillusioned and never return. Or they’ll come back for next year’s free Halloween program, and nothing else. (And that is the problem that many of us are having with free events: over time, we’re training our publics to stay away until the next freebie comes along.)

“It’s not thematic, but it’s great for community relations.”

That’s a benefit not to be underestimated, certainly. But what does your community really want from you? If you’re like most heritage organizations, your community wants you to be a point of local pride, a magnet for tourism, and a resource for educating their children. Now look at your Halloween event. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could check all three boxes for your community?

“It’s not thematic, but it attracts new audiences”

Wonderful. You’ve finally got your Millennials or your New Canadians through the door—and you’re giving them a throw-away experience that they could have at the local fairground? Why? Why squander what may be the only chance you have to showcase who you are and what you offer? Why wouldn’t you show these valuable new audiences something meaningful? Why wouldn’t you connect them to your site and its essence? Surely you can accomplish more with a valuable new audience than just jump out of a dark corner and go “boo!”

“It’s not thematic, but it’s a cash cow.”

Great—I get it. We all do things to make money, particularly those of us in the nonprofit sector. And if it’s a genuine cash cow—a program that generates funds that let you do all sorts of meaningful things during the rest of the year—it’s a thing not to be tampered with lightly.

But I harken back to Tim Merriman’s mission/money grid as an analytical tool. Weigh the program’s financial value on a scale of 1 to 5, and then weigh its mission value on the same scale, and then plot them on an X-Y grid. Where would your program fall? In the heritage sector, we always try to make our products mission-positive and revenue-positive. We don’t always succeed, certainly.

money-mission grid

Maybe you feel that your site has absolutely nothing in its stories that could realistically support a Halloween program thematically, and so you go completely into the realm of fantasy.

But you’re interpreters. You’re a member of one of the most creative and resourceful of professions. I’m guessing there’s something in your site’s content that could support an evening of spooky fun.

So what does a thematic Halloween program look like?

It’s a program whose events, script or storyboard are rooted in your site’s stories. It can still be fun—and as with all good exhibits and programs, it must be blatantly clear which aspects of its storyline are rooted in fact and which are taking liberties with it.

A thematic Halloween program has measurable outcomes: learning, affective, and behavioural. In my view, it can definitely be heavy on the affective (“If asked, participants would use words like fun, spooky, surprising.”) and light on the learning—but not devoid of it. (“Visitors will name two unsolved mysteries from our site’s early history.” “Visitors will identify two local mammals with seemingly-inhuman powers in the dark.”)

It’s a program that literally couldn’t take place anywhere but your site.

And that’s the challenge in all our programming: what can visitors do here, that meets their interests and meets our mission, that they couldn’t do anywhere else? In interpretive planning, VE planning, and tourism planning, I’m coming to believe that this is the only question that matters.

If you’re using your beautiful park, historic building, or museum as a meaningless backdrop for cardboard dungeons, graveyards and haunted houses, I think you’re selling your resource, your audience and your organization short.

Make it thematic. Link it to your site’s stories. Create a visitor experience that is integrally linked to your essence of place. It’s good interpretation, good tourism, good community relations, and good fun.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

One Comment

  1. Dorothy Young

    Right on, Don. Someone had to say it, and, you did it so well! I completely agree with you .

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