AFS Film Club Creates the Perfect Haunted House

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A Creepy Character

By Ayshea Khan

While my stomach has finally recovered from the Halloween sugar overdose, I'm still reveling in the eerie magic that occurred at Mendez Middle School two weeks ago. The students in the Austin Film Society's after-school Film and Game Club program brought a haunted house to life through the principles of game design, filmmaking and theater arts.

Last summer, in partnership with the AMD Foundation's Changing the Game initiative and AISD's ACE Afterschool, the AFS Film Club began to delve into the realm of videogame design with the Digital Media Magic pilot program. The three-week workshop was offered to students from both Martin and Mendez Middle Schools to keep them thinking creatively about media production outside of school time. AFS was able to extend the transmedia curriculum into the school year with the AFS Film and Game Club at Mendez Middle School co-taught by myself and Lora-Jean Garza, the school's theater arts instructor, teaching both the art and technology of the two media.

I was excited to have the opportunity to be an AFS Filmmaking Mentor at Mendez and couldn't wait to get started. Lora-Jean and I both wanted to think outside the box for something particularly creepy and fun to engage our students during the pre-Halloween months. Well, what would be more fun than creating a haunted house in the school auditorium? Plus, a haunted house is the perfect project to build while learning the tools and techniques of game design and filmmaking.

Here's how we did it: We started the semester introducing students to game design through the online gaming resource Gamestar Mechanic. Alongside that, we did simple forms of animation including flipbooks and thaumatropes to provide students with a historical context of the computer animation they would use in the process. Some of the most important concepts a young digital media maker must learn are the five elements of game design: space, rules, components, mechanics and goals. (See AFS Community Education Manager Katy Daiger Dial's look at these elements through a film lens.) To bring these elements into a more physical space, students were tasked with creating their own board games that replicated the maze-like aspects of a haunted house.

Each group of students drew the same map of the school's arts building and outlined the path that visitors to the haunted house would take, complete with choice points, enemies (or ghouls), obstacles and props. One of my personal favorites was Die: The Game. If you landed on a blood-covered space then you died and could no longer participate. Pretty serious business. This activity definitely got students pumped about the haunted house, as well as how digital media techniques can be used in a very creative way.

The Game Board

But the connections didn't end there. With the board games complete, we were eager to turn the ideas into reality. First, students used Gamestar Mechanic to recreate the games digitally, while using claymation to explore scary-themed narratives. These experiments with digital media tools led to more fleshed-out and thoughtful choices when the dress rehearsals and set building began. Soon the Mendez Middle School auditorium became a haunted house with everything from living statues to hungry zombies.

Each AFS Film and Game Club student had a role to play in the haunted house. I had the honor of joining two of my students in a band of creepy Dia de los Muertos skeletons. Amidst the fake blood and makeup we talked about the scary movies we loved and what filmmaking techniques we could borrow to scare our approaching victims. And scare we did! Within the house, our maracas were shaking in the halls, giving each passerby the creeps.

Over 300 tickets were sold and lines were still wrapping around the school when the ticket booths closed. As we put away the cobwebs and gravestones, the students were filled with a contagious energy as they retold their favorite scary moments. They boasted that some people couldn't finish the house because it was so terrifying. We relived the stories the following week as we produced a scary movie about a haunted house. While students still have a lot more to learn about game and film production, the haunted house was a definite success because the students used digital media to think critically about the design of the set, costumes and participant experience. Now we have to think of something just as awesome for the spring. I'm thinking Leprechaun Lair.

Ayshea Khan is an Austin Film Society Filmmaking Mentor.