Avanti’s fifth annual Haunted School is just around the corner. The high school is an alternative education program located in downtown Olympia known for its ultra-scary and well-put together haunted house. While other organizations host annual haunted house events, Avanti’s is unique because students spend almost six weeks handcrafting the event down to every last strung spiderweb. I have created a behind-the-scenes look into the highly dedicated and creative students who work tirelessly from September to November to create an immersive experience.

Avanti High School calls itself a “school of choice” because students truly decide to be there. Instead of taking six or seven classes per day, students take three to four classes at a time (in either the morning or afternoon), which gives them the opportunity to really delve into the subjects. Many of the classes are independent, so all of the students work at their own pace, often even on different material within a subject—one student is working on trigonometry while another is learning algebra, for instance. The classes are also mastery-based, meaning each assignment, presentation, and test Avanti students turn in must be graded at 80% or higher to pass. This means students must fully understand the topic of the class in order to receive credit.

Avanti Haunted House Lightbulb
Students in the class spend almost six weeks learning about, designing, and decorating the Haunted School. The room designs change every year, but the fun community atmosphere doesn’t. Photo credit: Ainsley Austin

In addition to Avanti’s unique schedule, teaching styles, and learning opportunities, some of the classes that are offered are extremely unique. One such class is the annual Haunted House Class, in which students plan the annual event, and actually receive school credit.

Started five years ago by resident English teacher, John Hanby, and since-retired paraeducator, theater director, and librarian extraordinaire, Kate Thedell, the Haunted House Class functions as the event workforce, volunteer opportunity, fundraiser, and an English class. Students in the class receive English credit and have the unique chance to learn about the origins of the horror genre, what elements make something scary, and to let their imaginations run wild while writing scary stories of their own.

Some of the assignments the students have completed so far include reflecting on the history of the literary genre of horror, reading about the Victorian cultural obsession with death, and brainstorming a backstory for their character in the actual Haunted School. The students also create a task force that designs and sets up for the event. The class divides into groups of four or five students and each group is assigned several areas to design, clean up, decorate accordingly, and act in during the haunted house. The teacher of the class and main organizer of the house each year, John Hanby, states that “part of what the Haunted House Class does is it gives us permission to imagine the what-ifs and discuss those unknowns in life.”

Avanti Haunted House Rope
Here, Avanti High School Junior Liam works on his room for the annual Haunted School. The class splits up into groups of four or five and each group has several areas in the school to design, decorate, and act in. Photo credit: Ainsley Austin

An aspect of the Haunted School that is a big contributing factor to the event’s overall atmosphere is the location itself. Avanti High School is located in the bottom floor and detached combination science classrooms and gym building of the Olympia School District’s Knox Building. While many of the classrooms are decorated and used in the Haunted School, much of the event takes place in Avanti’s gym and basement locker rooms. The locker room area is no longer utilized by Avanti for gym classes, so its primary function is to serve as a Haunted School location and then storage area the rest of the year. The building is over 100 years old, which makes it the perfect place for a haunted house and even rumors from staff and students who claim to have experienced ghosts in some way at the school.

All of the ticket and concession profits (much of which end up being donations by generous community members) go toward lowering the per-student cost of going on Avanti’s biggest annual field trip. English and theater students travel to Ashland each June to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Haunted School is the trip’s biggest fundraiser. Each year, students at Avanti work on publicizing their Haunted School. John Hanby says that he “loves being part of a community and a team that’s involved in a creative process. Each year, this event pulls a wide variety of people together. The creativity that the students bring to it and to their stories and their writing is so much fun.”

“We need far more people than one class. We need a lot of volunteers. This is a haunt that’s actor-centered so we need a lot of help with special effects and makeup and we need a lot of actors. This is not a haunted house that’s driven by scenes with animatronics,” Hanby says.

Avanti Haunted House Class
Each year, Avanti High School students flock to sign up for the Haunted House Class and the chance to help design the well-known fundraiser. Photo credit: John Hanby, Avanti High School

In addition to the work the students in the class put in to come up with design concepts for each room, the Haunted School requires volunteers to act, take tickets, do makeup, sell concessions, usher, and more. Students in the class don’t just set up the event during the school day, they come to work for hours after school and on Fridays (when there are no regular Avanti classes). Each area of the basement locker rooms (affectionately called “the dungeon” by the high school’s community) needs to be cleared out of any items being stored there, cleaned up, and then decorated. The annual Haunted School brings in all parts of Avanti’s community – parents, students, staff, and the general Olympia population. While it is, at its most basic level, a scary event to have fun at Halloween, the Haunted School is also good publicity for a little-known school, a fundraiser, and a community building event that creates relationships.

To learn more about last year’s Haunted School, click here. Tickets are sold at the door and they go quickly, so be sure to arrive early to secure your spot in line. Small groups (3-5 people) go through the Haunted School, so make plans accordingly.

Avanti High School’s Haunted School
1113 Legion Way SE in Olympia
October 18-20, 25-27; 5:30-8:30 p.m.
$7 per person
Warnings: Strobe lights and fog machines, recommended for ages 12+

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