Arts in Malaysia: An Interview with Johnny Ong, Co-Founder of Hauntu
KUALA LUMPUR – Do you believe in ghosts? If you came to THE LINC KL and looked around a bit, you might just find an attraction that’ll convince you of their existence, with Hauntu.
A portmanteau of the English word ‘haunt’ and Malay word ‘hantu’ (ghost), Hauntu mashes escape room and haunted house for one hell of an experience, as live theatre performance, role play and storytelling come together. Founded by Johnny Ong (creator of Malaysian escape room and internationally franchised Breakout, Hauntu features a mix of real actors, audience interaction, intricate mazes and interconnected storylines set in a creepy colonial hotel, where guests not only play a role within each storyline, as they experience Malaysia through the ages.
Regarding his involvement in escape rooms, Johnny explains: “I started Breakout with my wife and a few partners, the latter of whom left after a few months because they lost the passion. But my wife and I stayed on with the business because we believed in the model, that it was workable because unlike regular retail, the key aspects of the work we’re meant to do is to maintain the venue and refresh the concept every so often, as opposed to say continually checking and maintaining stock, which takes up the bulk of costs for regular businesses. So far, it’s been working out!”
Johnny explains that while he always knew the escape room concept had feet, he never went in with the idea that it might one day become an international phenomenon. He adds: “Initially, I was just focused on creating a workable product, not so much the business aspect of it, and just figured out a good price to place it at. My focus with escape rooms is to come up with a good storyline, because most escape rooms are just focused on making a good puzzle. That’s something that people can do without an escape room, so we must have something unique to hook people and understand the narrative purpose of each puzzle, which we also try to change up.”
Hauntu then riffs off of Breakout’s winning formula to add a supernatural element to the escape room concept, with a total of 3 ‘episodes’ planned for guests to experience the entire storyline. Currently, 2 episodes are already available, with a third, where the player works together with paranormal investigators to uncover the final answer, in the works. Says Johnny: “The great thing is that people don’t need to play episode 1 and 2 in order, because they’re all parts of a whole, and you’ll understand and appreciate the entire storyline only after experiencing all 3.”
Because of its unique demands and storyline, Hauntu requires far more manpower than a normal escape room, which often just places visitors in a single or series of rooms and solve a series of puzzles. With real life actors involved in each room and guiding each guest through the experience, casting becomes a brand new issue Johnny has to handle as well. “I used to do 1 on 1 auditions,” Johnny explains. “But quickly realised that there was a very high attrition rate and it was very hard to gauge how appropriate the performers would be. Instead, we took on a different approach, where we’d put about 25 people into a single group and have them play a game. We’d then observe how they behave and reacted to each other to win, whether they would get frustrated easily or persevere, and the results from there have been much more reliable.”
In terms of the actual demands of each role, Johnny believes in versatility of his actors. “We have maybe 15 people in total per experience, and I expect every actors to be ready to swap out with another one if necessary,” says Johnny. “My actors need to be familiar with the entire experience.”
Johnny isn’t the kind of person who simply pulls these ideas from thin air though – he does his due research and makes sure to get out there in the world to see whether some of these ideas have worked beforehand elsewhere in the world. Hauntu, for example, takes inspiration from the Amsterdam Dungeon (itself a franchise of the London Dungeon experience), which he cites as having immersive decor, and something he believed he could work with. “We try to refresh the concept every three years, and we don’t revamp the whole thing all at once. A lot of people have yet to experience the entire thing, and so we end up refreshing it in parts, room by room so that people can still experience part of it, while still encouraging new guests to come try it out,” says Johnny. “Even so, I always knew Breakout wouldn’t last forever, so I’d have to innovate and come up with a completely different concept at some point.”
“That’s why Hauntu is quite different,” he continues. “Right now, it’s in the midst of a five year plan, and after the current iteration is done, we’ll probably be refreshing the storylines once again. We’re heading up to some expos in Korea and France and showing them the versatility of the concept, that we not only do haunted houses, but also detective concepts, such as MAPIC in Cannes, who invited us because we were shortlisted in competitions regarding mall entertainment. It’s all good so we can find out what other people around the world are doing and meet people involved internationally.”
As to why Hauntu is held in a mall, Johnny explains the limitations and difficulties of the Malaysian entertainment market, saying: “It was hard to find a location. Initially, we wanted a bungalow, but that was very hard to find. So we ended up with a mall, and this one matched our target audience quite well, as a kind of hipster mall. We’re still looking to find our own space eventually, because of the restrictions of the mall, such as not being operational beyond a certain hour and not allowing us to keep doing things at night. Hopefully we find a future investor that will help us secure our own building where we’ll have more freedom.”
When we experienced Hauntu for ourselves, we found the game experience great from start to finish. There’s a lot of thought and detail that goes into the decor and aesthetic of the place, well-researched and completely transforming the mall. Once you enter the “game space”, it feels as if we’re already stepping into the hotel. The mystery awaits the moment you enter the lift, with your arduous journey just beginning. It’s your job to get to the bottom of things, get through all the obstacles that stand in your way and break the curse. What awaits you at the end is defined by the decisions you make during the game, and Hauntu as a whole is absorbing, leaving players truly feeling like they had an experience at the Colle Eastern hotel.
For the future of the business, Johnny is confident it will only continue to grow, and keep at it. He concludes: “We’re planning on expanding the concepts overseas, starting out with Shanghai in China, simply because of the sheer number of audience members. Hopefully in future we’ll also look at Thailand, Australia, Singapore and even Busan. We might be expanding into concepts like edutainment and children’s entertainment, but at the core of it, I always go back to why I started this in the first place and imagine the user journey – to provide a fun and enjoyable, unique experience for each and every guest.”
Photo Credit: Hauntu
Hauntu is located at 2-9, Level 2, The LINC KL, 360 Jalan Tun Razak, 50450, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets and more information available from their website here