It feels like 2020 has provided more than enough scares. But for people still seeking an extra jolt of fear and adrenalin, it’s the time of year for those shocking haunted house attractions.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed a lot of long-distance travel, especially by plane, these Halloween-themed attractions around the world usually draw a more local crowd. So they shouldn’t be hurt by people making more short-haul trips this year.
They do face other hurdles, though.
In the carefree nights of 2019, the big questions on these attractions were: Which ones are the best? How scary are they?
In the cautious nights of 2020, we have different questions: Are haunted house attractions even opening this year? And if they are, is it safe to go?
With cases of Covid-19 again on the rise, medical experts advise a careful approach.
A mix of openings and closings
Just to get a sampling, CNN Travel checked its list of the 10 best haunted house attractions in the United States for 2019 to see what they’re doing in 2020 during the pandemic.
The results: Seven are open this year. Three have decided to shutter for 2020. The seven that are open are:
— Bates Motel, 1835 Middletown Road, Glen Mills, Pennsylvania 19342; +1 610 459 0647
— The Dent Schoolhouse, 5963 Harrison Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45248; +1 513 445 9767
— Erebus, 18 S Perry St.., Pontiac, Michigan 48342; +1 248 332 7884
— Haunted Overload, 20 Orchard Way, Lee, New Hampshire 03861; +1 855 504 2868
— Netherworld Haunted House, 1313 Netherworld Way, Stone Mountain, Georgia 30087; +1-404-608-2484
— Scream Town, 7410 US-212, Chaska, Minnesota 55318; +1 888 317 7308
— The 13th Gate: 832 St Philip St, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802; +1 225 389 1313
Citing safety concerns because of Covid-19, three of 2019’s top 10 decided not to reopen. They are Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror in Las Vegas, the Haunted Trail of Balboa Park in San Diego and Scared by the Sound (at Playland Park) in Rye, New York.
In a message to fans on its website, Freaking Bros. in Nevada said, “Current regulations will not allow us to present our horror shows with the intensity that we are famous for, nor can we guarantee a way to protect our patrons or our valued employees and volunteers properly during this pandemic.
“After months of deliberation and careful assessment, we’ve regretfully had to acknowledge that the only responsible way to handle this is to put safety first, and close for the 2020 season.”
The venues that are opening are emphasizing Covid-19 safety.
For example, the 13th Gate in Louisiana has an entire page devoted to Covid-19 measures. Visitors to amusement parks this past summer will find this all quite familiar.
13th Gate’s measures include mandated masks for guests and actors, virtual queues, reduced capacity, temperature screenings and new setups to maintain social distancing.
An inside look at one attraction
CNN Travel talked with Ben Armstrong, a co-owner of Netherworld near Atlanta, about how the attraction is adapting to the pandemic during its 24th season.
Armstrong said planning for a big Halloween attraction is a year-round endeavor, and they eventually realized the pandemic would not be fading away by the time their operating season arrived in late September.
“We worked at it for months. We had to come up with new ways to present the attractions. It’s been right down to the wire,” he said. “We weren’t even sure we’d be able to open. We didn’t even know if we should open, depending on how the crisis was evolving.”
Armstrong said they had to come up with plans to open in a safe manner, and they worked closely with the Georgia Department of Public Health in planning.
A new way of operating
Among the measures is operating fewer days than usual.
“We’re taking off Mondays and Tuesday to make sure we’re not overstressing our staff and take a little time between operations.”
Armstrong said they had to think about both staff and visitors in planning for an opening that would greatly reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
“We wanted to do a quality show like we always do, but we wanted it to be safe. The trick was how to achieve both those goals simultaneously,” he said.
“We’ve reduced the amount of actors in the attraction, and we’ve radically reduced the amount of attendees. In addition, we increased the number of special effects and animations. We’ve added about 100 on top of what we already had.”
Armstrong said the ways actors engage with patrons have also changed.
“They don’t make the sounds they usually make. They use voice amplifiers and recorded sounds. They’ll be silent when they scare you. They use strange sound devices that startle people. They have props to thrust toward people. The whole way they engage you has changed dramatically.”
Actors at Netherworld wear masks, and they’ve set up one-way traffic flow to avoid people backtracking.
“We’ve increased the size of the outdoor midway. We were angling toward this anyway, but we made big changes to our physical campus.”
Caution across the Atlantic, too
Some haunted attractions in Europe are also opening, keeping many of the same precautions in mind.
A favorite in Cornwall, England, is historic Bodmin Jail, which was built in 1779 for King George III.
They have an entire page online on what visitors need to do before they arrive and once they arrive to remain Covid-safe. They have a timed entry system. They’ve eliminated interactive elements and set up a one-way traffic flow like Netherworld has done.
Despite the pandemic, the theme park Movie Park Germany is hosting its annual Halloween Horror Festival. Teutonic terrors include a Circus of Freaks and a hostel that’s most unwelcoming. However, this park not too far from the Rhine River in Bottrop has been planning since summer to make sure the scares are safe ones.
Manuel Prossotowicz, the director of marketing and sales at Movie Park Germany, said in an interview with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions that they would build bigger outdoor lines, set up a one-way flow of patrons and cancel pre-shows that tend to congregate people in small spaces.
The great outdoors
Some haunted house attractions that already had outdoor components are making expanded use of those areas. For newly opened The Forge: Lemont Quarries, it helped that it was already an outdoors-focused park.
About 22 miles from downtown Chicago, this recreation area full of zip lines, ropes courses, rock climbs and the like opened on July 17 with the pandemic well under way. But because of the spread-out nature of the place and singular nature of the activities, they didn’t have all of the same struggles that theme parks have had.
Co-founder Jeremie Bacon said that helped with opening during the pandemic and planning their main Halloween activity — a laser tag Zombie Apocalypse — as well.
“Aside from the … health and safety advantages of an outdoor venue during Covid, The Forge environment naturally lends itself to creating a unique Halloween activation experience,” he said. “We’ve got creepy forests to hide ghouls and goblins and a whole series of captivating outdoor lighting systems … that add to the Halloween vibe.”
He said zombie laser tag battles will “take place in a heavily wooded and secluded area of The Forge. … The game will consist of two teams battling tactical laser tag against each other while simultaneously fending off flesh eating zombies.”
Meanwhile, it has the now-standard Covid-19 safety measures in place: Reservation systems, virtual queues, social distancing markers and the like.
Drive-thrus and drive-ins
Cars and road trips have become resurgent during the pandemic. After all, you can control who is in your vehicle. Operators of Halloween-themed attractions have responded this year with drive-thru and drive-in shows, which allow you to stay out of range of people not in your party
Kowagarasetai, a Japanese haunted house and horror event production company, created a haunted house drive-in located in a covered parking garage in a nondescript building in downtown Tokyo. It gives visitors a 360-degree, front-row experience that simulates being stuck in a car during a zombie outbreak.
US attractions are joining the trend, including the Haunted Drive in Houston and the Haunted Road in Orlando, Florida, where guests drive and park their car at each scene.
With any luck, your car won’t get into a fury and go all Christine on you!
But is it safe to attend?
Even with safety measure in place, it’s a legitimate question to ask yourself: Should I visit one of these attractions with the pandemic still going on?
Dr. Shannon Hopson is an endocrinologist in Corvallis, Oregon, and the mother of two boys who love amusement parks. CNN Travel wanted to know what she thought as a professional and as a parent.
“We’ve never gone to haunted houses before, but my kids are at the age where they are starting to enjoy scary things, and they have asked about visiting haunted houses this year,” she said. “I told them no — enclosed spaces with lots of people who may or may not be wearing masks just doesn’t seem safe to me at all.”
She’s more open to outdoor attractions than those held inside.
“Any indoor haunted houses seem like a bad idea, and I would recommend avoiding them completely. There are some places that have outdoor versions of haunted houses. Being outdoors, these feel a lot safer to me, even though there’s still the potential for overcrowding.”
If you’re willing to take the chance, though, we wanted to know her advice.
“In addition to limiting any haunted ‘houses’ to just outdoor ones, I would also look for places that require masks and limit the number of people who can go through at any given time,” she said.
“It may feel silly to wear masks outdoors, but close contact with someone in another party who got scared and ended up getting too close to you (while yelling or laughing) is a very likely possibility.”
Armstrong of Netherworld makes the case that we still need ways to momentarily get away mentally from what’s been a tough year.
“We’re creating this escape from the real world — it’s a fantasy. I think people really need that kind of escape right now. It’s so important.”