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Monsters in masks: Haunted attractions find ways to open during pandemic

Amanda Parrish
Middletown Transcript

People go to haunted houses and trails expecting monsters and ghouls to be up close and personal as they make their way through bloody hospitals and spooky mazes for the Halloween season.

This year, those scary creatures will be seen at more of a distance.

Haunted attractions have found creative ways to open, while trying to keep their actors and patrons safe, such as using ropes, plexiglass and masks to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people stay away from indoor haunted houses this year, encouraging safer activities, such as pumpkin carving at home. But that has not stopped haunted attractions from figuring out how to open.

What should people expect? Longer lines, smaller groups and temperature checks at the door.

Opening safely

Kyle McMahon, Frightland marketing manager, said the owners of the attraction near Middletown have been working with the Division of Public Health since July to figure out how they can open safely.

For their eight indoor and outdoor houses and trails, they are requiring temperature checks and mask-wearing at all times for their actors and patrons. Their actors are wearing more than Halloween costume masks, but ones that protect from COVID-19, as recommended by the CDC.

Ghouls at Frightland's haunted houses and trails are required to wear masks.

He said there will be 6 feet of distance between the ghouls and guests, and they are using plexiglass in places where it isn’t possible.

“We wanted to do something that the community could feel as safe as they possibly can, coming and having a good time for a couple hours,” McMahon said. “It's not the show they have come to expect where people are in your face, but we are giving people a show that is safe and entertaining.”

He said they are using hospital-grade cleaning supplies to clean and sanitize seats, doors and any other surfaces frequently touched in between all groups.

One of the biggest changes Frightland made this year was using time ticketing, in which guests have to choose a time slot to come, and their group will be ushered through all the houses in a designated order. Usually, people can pick and choose which ones they go to.

Frightland in Middletown requires its actors to wear masks that cover their mouth and nose during the 2020 season.

301 Devil’s Playground is following many of the same procedures for their patrons and actors, with required mask wearing, social distancing and temperature checks. But Latasha Pennick, who helps run the Maryland haunted house, said they will remove people who don't comply from the property.

“We allow them [to take the mask off] if they're eating or something, but we had to do that because if someone from our local health department came up there and they saw someone in line without their mask on we can be fined about $5,000. So they got to keep their masks on,” she said.

Similarly to Frightland, Pennick has been working with the Kent County, Maryland Health Department since the summer to ensure all safety protocols are followed. She was required to submit a plan for Devil’s Playground to open.

Pennick said they are also required to have all guests fill out information sheets for contact-tracing, which asks for names, phone numbers, email addresses, dates of births and home addresses.

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While Frightland and Devil’s Playground were making plans to open during the summer,  the Cemetery House in Laurel struggled with the decision to open during a pandemic.

“The decision was to do it outside or don't do it at all this year,” Scott Allen, who runs the Sussex County haunt, said. “None of us get paid for this. It's all volunteer, so it was a tough decision to move forward on this.”

It usually has an indoor and outdoor haunt, but this year it will only be an outdoor maze, which they expanded from a one-half acre maze to 1 and one-half acres.

Like the other haunted houses, all guests and volunteers will be required to wear masks. To keep their actors at least six feet away from patrons, they have set up a rope along the maze and they must stay on their designated side of the rope.

COVID-19’s impact on turnout

Although the Cemetery House maze is bigger, the number of patrons they are allowing in on a night is less than normal. In previous years, Allen said they can get up 1,200 people in one night, but to make sure social distancing is followed, they will only get up to 600 people.

“Normally, we have massive lines, sometimes 300 or 400 people in line. This year, we are having people wait in their cars,” he said.

He said cars will be ushered one by one to a hay wagon where groups will be kept together and socially distanced from other groups on the ride to the maze. The hay ride is disinfected after each trip.

Guests at Frightland in Middletown are required to wear face masks at all times while on the property during the 2020 season. Groups must also stay at least 6 feet away from each other.

McMahon said Frightland's decision to use time ticketing severely limited the number of people they can have on the property at one time, which it was intended to control how many people are coming each night. But he said it will “significantly” impact how much revenue they bring in this year.

“We are extremely restricted on the numbers we usually do, but we are selling out every time slot that we have,” he said. “We typically don't have a cap on the number we have here. We typically have 6,000 or 7,000 people here a night. We are nowhere near that now.”

Although Delaware haunted attractions said this season's turnout is lower than normal, Pennick said Devil’s Playground is having its best season yet.

“We have been open for six years, this has been our biggest year so far,” she said.

As the other haunts have restricted how many people can be on the property, Devil’s Playground has only limited the number of people for their houses. Pennick said they are allowing for 50% capacity based on the recommendations from their local health department.