Arts & Entertainment

Masking Up for Halloween and COVID-19: Halloween Industry Reacts to Illinois Governor’s Ruling on Haunted Houses

Courtesy of Paul RossThe haunted house Nightmare On Leamington, a fundraiser for Our Lady of the Snows Elementary School, decided during the summer to remain closed.

While some outdoor activities are allowed and encouraged for Halloween, indoor haunted houses are banned under Restore Illinois Phase 4 Guidelines, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a Sept. 30 press conference.

“Haunted houses … tend to be very enclosed [with] not a lot of open space and as a result, the viral load can get high very quickly in a space like that,” Pritzker said. 

However, since the state’s COVID-19 guidelines are typically enforced locally, some haunts have still opened their doors.

“Enforcement of masking, mitigation, and other guidance typically happens at the local level,” according to an email from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labeled indoor haunted houses as a “high-risk activity,” alongside traditional trick-or-treating and costume parties, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many were not surprised by the announcement, including John LaFlamboy, the founder and owner of Zombie Army Productions and co-owner of HellsGate Haunted House in Lockport, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago.

“It’s an indoor mass gathering, just like … concert halls, theaters, these places are still not open,” the 45-year-old said. “Of course [Pritzker] closed down haunted houses. That makes perfect sense.”

Although LaFlamboy decided to close in August because he couldn’t open a safe outdoor attraction, he said he disagrees with the notion of Halloween being canceled.

“Halloween is about creating new worlds, new characters, new horrifying things to scare and to entertain people,” LaFlamboy said. “The idea of it being ‘canceled’ totally discounts the fact that there are all these wonderful, creative people out there still trying to find ways to celebrate this season.”

Open Attractions

Some open indoor haunted houses have been preparing all summer to safely scare customers, including Midnight Terror Haunted House. The attraction located in Oak Lawn, about 30 minutes outside of Chicago, opened Oct. 15.

Courtesy of Jasmynn Flores Midnight Terror Haunted House in Oak Lawn opened Oct. 15.

Randy Palmer, Oak Lawn’s Village Manager, said Midnight Terror “has gone to great lengths to provide a safe environment” but “the state and county can still close them down if they deem necessary.” 

Midnight Terror is cutting admissions in half from last year to allow between 800 to 1,000 people a night and downsizing from 120 to 60 employees, according to Jasmynn Flores, the venue’s public relations manager. 

The haunted house will require employees and visitors to wear face masks and take a temperature test before entry, and the venue will sanitize the building every hour, according to its website

A new addition to Midnight Terror is daytime tours, which won’t include actors, to cut down on “person interaction.” Some other new features this year, including timed ticketing and animatronics, may continue post-COVID-19 for efficiency reasons, according to Flores. 

“Even with all of these changes, it’s still going to be a fantastic show,” Flores said. “We have such a dedicated crew — the passion, that hasn’t changed. Halloween can be saved. … It’s a whole mood, it’s a lifestyle.” 

Another indoor haunt, 13th Floor Haunted House in Melrose Park, is also open this season. The attraction requires visitors to wear face masks and socially distance themselves between actors and other groups, among other rules.

13th Floor Haunted House didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Phoenix.

The Cost of Closing

Other haunts, such as Nightmare on Leamington — a fundraiser for Our Lady of the Snows Elementary School — can’t afford the safety measures required, according to Family Students Association (FSA) President Berling Gonzalez.

Gonzalez projected this year would have brought in about $10,000 while staying at $5 per ticket. All of the proceeds go to the private school located in the Archer Limits neighborhood near Chicago Midway International Airport, according to owner/operator Paul Ross.

“There’s a huge economic impact I don’t think people really understand,” Ross, 36, said. “It not only hurts the operators and owners of these haunts… [but] it brings a lot of revenue into towns that may not otherwise get this kind of tourists.”

Nightmare on Leamington made the decision to close early in the summer, according to Ross.

Gonzalez, who has been FSA president for three years, said canceling Nightmare on Leamington is “a big blow” toward the school’s funds.

Another haunted house that closed its doors is Lockport’s Hayride of Horror. After months of preparing for an “outdoor walk-through,” the business decided in August to close due to safety concerns, according to creative director Andrea Vaughn.

Vaughn, 35, said she wished the ban was decided months ago since Hayride of Horror was busy this summer making plans to safely open.

Joe Jensen, who’s been in the haunted house industry since 1978, said since haunted houses are seasonal attractions, some might permanently close after this year.

“Can you imagine paying rent for an entire year with the hope of making all that money back in one month? Suddenly that one month is taken away — that puts a lot of people in a lot of bad situations,” the 67-year-old said.

Safely Scaring

Midnight Terror actor Jacob Buber said he isn’t sure everyone will comply with the COVID-19 protocols.

“[Some visitors] are going to complain, not care about the rules and pretend it’s normal,” Buber said. “It’s not going to be normal. It’s a new thing we’re all adjusting to and we all have to deal with it.”

Despite this, the 21-year-old said he feels confident in his abilities to manage issues with customers. He said he was initially surprised by the decision to stay open but feels comfortable with the new protocols. 

Scaring someone while social distancing can be a challenge, though. To scare visitors, many actors utilize close jump scares, which aren’t an option this year.

“As an actor, I can admit I have relied heavily on invading personal space to get the scare,” Flores said. “If I start from 10 or eight feet [away] … I can still be weird and jarring and make people uncomfortable.”

Flores acted at various haunts for three years and then acted at Midnight Terror for one year before being promoted in 2018.

Others in the industry weren’t sure social distance scaring would be possible. 

“Not only do you lose a part of the show, a part of what makes a haunted house fun and scary is people getting in your face,” said Ava Johnson, the 37-year-old stage manager at Hayride of Horror.

Whether or not scaring from six feet away can work, many said the real scare this year was not only losing business but also their passion.

“It’s a horrible feeling knowing that what you’ve done your whole life, you won’t be able to do this year and make money and put food on the table,” LaFlamboy said. “It’s devastating. It’s not just our jobs it’s also our art form, it’s our hobby, it’s our love.”

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