It was a dark and stormy night in Passaic, New Jersey. Brighton Asylum isn’t easy to find, even in less ominous weather — you have to pull around the back of the 13,000-square-foot warehouse to find any signs of life. Still, on a recent Saturday, despite the rain, the parking lot was filled to capacity. At least a hundred thrill seekers waited in line, myself and my terrified fiancé included. Inside, a shadowy figure presented us with a heart — though not the construction-paper nor the doily kind. “Would you be my Valentine?” we were asked by actors. “Who’s naughtier?” As we ventured farther into the warehouse, the classic haunted house signifiers multiplied: I recall a butchered pig carcass, a padded room inhabited by a straitjacket-wearing maniac, and a surgery gone horribly wrong.
This was Dark Valentine, a special event held February 9 and 10 to transform Cupid’s favorite holiday into a far more sinister and gruesome occasion. Hollywood discovered some time ago that there’s no reason to restrict horror movie releases to October, and haunters are learning the very same lesson. “There’s an audience for blood and guts all year round,” says Larry Kirchner, owner of The Darkness, celebrating its 25th year of terrifying the good people of St. Louis. The Darkness offered up Yuletide scares last December and hosted a “Scream Break” in March, but My Bloody Valentine’s is the Missouri haunt’s first foray into seasonal romance. Similar events have sprung up around the country: Last weekend, 13th Floor Chicago and six more affiliated haunts around the country temporarily reinvented themselves as “Love Bites.” The Haunt in Atascadero invites you to check into “Heartache Hotel” every weekend in February. Connecticut’s Fright Haven promised that “Valentine’s Day Massacre” — held February 9 to 11 — would be a “date night to die for.” At Dark Hour in Plano, Texas, “Love Is Blind” revolves around the tale of a heartbroken witch who casts a malevolent darkness spell. (“Love Is Blind” runs through Valentine’s Day itself, if you’re in the area.)
Haunt events to mark St. Patrick’s Day and Friday the 13th, along with year-round escape rooms, are also increasingly common. At Brighton Asylum, a “Rottentail Slaughterhouse” Easter (which I visited once, and where I was hugged by a filthy, unsettling bunny) and a “Santa’s Slay” Christmas feature prominently on the calendar. With a larger-than-ever audience hungry for thrills and chills, why should haunted houses limit their reach, and their income potential, to Fridays and Saturdays in October? Most holidays are, at their core, about finding meaningful ways to spend time with loved ones; that you’ll share those special moments with a crazed clown or homicidal nurse is just an added bonus.
I love horror; my fiancé, Sam, emphatically does not. Nevertheless, he’d agreed against his better judgment to come along to Brighton Asylum. Besides, we had to do something for Valentine’s Day, didn’t we?
The haunters I spoke to told me that Valentine’s events attract a broad mix of couples and singles, much the same as their autumn counterparts, if only because the ghastly setting has a way of encouraging your companion to grab your arm a little tighter.
“On Valentine’s, not everyone is going to want a fancy dinner and a movie,” says Nick Alfieri of Scream Park Events in California. “Some people just want to go out and have some ruckus, some rough fun. Come with your significant other and find out just how much they actually love you.”
To Kirchner, the rising popularity of offseason haunt events for holidays like Valentine’s Day is a direct result of the growth and evolution of the industry overall. “I would say the vast majority of haunt owners don’t have a ‘real job.’ They’ve made this their real job,” he told me over the phone. Today, a successful haunt — like Terror Behind the Walls inside Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark — might retain several permanent employees, an unheard-of practice in the past. That makes sustaining a functional business all 12 months of the year, and using a space you may very well have unfettered access to anyway, all the more vital. “Once you find, for example, a good carpenter, or somebody who can fix animatronics and tech, you don’t want to hire those guys only as needed,” Kirchner says. They’ll land another gig; you’ll be left scrambling for a replacement.
“There was a handful of people here and a handful of people there that would open for Valentine’s or Christmas, but now everybody’s doing it,” Kirchner observes. (This February, each $29.95 ticket to The Darkness also includes entry to Terror Visions, a 3-D attraction, and to zombie laser tag.) Kirchner names the movie Carrie as the thematic inspiration for My Bloody Valentine’s. “When you think about the famous scene from Carrie, you think about the prom. What’s the difference between a prom and Valentine’s Day? There really isn’t one,” he says. “We’ve been marketing it as the bloodiest Valentine’s date ever. We’re going to have a lot of girls dressed in prom dresses, blood all over them, carrying hatchets.”
Love Bites at 13th Floor Chicago was the 30,000-square-foot facility’s fourth-ever Valentine’s haunt. The premise was that an ancient vampire lord has been awoken from a centuries-long sleep by his coterie of just-as-evil, just-as-undead brides. In an interactive twist, it’s up to the guests to destroy him. “At the end of the day, it’s supply and demand,” explains Bryan Kopp, general manager for both 13th Floor Chicago and House of Torment Chicago. “They want to come to the haunted house, so let’s give them the opportunity.” 13th Floor opens its doors several times throughout the offseason, most recently decking the halls for “Krampus: A Haunted Christmas.” “We spend countless hours to make every single themed event we do seem like you’re walking into an entirely new haunted house,” Kopp says. That means new costumes, characters, sound, décor, and lighting. “I’d say it’s mood lighting, but terrifying mood lighting.”
In California, Valentine Haunt San Francisco and Valentine Haunt Sacramento took over Fear Overload and Ultimate Terror Scream Park on February 9, 10, and 14 for a second consecutive year. Alfieri considers Valentine’s Day a “sneak preview” to entice fans to return for Halloween. “They come to this, they really dig it, and they [think], ‘Oh yeah, I can’t wait for this to be open all of October,’” he says.
Sam, my fiancé, could certainly wait. When the two of us reached Brighton Asylum’s entrance, we were equipped with a single LED tealight candle to illuminate our path through the haunt. We each accepted a glow necklace that would indicate to the actors inside that we consented to be touched. (The necklaces were optional. I would come to feel very bad about this decision.) “This is probably just so they can’t get sued if someone accidentally bumps into a visitor,” I reassured Sam. I was wrong: Brighton Asylum is a full-contact haunted house, a fact that became clear 30 seconds later, when a man with bright-white irises, clutching a plush rabbit, kissed his scratchy beard against my cheek. And again, when a demonic mechanic gave Sam a pair of wet willies and asked him to bear his “finger-lickin’” children. And over and over again, when disembodied arms reached through walls to grab his feet or stroke my hair. It is a fact that I will probably be reminded of throughout my life, possibly in conjunction with divorce proceedings.
It took us roughly 20 minutes to navigate the whole of Brighton Asylum. I was pleased with what I thought was a very brave performance on my part, leading the way and holding our candle aloft. Sam later reported that, unbeknownst to me, he kept trying and failing to free his hand from my painful, unrelenting death grip. But the rumors are true. A haunt makes for a surprisingly good date. “You bond through the shittiness of it all: We’ll get through it together,” Sam said afterward. In a context of controlled terror, the presence of your significant other is in alternating moments a source of comfort and a source of hilarity, depending on which of you weathered that last jump scare better. Personally, the experience reminded me that my partner is a very good sport, which is something I like about him.
Greeting cards, teddy bears, and red roses by the dozen are available to happy couples any night of the year. If nothing else, a haunt guarantees that the Instagram post of your Valentine’s outing will bear little to no resemblance to the generically lovey-dovey images populating your feed. “For the rest of the people that want to take their girlfriend or boyfriend to a movie and give them some fattening chocolate, good for them,” says Kirchner. “Or you can come to us and we’ll douse you with blood.”