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Ghost Town

Each October, the niche-but-devoted haunted house community opens thousands of spooky interactive experiences across the country. But this year, with packed indoor gatherings off the table, the industry is changing its plans on the fly. 

Ringer illustration

Each year around this time, the clowns arrive, their faces streaked with blood and cleavers at the ready as their ship rocks gently in the Ohio River. They are joined by the captain, a ghoulish grimace frozen on his face, and the captain’s daughter, all pigtails and creepy giggles. On a typical night around Halloween, anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 people line up along the dock behind Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium—all eager for the chance to wander through what is, the USS Nightmare proudly proclaims, “Cincinnati’s only haunted ship.”

The USS Nightmare is a retooled 1934 steamboat called the William S. Mitchell, which once dredged the busy waters of the Mississippi. As the story goes, the ship inadvertently disturbed an ancient burial ground and a curse ensued, claiming the lives of some 100-plus wayward souls after the ship mysteriously crashed. As for the clowns: The captain was said to have a particular fondness for them, and so each Halloween, the USS Nightmare invites the motley crew back—or at least actors dressed as them—and becomes one of the Cincinnati area’s foremost haunted houses.

(In real life, the William S. Mitchell was breathlessly referred to in the Washington Missourian in 1957 as a “romantic riverboat” with a gleaming deck that served its crew banana cream pie. In 1993, it did in fact tear loose from its mooring and crash into several Kansas City bridges—but no one died, and the cause of the crash was probably less related to a burial ground than to the Great Flood of 1993. As of press time, I have been unable to determine if there were ever any clowns aboard.)

In August, it fell to Terri Bernstein, whose family owns the USS Nightmare and its parent company, BB Riverboats, to break the news to the ghost ship’s many fans: Due to COVID-19, there would be no Halloween festivities aboard the William S. Mitchell this year.

With reopening guidelines in Kentucky, as in so many other places, constantly evolving, Bernstein says she couldn’t justify the expense of opening for the season—especially given that to do so would require transporting the boat from its offseason dock in nearby Dayton, Kentucky, two miles to its traditional Halloween spot at BB’s hub in Newport. “We have to hire cranes,” Bernstein says. “It’s about $30,000 to move it into place and take it back. If you get it into place and then you can’t open, that’s sunk.” So to speak.

That’s not to mention the major health concerns associated with a cramped indoor space where screaming and grappling with props to find the way out has usually been the desired goal. “It’s hard to sanitize with all those people touching the walls,” she says.

This year, trips to indoor haunted houses have been classified by the CDC as a “higher risk” activity. As a result, many establishments have in turn hung up the chains and prosthetic fangs for the year. The storied Haunting on the Harbor in Punta Gorda, Florida: canceled. Louisville, Kentucky’s Reapers Realm, with its planned haunted mansion and “Three Floors of Terror”: canceled. Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, which has frightened visitors to Massachusetts’s South Shore every October for 28 years: canceled. Horseman’s Hollow, the spooky centerpiece of Sleepy Hollow’s annual Headless Horseman festivities: canceled. In York, Maine, even trick-or-treating has been called off. “Please understand that this was not an easy decision,” the town’s police department wrote online. “It was made solely on the basis of the safety of our citizens and visitors alike.” Even Busch Gardens canceled its usual Howl-O-Scream haunted house, opting instead for smaller, exclusively outdoor events.

Halloween is a holiday that is usually defined by social events: trick-or-treating with family, parties with friends, and, yes, a cavalcade of fog machines and rubber masks at haunted houses that appear anew each October in parking lots and empty warehouses. But in this pandemic year, much of that is now off the table, at least in its usual carefree form. For fright fans, that means a different sort of season. And for those who depend on Halloween for their livelihoods—Bernstein says she had to lay off the USS Nightmare’s general manager, the ship’s only year-round employee, and didn’t hire the usual seasonal staff of carpenters, makeup artists, and the 75 actors usually on deck—that’s a serious problem.

The haunt industry, as those in the business of haunted houses, spooky corn mazes, and the ghouls and goblins therein call it, is a curious thing. It is bigger than you’d think—but “it’s still very much a cottage industry,” says Brett Hays.

Hays is the president of the Haunted Attraction Association (HAA), a nearly 30-year-old federation of approximately 400 haunts. Halloween attractions are big business—in 2013, NBC News estimated that the venues pulled in some $300 million each year. But while a substantial portion of the industry is run by large theme park players like Six Flags, where the annual Fright Fest has been retooled this year as a less-intense “Hallowfest,” Hays says that the core of the haunt business is the approximately 2,000 to 2,500 independent haunted houses that dot the nation.

Hays estimates that this year, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of haunts are closed nationwide. “These are very much mom-and-pop businesses,” says Hays. The majority of haunt operators don’t do this full time, 365 days a year—many have day jobs, or use the seasonal event to bring much-needed support to their farms. (Hays, who runs the Fear Fair in Seymour, Indiana, is an attorney in what he calls his “normal daily life.”)

“We only have four to six weeks a year to realize all of our income,” Hays says. “There will be a good number who aren’t able to come back.”

It’s not just venue owners who will suffer from a year off. The haunt industry hosts a trade show each spring in St. Louis where designers, makeup artists, and prop specialists show off their latest creations to owners eager to find the next big scare. This year, the convention was scheduled for March, only to be called off mere weeks ahead of time as the pandemic struck the US.

“Vendors have told us that they’d shipped their product to the convention floor, had hotel rooms booked, and had all their money tied up in product—then the rug was pulled out from under them,” says Patrick Konopelski, a former HAA president and current board member who also owns Shocktoberfest, a haunt in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania. “It was a double whammy. We tried to do a virtual convention, but the unknowns were so concerning. A lot of us made the decision not to purchase things like large animatronics.”

In some municipalities, indoor haunts have been banned entirely this year; in others, the events are permitted, but at sharply reduced capacity. Some have planned drive-through versions, or installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems. The Fear Fair released a string of videos in which actors sanitize the haunted house and their own hands in, er, character:

This, it turns out, is a popular theme this year. Haunts eager to welcome Halloween crowds have published sheaths of guidelines for guest and staff conduct, from mandatory masks to timed entry to same-household groups only to a moratorium on touching the actors—meaning this year, no ax murderers or escaped convicts will grab those passing through their halls. And, of course, many haunts have boasted of deploying cleaning products aplenty, painted-on goo and grime be damned—as at Cincinnati’s Dent Schoolhouse:

At Shocktoberfest, Konopelski has converted the usual hayride attraction into a mile-long walk along the usual hayride path now dubbed the “Zombie Safari.”

“We normally put about 30 to 45 people on a hay wagon,” Konopelski says. “We could not figure out how to do that safely.”

To his surprise, the walkable safari has been a hit. Early in the year, as the reality that the pandemic would not be clearing up in time for the fall sank in, Konopelski discussed the season ahead with his team. “Our projection was if we can get 50 percent of [last year’s] attendance, we’ll consider that a win,” he says.

Instead, attendance this year is actually up—albeit much more spread out than normal. Shocktoberfest was one of many attractions to institute ticketing that sharply capped attendance on what are normally the most popular nights, like Halloween itself and the weekend before it. As a result, guests have been sprinkled across other evenings—weeknights, and even dates in September and November, which is normally unheard of. This year, the venue will keep its doors open for a full week after Halloween.

“We’re able to give them an experience—a little bit of normalcy,” he says.

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