Halloween season is destined to be different this year, which leaves local spook houses to mull their options.
“We hope to open Sept. 21,” says Dark Hour’s artistic director Allen Hopps. “[But] I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”
Like many venues, Dark Hour went truly dark in early March because of COVID-19. Now, safety precautions, regulations and the ongoing threat of the coronavirus make reopening in Halloween seem particularly edgy.
Dark Hour’s first cancellation was its St. Patrick’s Day show. Since closing, the haunted house attraction has hosted a backstage tour with a pared down staff for a limited number of people, all wearing masks. Hopps says those visits worked rather well. Now, as Halloween season creeps up, social distancing concerns loom.
”It’s a balancing act that I think every business is kind of working their way through right now,” Hopps says. “People just kind of seem to forget about it once they’re in public and in a big group.”
Such concerns have caused some haunted houses to cancel this year’s productions. For instance, SCREAMS has axed its 2020 season schedule for the first time in 25 years while Arlington’s annual Haunted Village has gone on hiatus after being open only one year.
Although drive-ins and drive-thrus have gained popularity during the pandemic, Hopps says that isn’t an option for Dark Hour because of space limitations. Other, real scare factors for the venue are that no laws are in place to stop people from suing if they’re exposed to the virus and, “the raking over the coals that’ll you’ll get on social media if someone comes to your attraction and there isn’t social distancing in the queue line,” Hopps says.
“They’re going to take pictures of the line,” he continues. “They’re going to do all kinds of things, you know, and that’s going to show up on social media.”
Still, Dark Hour is contemplating a shortened season or maybe even a series of backstage walk-throughs with lights and sound — but with no actors and a limited number of guests per night, among other changes.
“There are so many options to explore,” says Hopps. “We know things are not going to go like normal.”
The haunted attraction, located in Plano, features a regular theme consisting of a coven of witches, and a different witch “kind of takes over” each year. Hopps notes that the arrangement allows for off-season shows like Wreck the Halls during the holiday season, when an ice witch reigns.
“This year was going to be the sea witch,” the scare master says of the Halloween season, explaining how face coverings might mesh well with an underwater theme brimming with pirates, sharks and assorted sea monsters.
“Our plan was to drown the guests at the very beginning of the show, via a special effect, of course,” he says. “Having a mask actually kind of fits in. We can actually offer a themed mask that looks almost like a scuba breather or something.”
In the meantime, Hopps says he’s keeping a close eye on the local coronavirus numbers.
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“The county is very good at reporting their numbers and they kind of keep us abreast,” he says. “Right now, as an amusement, we’re not able to open, even at 50 percent capacity, until our county has less than 1,000 cases ... active cases.”
If haunted houses do open, Hopps urges thrill seekers to visit during the first few weeks, when crowds are typically thin.
“Guests coming early is the best thing you can do to help and support haunted attractions this year,” he says, and expecting an unusual experience and keeping the right attitude are key.
“It may not be the Halloween you’re used to,” he says. “But there’s certainly things going on in the world that are bigger than all of us."