If comedy is said to be serious business you can bet that scaring the socks off of people is, too – especially when it comes to also ensuring their safety.
Haunted attractions only operate for a handful of weeks each year, but the potential for injury — dark, often cramped spaces filled with bizarre artifacts, weird noises, make-believe monsters, often makeshift structures and frenzied, adrenaline-filled patrons — can be great if the proper steps aren’t taken and safeguards put in place.
“We’re still getting our feet in the door,” said Andy Probst, owner of the five-year-old Deadnberry Mortuary Haunted House in Rutland, Vt. Making inroads has been necessary because another haunted attraction up the street – a fire department-run operation called Pittsford Haunted House – has been a local favorite for at least three decades.
Probst also serves as the general manager of Garden Time, the retail garden center and growing operation whose owners permit him to run the 3,000-square-foot, outdoor haunted house on their property. “We put up big wall panels, about 130 of them. We also have a big corn field here, so we do a corn walk, too.”
Deadnberry is open for business from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. exclusively during the last three or four weekends — Fridays and Saturdays — of October. “We also do a kids’ night,” said Probst, “when we light it up a little bit more.” In all, the attraction draws anywhere from 500 to 1,000 patrons in the course of a season.
Probst suggested that ensuring customers’ safety, like the haunted attraction itself, can often prove to be as much art as science. “Just really listen to your gut instincts and design it with safety in mind. You never want anything bad to happen, or for it to fall back on you.” The top safety concern at Deadnberry Haunted House, he added, is being able to get visitors out of the attraction as quickly as possible in case of emergency. To make that task easier, he and his colleagues always make sure to design in an exit every 15 to 20 feet – eight in all. What sort of emergency does he envision that could require a quick getaway?
“It could be a fire, it could be anything,” he noted. “It’s just in case we need to get somebody out of there quickly. But the thing with our attraction is that the layout changes every single year, so it really depends. We generally map it out and walk it through. We light the exits up so they’re even more accessible.”
The task of leading guests out in the eventuality of an emergency is aided by the fact that the experience is actually a guided tour, with a guide stationed both in front of and behind each group that goes through. “We count the number of people before we bring them through,” Probst said. “That’s how we ensure that no one gets lost along the way. We make sure we have the same amount at the end that we had at the beginning. It’s pretty controlled.” The format has been honed each year. “There has been a lot of trial and error. We figured it out.”
There are no candles or open flames in the attraction, Probst said. Nor are guests permitted to smoke or so much as take out matches or a cigarette lighter. “We also keep all flammable fabric away from the patrons, or out of there totally. We don’t allow smoking at all during the event for anyone who comes, including the people who are a part of it. If they do, they’re off the property.”
Why do Chris and Ally McGowan own and operate The Asylum Haunted Attraction in Chetopa, Kan?
“You know, everybody’s got their hobbies, whether it’s working on cars or just doing something to get help with stress, for venting,” he noted. “My hobby is to go in and build a playground where I can have people experience fear, where I can scare them. It’s been real enjoyable running the Asylum for as long as we have.”
The Asylum, which like Deadnberry is also five years old, is actually a three-wing one-time nursing home. It operates during the Halloween season and afterward, in order to generate some ongoing revenue, reopens and operates year-round as an AirSoft course. (AirSoft is a recreational activity in which participants eliminate opponents by hitting each other with spherical non-metallic pellets launched via replica firearms.) Said McGowan, “We’ve had a lot of success with it.” The Asylum is operated by a team of 50 to 60 volunteers.
“We don’t have very many” customers, McGowan reflected. “As a matter of fact, we have – and this is a real long shot – maybe a 1,000 or 2,000 each season since we’re so rural.”
Patron safety is a priority for the couple, who acknowledge that danger is part of nearly any enterprise. “There is always going to be danger, whether you’re walking across somebody’s yard, going to a concert or going to a haunted house. I think it’s fair to say that anything can happen at any time. But you know, we take special steps to ensure safety, even to the physical structure of the building.”
For example, fire exits are clearly marked and equipped at all times with working fire extinguishers. “We have all of the proper fire equipment and gear that we need, and we make sure that our staff is trained with it.”
Another safety concern is that “people do tend to drink alcohol,” said McGowan. In the face of that reality, he and his wife take special steps to add security personnel to the Asylum “to ensure that those people can be dealt with safely and professionally; that we can de-escalate situations and get them through the haunts without any accident or injury.”
Asylum staff members undergo training specifically tailored to the part of the exhibit in which they’ll be stationed. Indeed, McGowan added, “They are only allowed to work that area because that’s what they know. We have a training orientation DVD that everybody sits through that teaches them, among other things, the various safety aspects and procedures.”
The McGowans have not had any problems with patrons’ footing, largely because they have taken steps to make sure slips and falls don’t happen. “We encourage people, ‘Don’t run because you don’t know where you’re going. Go slow.’ ” Experience has taught the couple that the primary reason that guests might want to run is that they have been scared too badly. “If people are getting too scared the characters have to realize to stop the scare. And that’s what we try and focus and train on. As far as injuries from slips and falls this past year, we had zero.” –