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Real-life horrors haunt Halloween industry amid pandemic

Haunted houses have a new fear factor this season that is spooking operators just as much as patrons.

As it does, the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened the Halloween spirit in Michigan, home to some 100 haunts and often dubbed the Halloween capital of the Midwest. At least a dozen major attractions have decided to stay closed because of the pandemic, forgoing this year’s harvest of scares and taking the risk of turning into zombie companies — in the financially doomed sense.

Experts fear the purge of smaller attractions will be permanent. Haunted houses are often money pits even in the best of times, and during a pandemic they are even more of a liability. For the terror hobbyists or weekend warriors with a little extra farmland, it isn’t worth the risk to make a quick buck a few weekends in October.

For the owners of larger attractions, whose haunts are their livelihoods, it is life and death.

“When you only have seven or six weeks to make a year’s worth of revenue, you gotta kind of just take that risk at this point,” said Cody Bailey, board member of the Grandville-based Haunted Attraction Association. “We’ve run the numbers. Even with our reduced capacities, we’ll make enough to survive until next year.”

Bailey founded Hush Entertainment Group Inc. in 2013. His trio of haunted houses in Westland is scheduled to open Oct. 2 after more than $10,000 invested in touchless temperature screening machines, hand sanitizer stations and electrostatic sprayers that will be used in the haunts with the same frequency as fake chainsaws.

All patrons and actors must wear face masks, in addition to any costume masks. Capacity will be reduced to less than 25 percent for the attraction, which typically welcomes several thousand thrill-seekers on a given fall Saturday. Not this year — timed ticketing will control crowds. Bailey expects half of the usual 20,000 people to come through.

Haunted houses are legally clear to open this season if they follow rules set forth by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“In regards to fall traditions, the public health rules in place still apply, including capacity limits for organized events, the requirement to remain at least six feet from people outside the individual’s household to the extent feasible under the circumstances, and the mask requirement where a person cannot maintain six feet of social distance outside,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a text message.

Bailey’s business is on the medium to large end of haunted attractions that make up the industry in Michigan, which brings in tens of millions of dollars each season. Nationally, more than $400 million is spent on tickets to 1,200 attractions, according to the Haunted Attraction Association. Half are expected to stay closed this year, and more than a quarter are expected to never reopen.

“I do fear for some of the smaller locations,” Bailey said. “They’re not going to be able to weather this.”

Most haunted houses in Michigan fit into that category, employing a couple dozen seasonal workers and drawing 10,000 customers per year, for maybe $250,000 in sales. The largest ones, though, typically count on more than $1 million in revenue and have at least a handful of year-round employees and up to 100 seasonal workers.

But even some of the higher profile haunts are taking the year off. Terror On Twenty-Seven, a popular attraction for college students that sits half way between Mount Pleasant and East Lansing, announced Sunday it is staying closed.

“We feel this is the most responsible choice to ensure the continued health and safety of our staff, our customers and our communities,” the business posted on its Facebook page.

The Scream Machine in Taylor will also stay quiet, owners announced.

“We do not feel that we would be able to pull together the high quality show that you all enjoy in time for the 2020 season,” it said in a Facebook post. “We’re going to take this time to redesign our show to conform to the new norms while still giving you the high energy experience that the Scream Machine is known for.”

Ed Terebus, who owns one of the largest and well-known haunts in Michigan with his brother Jim Terebus, is confident he can still sell a spine-tingling experience that complies with the governor’s executive orders while making customers feel safe.

Erebus Haunted Attraction, the four-story haunted house with a half-mile walk-through in downtown Pontiac, will open Friday. It was a decision made in the final hour, but one that felt right for tradition’s sake.

“People are still looking to enjoy Halloween,” Ed Terebus said. “Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday next to Christmas. It’s a selfish holiday. You don’t have to go visit nobody. You don’t have to buy anybody presents. You get to dress up and be whoever you want and nobody’s gonna criticize you.”

Like Bailey, Terebus owns the real estate and relies on the haunted house to make a living. He’s been in the business for 40 years and has no interest exiting, but his house of horrors will look different this year.

There will be no “buried alive,” and animatronics will be dialed back slightly to reduce touch points. Also, no food or drinks will be sold.

Masks must be worn by all, hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed at the end of railings and social distancing will be monitored with the help of 40 cameras throughout the building.

Tens of thousands of people typically visit the attraction each year. Terebus said he’s bracing for as much as a 75 percent reduction, which will have ripple effects for downtown Pontiac.

“Everybody’s impacted by what we do over here, all the bars and restaurants,” he said.

New this year, Terebus is planning to open on Oct. 1 the Mythos Museum in an old daycare center building he bought next to Erebus. The “oddities and curiosities” museum will be filled with five decades’ worth of his and his partners’ collections — a saber tooth tiger skull, funeral parlor and embalming equipment and Halloween masks dating back to the 1950s.

Combined with the escape room it launched in 2017, which opened its doors recently after being forced to shut down due to the coronavirus, Terebus hopes to stay in the black and maintain his institution of horrors.

“We want to do it right and do it safely,” he said.


Posted By: Crain’s Detroit Business on September 25, 2020.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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