TORONTO — Psychotic clowns. Axe murderers. Bedrooms possessed by poltergeists.
Many of the frights greeting visitors of horror attractions this Halloween will be familiar, but the thrill-creators behind them say one terrifying experience is squarely off-limits: the terrors of COVID-19.
Before the pandemic shook our lives, haunted houses sometimes dipped into the fears of contagion, splashing themed rooms with signs of a viral outbreak, hazmat suits and contamination warnings.
But with those experiences uncomfortably close to reality this year, horror masters like Shawn Lippert say reminding people of the virus is one line they’re not willing to cross.
“We use the analogy: Treat ‘COVID’ like the F-word in church,” said the owner of Scarehouse, an industrial-sized indoor haunted house in Windsor, Ont.
“It’s too real and so close to home. It’s almost like when you tell a joke and they say, ‘Too soon.’”
Lippert said that’s one of several rules he’s introduced at his haunt in order to keep people feeling safe and heath authorities satisfied. Ticketholders arrive at staggered times, and everyone is required to wear a mask.
Creepy objects that once brushed against visitors have been removed, and the giant airbags that evoke the feeling of claustrophobia have been stowed away to decrease the potential spread of germs.
Lippert describes those as small changes in a challenging year.
Many haunt operators were jittery about moving ahead with their usual Halloween festivities, considering health authorities could shut down the houses without much notice if the region experiences a surge in local cases. That would leave a brutal dent in their investments.
“If we can keep our doors open for the full run at this point, that would be a success for us,” Lippert said.
Several Toronto haunted houses decided the risk was too high. Casa Loma’s Legends of Horror and 28-year pillar Screemers at Exhibition Place were among the operators who decided to sit this year out, even before the city introduced tighter restrictions that would’ve closed them anyway.
Some organizers have used the pandemic to imagine ways to scare the living daylights out of people from a distance — often from the safety of their own vehicles.
The Pickering Museum Village put a historic spin on its spooky experience with a drive-thru tour that urged visitors to creep their cars along a roadway checkered with old houses, as ghost stories played on their FM radios.
Others have gone online with virtual group parties for kids or, for those of legal drinking age, what’s being sold as Canada’s first Virtual Halloween Cocktail Crawl.
Mentalist Jaymes White decided to embrace the digital world this year for his annual Halloween seances. His new Zoom experience, called Evoke, invites a small circle of friends to channel a spirit through video chat. He admits the idea goes against the traditions of a séance, where people usually hold hands around a table, but he’s confident the spirits will still be ready to unsettle his guests.
“They don’t care that we have a pandemic,” he said.
Paul Magnuson, one of the leaders at Calgary artist collective Big Art, will take over a downtown self-serve car wash for three days for a drive-in of the dead later this month.
Scare Wash is described as a trip to hell and back that begins when a wash attendee’s seemingly normal car rinse spirals into a nightmare.
Magnuson came up with the idea when it was clear plans for his usual neighbourhood spectacle wouldn’t be possible in the pandemic.
“Last year I turned my garage into a Dexter killer room where we did performances all night. In previous years I’ve had an interactive cemetery,” he said.
“I’m not going to let COVID take this holiday.”
Robby Lavoie felt a similar conviction for keeping Terror Train on track this year at the National Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre. The annual Halloween event draws thousands of people to Capreol, Ont., part of Greater Sudbury, and provides the museum with a healthy dose of revenue.
Lavoie said he drew inspiration from videos he saw of a Japanese zombie drive-in haunted house over the summer. He knew there was a way to tone down the gore and make the idea a bit more Canadian.
After speaking with museum organizers, Lavoie secured the board’s approval for “Inferno 6077,” an immersive drive-in horror experience inside the garage of the fire hall.
Pulling from his own knowledge of working in live theatre and movies, Lavoie began thinking on a grand scale. He hired a local writer who penned a story about townsfolk who seek revenge on an old man, and built rolling set pieces for the spectacle, which reaches its peak when the space is engulfed in flames, an illusion created with lights and projections.
“We’re putting you almost in an interactive movie, and it all came together within a month,” he said.
“I see myself doing this again next year, even if there isn’t COVID.”
Kathrine Petch understands the urge to keep Halloween on the calendar. As the general manager of Deadmonton Haunted House in Edmonton, she’s laid down strict COVID-19 precautions for their Area 51-themed haunt.
“The absolute, pure excitement of the customers is contagious to us,” she said.
“As long as we can pay the bills and have some money left over to make a different haunted house next year, I think we’ll be pretty happy.”
Petch said keeping Deadmonton open during the pandemic was important to everyone who runs the show.
“One of our biggest goals was to provide people with some kind of escape from all the crappiness that is 2020,” she said.
“And when they reach the end of our haunted house, at least they know the scares are done.”