This unprecedented situation provides an opportunity for haunts and haunters to become more creative and support one another.
This blog is based on Episode 41 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast, which was recorded on March 16th, 2020—right after all the social distancing and other restrictions started being implemented across the country. That podcast was mostly about my views on how the pandemic would affect the haunted attractions industry and what I think might be helpful going forward. I’m hoping we’ll all look back and remember this time as something that came and went. That’s what I’m hoping with my fingers crossed.
Listen to the Podcast
So, I didn’t want to just add more information about coronavirus, since it’s not like there isn’t plenty out there. I asked the folks on the A Scott in the Dark Facebook group if they’d like me to do a podcast on what this strange pandemic is doing to us haunters, and the response was a resounding yes.
First and foremost, I have to start by saying I’m not a business expert. I’ve never been the owner of a haunted attraction. I have, however, worked for a bunch of different haunted attractions and have been able to, hopefully, help them in many different ways. I’m also not an expert on human behavior in a pandemic and certainly not an expert on COVID-19.
I do have opinions, and I have some experience in the industry, so I hope you consider what I say in this blog to find out what’s best for you. As a consultant, my job isn’t to make decisions. My job is to make suggestions, which is what I’m doing here. I hope I give you ideas you might not have thought of or a perspective that you might not have. Maybe it’s something that I worked with before or discovered along the strange and deluded path that brought me to where I am today.
Flattening the Curve
So, first off, I’m really surprised at how this particular situation has evolved. I’m not 100% sure what’s the most dangerous—the actual disease itself or the fear that’s been stirred up surrounding the disease. As haunters, we all know that we make up fear all the time, and there’s a part of me that’s still asking the question, “Has this been elevated beyond its realistic boundaries?” I still don’t know the answer to that. In my lifetime, I’ve never experienced anything quite at this level.
Of course, living in Florida, we have hurricanes, where we have to batten down the hatches, and that’s usually when all the toilet paper disappears from the stores. We have to be ready for the power going out and things like that. This is different. This is about finding ways to get stuff done without making human contact. Now, I do understand that the idea of social distancing isn’t to cure the disease. I get that. I understand that the goal is to flatten the curve—to help reduce the spike of a bunch people who all get this disease at once, which is what happened in some of the European countries. If we have these giant spikes of everybody getting sick at once, there aren’t enough doctors, hospitals, medicine, test kits, whatever, to deal with this huge influx of people all getting the disease at the same time.
The way I understand it, by flattening the curve, a similar number of people will probably still get sick, but it will happen over a longer period of time. That way, they can be better cared for and have a much greater chance of survival. There are people out there who’ve said that most people who contract this disease will recover from it. That’s true. Most people who get COVID-19, based on the information available as of March 16th, recover from it. The group that’s most at risk for serious disease are senior citizens, so I’m doing the social distancing not so much to protect me but to protect my mom, who falls into that category. I think this is something we should all keep in mind as we move forward.
The rules we’re being asked to follow in this pandemic are things we learned from our parents or teachers: Always wash your hands before you eat, don’t get too close to people who are sick, and cover your mouth when you cough. This is the same stuff our parents learned from our grandparents and they learned from our great grandparents. It’s basic hygiene that will get us through this from a disease standpoint. And we’re going to get through this. We are.
So, moving on, we’re seeing many events either being canceled, postponed, or put on hold. Schools are closed, and universities are closed. Basically, what this means is a lot of us are sitting in limbo waiting to see how this unfolds. There are some things we can do while we’re in this two- to eight-week hiatus. I know folks who are living paycheck to paycheck. If you work as a server in a restaurant, and your restaurant is only doing takeout, it’s going to be some rough times. I get that. But, from a haunter’s standpoint, we need to use this time to plan, which is mostly what I’ll be talking about.
Now Is the Time to Reach Out—Virtually
We need to figure out what we can do come Fall if this situation continues or even if it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, how are we going to be prepared for the haunt season? In so many cases, perception is reality. I’ll talk about that in greater detail in a moment, but we need to make plans. We need to figure out what our options are. Let’s get all of that figured out now, because we have the time to do it. You can Skype with your business partners. You can pick up the phone—after you wipe it down first with rubbing alcohol—call somebody, and talk through your plans. Reaching out to others is essential. We need to make sure that, since we aren’t able to be connected on a physical level, we need to continue to reach out in any way that we can.
Since all the trade shows have been postponed or canceled, by continuing to make those connections, we can compensate a little bit for the interaction that we’d normally be having at these shows. So, reconnect with some of those people that you met at a previous show, and see what they’re doing, see what their ideas are. We can all draw inspiration by reaching out to people.
I recently looked at suggested friends on my Facebook page, and I’ve started friending people. We all need to know that we’re here for each other, and we can create some sort of emotional healing. There are people who are thinking this situation is catastrophic, so it’s important for us to reach out, remain in contact with each other, and find ways to support each other.
Now is the Time to Educate Ourselves
Now is also a great time to educate ourselves. Now’s the time to read all those books that you haven’t gotten around to reading—including my books, which you can purchase at ScottSwenson.com/books. I know it’s disgusting that I did a plug in the middle of a COVID-19 episode. However, if I see a spike in books sales, I’ll be really happy, because I’m having to find ways to reinforce my finances as well. So, if you’ve been thinking about buying one of my books, do it now. It’ll be a win-win. I guess my pitch isn’t as horrible as it sounds. You’ll have more information, more ways to get through this “forced vacation,” forced hiatus, and it will put a couple of extra bucks in my pocket, too.
Catch up on your education, do some research, watch those horror films that have been sitting in your Netflix queue forever, and take the time to study. If you’re in a situation where you’re working remotely or not working at all, read more, study more, and improve yourself within the industry so you can come back even stronger. I’ve got a couple of ideas and a couple of plans in the works with a couple of my haunt cohorts. I just did an online seminar with Haunter’s Toolbox, and I’m going to continue to look for those kinds of opportunities, because I’m both reaching out and helping people continue to learn.
Now is the Time to Create
If you’re like me, you may have often found yourself saying, “I never have the time to do that painting,” or, “I never have time to work on that prop.” Well, now you have time, so take it and use it to its fullest. Create, create, create. If you’ve been wanting to write a book, do it now. Don’t just sit on the couch, binge-watching something mindless reruns, and worry. Use this time to actively create, build new stuff, come up with new venue flows or ground plans or scare-actor ideas for your haunt. It may be a great time to get your cast into a chat-room situation, a group Skype, an online meeting or whatever, and brainstorm new ideas. We usually never take the time to do this, but now we have the time, so we should take advantage of it.
This may also be the time to diversify. Even though we love haunting, we may be concerned about what the haunt industry is going to do this year, whether we’ll be able to make the same money as last year. Maybe you can take this time to design a line of tee-shirts or find a way to offer online classes to people in your area of expertise. Maybe it’s not all about haunting. The Haunter’s Toolbox seminar I did was about additional ways to generate revenue. I talked about finding options to make money outside of your haunted attraction, and this is a great time to start looking into that. I know I am. I do a lot of painting just out of the love of painting. A lot of it is dark and creepy, and I’m looking at doing an Etsy channel or an Etsy store. Don’t think of yourself as “just a haunter.” Find other ways to use those skills that won’t only give you something to do but also perhaps generate additional revenue streams.
Now is the Time to Prepare
The more preparation we can do now, the better off we’re going to be when everything opens up again. When this does end, everybody is going to be so flipping stir crazy that they’re going to want to get out and do stuff. Some haunts might want to consider even opening a little bit earlier. Or, the haunts that sit dormant but remain standing all year round may want to do an event in late summer, because I think people are going to be ready to get out and be in social situations when it’s safe to do so. Be prepped for that, because people are going to be ready for us, and we’re here to entertain.
What Will this Haunt Season Look Like?
What will we be doing this haunt season, and how can we be better prepared? What’s going on now may be a wake-up call for us in the haunt industry. There are many haunts out there that have done things that aren’t dangerous exactly, but now that we’re looking at it with a whole new lens, we see there are a lot of opportunities for the spread of disease in haunted attractions. We, as an industry, are going to need to step up and make additional efforts to keep everything as safe as possible in our haunted attraction—whether it be in an old building, a theme park, or a field somewhere. We also need to make sure it’s perceived to be as safe as possible by putting out hand sanitizer. That’s important, and people will use it.
We also need to make certain that our back areas stay as clean as possible. Clean those makeup brushes with alcohol, and make sure they’re completely clean before you use them on the next person. Wipe down those counters with a disinfectant wipe. We need to make these regimens part of what we do.
One of my favorite haunted gimmicks is an inflatable wall or fabric you push through with your hands. The reality is that we may not be able to do this in the future. We need to view everything now through the lens of making it as clean and safe as possible.
Which brings us to the way we handle costumes. Now that we’re looking at the world with a different set of eyes, we might want to consider building our costumes so they can be more easily and properly maintained. Some haunt costumes can’t be washed. Make certain that you encourage your performers to wear the proper garments underneath costumes that can’t be washed or cleaned. In the theme park industry, if a costume can’t be washed, it must be sprayed with some type of disinfectant between wearings. We need to start thinking about how to keep our costumes safe if they’re going to be worn by multiple people. How can we clean it if it can’t be washed? By the way, the best disinfectant in the world for the inside of most masks is cheap vodka. It’s a highly refined alcohol that kills germs and doesn’t damage the mask itself. Making our haunts cleaner and safer will add a few extra bucks to our budget, but it will be more than worth it.
Is It Too Soon for a Virus Theme in Your Haunt?
At the moment, I think it will always be too soon to do a coronavirus theme in a haunt. This has hit people too hard, and a coronavirus theme in a haunt runs the risk of offending people rather than frightening them. In the entertainment industry, it’s easy to offend or shock someone, but it’s hard to frighten them. People pay us to entertain them. Now, the way they choose to be entertained is to have the crap scared out of them, but we don’t want to make them feel bad or insult them. We’re out to scare them.
Having said that, the coolest thing about being in the horror/sci-fi industry is we can do parallel themes. We can create fictional or fantasy ideas that talk about important issues without being controversial or disrespectful. Here’s a perfect example: A zombie theme is basically about a rampant infection. A zombie theme is as close as I feel comfortable getting, right now, to doing anything coronavirus-based. There have been many haunts based on events like the plague. However, there are very few people who are aware of family members that were lost in the plague or that their ancestors’ business was significantly damaged because of the plague. That’s far enough back in history that it’s okay to use as a theme, but we can certainly do parallel themes to talk about more recent events.
If I were thinking about a haunt for this year, I’d do one that was about isolation, because isolation is something people are going to have a very strong understanding of after the next however many weeks or months. We’ll all have the experience of being alone—or at least more isolated—and we could use that as a theme in a haunt. But a coronavirus theme this year? No. Not a good idea.
For the same reasons, I’d say that extreme haunts, full-contact haunts, haunts where guests have to eat things or are confined aren’t good ideas this year. We have to be respectful of our guests, and make sure that what we’re doing, first and foremost, isn’t endangering them or endangering our actors, and we don’t want to do anything that will knowingly spread any sort of remnants of the virus that may be around by the time we hit Halloween season.
Redefine How to Scare
At the same time, we have an opportunity to redefine new ways to scare. We, as an industry, have used the same kinds of things over and over and over again—the inflatable walls, the slingshot bungee, the chainsaw. We have to be smart about finding new ways to scare people. Maybe we find new ways to incorporate video, which means an actor doesn’t get up into the faces of guests. Perhaps it’s live-streaming video, so the actor is still interacting with guests, but there’s a technological safety wall. That actor could be anywhere, but with a camera on the pathway and a video monitor, they can be right there with the guests.
This could be very useful in queues. Our queue actors are the ones that are probably the most in contact with guests. Maybe you want to do an animation or a puppet or a video monitor that can interact with guests while better protecting your actors. There’s a new type of technology, a 360-degree camera rig, which allows guests to view the video in complete surround. In essence, this is a haunted attraction that’s experienced on Oculus or on a phone. If you have a haunted attraction, and you’re afraid people aren’t going to show up this season, you might want to hire one of the companies that offers this technology. They could take this rig through your haunt when it’s in full operation, and you could charge guests a nominal fee—less than your admission price—to experience your haunt virtually. It wouldn’t replace what you’d make from ticket sales, but it might give you the opportunity to make up for potentially reduced ticket sales this coming year. We have no idea if we’ll need this when haunt season rolls around, but doing a virtual version or a streaming version of your haunt might be another way to generate revenue.
Do More Ghost Stories
Another opportunity is to start doing more ghost stories. We all have phenomenal stories, and we have great storytellers as part of our cast. You could do a video-blog series, a live-streaming series, or a podcast event based on ghost stories told by your best storytellers, and put your haunt name on it. This is another way to keep your brand out there and keep your guests connected to things that are scary.
In closing, I want to remind you that, even though we’re in a weird and unprecedented situation, it’s temporary. We’re going to get through this, so let’s utilize this time to come up with ways to improve our industry. It’s almost like hitting the reset button. We have an opportunity to pause, to rethink, and maybe do some things we should have been doing all along. The pandemic has certainly given us a new perspective, which is probably the most important thing we’ll take away from this. We have a new lens to focus on our industry, our individual business product, and our individual business model. You can adapt your business model using your haunt’s brand and credibility to find new and different ways to scare people that don’t require them to come to your barn or your farm and walk through your actors and your animations.
More than anything, my advice is to stay calm, stay safe, and wash your hands as much as possible. If you know somebody in the industry who’s by themselves, reach out to them, send them an email, or call them. Like any other negative situation, we need to come through this as a group, as a team. When the tide comes in, all ships rise, and when the seas get rocky, we have to batten down our hatches together. So, until next time, rest in a socially distant environment.