In the tenth installment of Halloween in the Time of Coronavirus, Creative Director Scott Simmons explains how the Pennsylvania haunted house overcame Covid-19 safety hurdles.
Covid-19 success stories are few and far between in Los Angeles and the surrounding counties. Most walk-through Halloween haunts have either cancelled or moved outside, abandoning their indoor mazes for drive-throughs or yard displays.
The major Halloween Theme Parks simply called off their events this year. Other professional attractions tried to surmount safety hurdles, only to have their ectoplasmic efforts abruptly terminated: The Reign of Terror Haunted House, Into the Black, and the Icons of Darkness exhibition were all "postponed" at the last minute, with no indication they will open in time for Halloween Night.
Highly regarded events such as Nights of the Jack and the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride shifted to drive-throughs, with variable results. A couple of new attractions popped up - Haunt 'O Ween and Bite LA - proving that an entertaining drive-through is possible, but neither is as terrifying as a good indoor maze.*
Searching for more Halloween 2020 success stories, Hollywood Gothique reached well outside its usual jurisdiction to interview Scott Simmons, the creative director of ScareHouse, a successful haunted house attraction that moved from Pittsburg to Tarentum, Pennsylvania this year. Appropriately enough, the new location is inside the Galleria Mall at Pittsburgh Mills, and as the haunt's website reminds us, "Pittsburgh Zombies love shopping malls."
Adjusting to the realities of Halloween in the Time of Coronavirus, ScareHouse opened in mid-September, with new safety protocols in effect: tickets are sold online only, not at the door; occupancy has been reduced to fifty percent; guests enter in private groups of no more than six; social distancing and mask-wearing are carefully enforced; the maze is slightly shorter, with tight spaces and touch points removed; and the "Basement" section of the haunt is on hiatus until 2021.
Hollywood Gothique exchanged questions and answers with Simmons on the subject of implementing safety measures while maintaining the seasonal scare factor of an indoor maze during a worldwide pandemic that gives customers real-world reasons to be afraid.
Hollywood Gothique: When did it become clear that SCAREHOUSE would have to do something different this year, that the Coronavirus pandemic would not be over by October?
Scott Simmons: Even as early as March we assumed that some level of social distancing and facial coverings would be required. We had hoped that the situation would be less severe, of course, but since our attraction layout is entirely new this year we were able to design a floorplan and scare techniques that allowed us to scare guests without invading their personal space. We committed to a show that could operate safely within the strict guidelines - but still allow for us to augment and add more layers of touchpoints and interaction if the situation had improved.
Hollywood Gothique: Did concerns about Covid-19 present any special difficulties for your event? Obviously all Halloween haunts have problems with crowds and social distancing, but was there anything particular to your situation?
Scott Simmons: We knew we would have to eliminate some of our "old tricks" from our toolbox for safety reasons. No pitch darkness, removing fabric or other materials that touch the customers' faces, no actors or barriers blocking forward momentum, and no tilted floors or closed doors. Slowing people down so that the attraction doesn't feel too short has been even more challenging than I anticipated - you don't realize just how much time those old tricks add to the experience - but I think we've been able to achieve great results and responses by using more animations, dynamic lighting, and fog to disorient and misdirect guests' attention.
Hollywood Gothique: How did you go about reimagining SCAREHOUSE to take these challenges into account? What strategies were considered?
Scott Simmons: ScareHouse is well known for cinematic immersion and story-telling, adult actors, and highly interactive engagements. We knew we could pull off the first two elements this year but right away we realized that we couldn't rely on our traditional methods of interaction. Dialogue and touch points were off the table. So we allowed ourselves just a few moments to mourn all the things we couldn't do, and then figured out what we could do with these precautions to make them feel part of the story. We give customers flashlights so that they can interact and explore the environment, triggering different effects each time they visit. Some of our characters are trapped in mirror dimensions, which is a clever way for us to keep the actors behind plexiglass. We didn't want this to just feel like a haunted house with fewer actors - we tried to incorporate the protocols into the actual designs.
Hollywood Gothique: What was the approval process like? All haunts go through something vaguely similar with the local fire marshal - were requirements for the pandemic more strict?
Scott Simmons: Pennsylvania has been very communicative and open about the requirements and distinctions between different kinds of businesses, gatherings, etc. Earlier this year our ScareHouse team was also installing a big project at Kennywood, a traditional amusement park here in Pittsburgh, and they definitely helped us stay in the loop with what the state and county authorities were requiring for operation of amusements and attractions, so we could be better prepared for our fall season. Our new location is within a large shopping mall, so they had their own requirements as well. Fortunately there has been consistency and clear communication among state, county, and city officials as to what they were expecting to see from us in order to open.
Hollywood Gothique: Were any ideas abandoned and for whatever reason – were some simply not practicable or too expensive?
Scott Simmons: One of my fellow haunters likes to say that "the customers will never know all the stuff they were supposed to see this year" - because there are always the blue sky ideas you have in spring that don't quite come to life in September when you open. But honestly - and I can't believe we pulled this off given the reduced timeline and other hardships caused by Covid this year - this is exactly the show we envisioned. More than a few folks thought what we were attempting to do this year was impossible. But we pulled it off.
Hollywood Gothique: What was the core element of SCAREHOUSE that you wanted to preserve regardless of the necessary adjustments?
Scott Simmons: The high production value. The audience doesn't care that you had less time and an entirely new build - they only know that the previous version of our attraction, which was developed over the course of nearly 13 years in the same space, was comparable to what's experienced in theme park haunts. So that's what they expect to see from us in 2020, even though we're in a former H & M in a shopping mall. It's a testament to our amazing creative team, and some very potent coffee, that we were able to pull it off this season.
Hollywood Gothique: Besides precautions to protect your audience, how is this year's presentation of SCAREHOUSE different in terms of theme/impact/approach?
Scott Simmons: Traditionally, ScareHouse does involve more vocal interactions and engagement between guests and customers, as well as very close encounters. We're able to create scenes in which guests have to choose which door to open or which path to take. There's a bit more of a choose your own adventure vibe. This year it probably feels a bit more like the haunts one would experience at a theme park with more pre-recorded audio cues and animations, but we're still able to have some silent interactions between guests and actors. The intense eye contact and physicality can still get under your skin, believe me.
Hollywood Gothique: Did being forced to make changes result in any adjustments that were not just practically necessary but also creatively satisfying? Did this result in any improvements you might carry over next year, when, presumably, the pandemic will be over?
Scott Simmons: The show is really rocking right now. It gets better and better every week as we learn more and adapt. If it's this effective now, I just can't wait to see how much ass it kicks next year when the pandemic is over, and we can start layering back in all of the additional interactions and techniques.
Hollywood Gothique: A look at the stats for Pennsylvania shows that, although mortality rate has dropped, the number of new cases has gone almost back up to where it was in April. Have you come under any additional scrutiny, or has the state issued any additional guide lines in response to the uptick?
Scott Simmons: Not yet, but we're certainly monitoring the situation closely. As a single-event attraction we are able to control the flow and occupancy of our attraction in ways that gatherings and festivals can not, but we don't take any of this for granted. We're fortunate to be permitted to open and able to celebrate Halloween right now - but we're also fully aware that the situation could change at any time.
Hollywood Gothique: We usually covers the greater Los Angeles area, but we're interested in SCAREHOUSE because it has succeeded where events in L.A. and the surrounding counties have failed; several were canceled at the last minute after trying to make themselves Covid-safe. Do you have any explanation for what you did right, or was it more a matter of different jurisdictions with different rules?
Scott Simmons: I really couldn't speak to what's happening in LA or differences in jurisdictions, I'm afraid. Over the last 8 months I've been in constant contact with our attraction owners all across the country, and all of us are facing different expectations and permitted actions. I'm a tremendous fan of the LA attractions, not just the Halloween events but all of the immersive and interactive productions that occur all year long, and my heart just breaks for everyone over there.
ScareHouse is located at 2012 Butler Logan Road, Tarentum, PA 15084. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (412) 781-5885. Their website is: scarehouse.com.
- In fact, the Southland's only major Halloween attraction to open a walk-through this season is The 17th Door, which went all-out not only in terms of sanitization but also air circulation. However, they have been too busy to grant our requests for an interview.
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