Haunted houses have devious designs to out-spook a murder virus

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Emma Turley stands outside of The Beast. The Beast, a haunted house attraction in Kansas City, MO was holding casting auditions for the coming season. // Photo by Travis Young

The spookiest time of the year is about to get a bit more spine-tingling for Kansas City, thanks to the growing presence of COVID-19.

In a city with nearly 35,000 total COVID cases reported since March, Halloween is going to be unrecognizable from any previous iteration. Instead of canceling most events, many haunted productions plan to plow ahead with social-distanced scares. Halloween is a massive industry for Kansas City, so businesses are moving to hyper-sanitized haunted houses and masked-up trick-or-treaters.

All scares aside, what could possibly be more frightening than a global pandemic? (A chainsaw. Real close to your face. Thought that answer would be obvious.)

Unfortunately, some local staples will not be opening at all this October. “Halloween Haunt” at Worlds of Fun has been canceled for 2020, and the park will not reopen until 2021. Full Moon productions chose not to open the “Macabre Cinema” or the “Chambers of Edgar Allen Poe” for the Halloween season. However, the majority of KC haunted attractions will be ready for spooks like any other year, just with extra precautions.

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The “Edge of Hell” crew in 2019. // Photo courtesy of Amber Amber Arnett-Bequeaith

Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, the “Queen of Haunts,” grew up in the haunted house industry. Her family created and founded the Edge of Hell in 1975 when she was five years old. Nearly 50 years later, she is now the vice president of Full Moon Productions, the company that runs “The Edge of Hell,” “The Beast,” “The Chambers of Edgar Allen Poe,” and “McCabre’s Cinema.” Arnett-Bequeath put out a press release on September 8 regarding how they will be reopening Kansas City’s famous West Bottoms haunted houses this season.

“We assessed whether we should open or not. We know more than ever, people need an outlet to break out of the doldrums, and that brings joy. It’s funny how staged-scaring does that,” Arnett-Bequeaith says. “We’ve taken so many precautions, such as requiring customers to wear masks, taking temperatures, hand sanitation, and meeting with city and health officials.”

 

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As a national spokesperson for the haunt industry across the country, Arnett-Bequeaith is confident that care has been put into handling how best to open this season. She acknowledged that the decision to attend haunted attractions this year is one that individuals must decide for themselves. “It is the public’s responsibility to self-distance themselves. The rules are put out there by our government officials, and [we’re] all meeting those, but everyone needs to be responsible for themselves. You sign a waiver saying that you will do so before you enter.”

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Haunted House performers getting their temperature checked prior to walking into The Beast. // Photo by Travis Young

“[It] comes down to listening to rules, keeping ourselves safe and kind but in the haunted attractions,” Arnett-Bequeaith continues. “So some people cry, scream, cough, crawl, pee their pants, or run. So, you know, it’s the same thing. You may have to stop and be a little bit patient and not run into someone else, or of course, we’re taking your temperature, there’s sanitizing stations, but these are all the things in our normal world now.”

She continued: “We’re a very safe, family-oriented environment about celebrating a holiday that’s all about becoming something that you’re not every day. And that’s what we hope to continue to share as we embark on the 30th year of ‘The Beast,’ which is unbelievable. We do continue to face our own fears and provide an amazing, safe environment. But at the same time, we’re all responsible for our own choices.”

Arnett-Bequeath sees another difficultly that comes with 2020’s changes: Navigating how to accomplish a sense of team camaraderie between the attractions’ actors.

“We normally have food time together where we feed our actors. They’re talking about the different aspects of the show, we’re going over safety, we have a pre-meeting, then they go into makeup, then they go into costume. And right now, the change will be, they will be responsible for makeup and costume. They’ll have a pre-meeting but social distance. And their eating time, we will still provide for them because for a lot of them, this is part-time work, and they come straight from work, especially on a Friday night to be here, so they will be served in a very formal way with social distance[d] tables and things like that.”

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Haunted house performers sitting across from one another before casting auditions at The Beast. // Photo by Travis Young

On September 9, Full Moon held open auditions for “The Beast” and “The Edge of Hell,” the two of four attractions chosen to open this season. It was the first time they ever had to face a decision of opening options in the 45+ years of continuous “Edge of Hell” runs; making it the oldest commercial haunted attraction in the United States.

Though Full Moon has downsized its team compared to their usual number of employees needed when all four attractions are open, many extra workers are essential to keep even one haunted house up and running. “Just to get in the door is gonna take about 12 people. It’s a huge staff just to make sure everything is taken care of,” says Arnett-Bequeaith.

The presence of the coronavirus didn’t stop veterans and newcomers from attending the audition to work here.

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Jennifer Kolb, during the casting audition at The Beast. // Photo by Travis Young

Emma Turley showed up to audition day at “The Beast” in full-body devil makeup she created herself. Currently enrolled in cosmetology school, she sees working at the haunted houses as a way to help her accomplish her dream of becoming a special effects artist. Though her family was supportive of her decision to audition, Turley is worried about the possibility of exposing her family to the virus if she were to work at a haunted house.

Jennifer Kolb, who has worked at the West Bottoms as a street character for seventeen years, is less concerned about what playing her part might threaten, as she works in the medical field during the day. This year, auditionees were faced with the challenge of incorporating a mask into their costume. Kolb accomplished this by hand-making a prosthetic out of liquid latex, paper towel, and toilet paper that she detailed with paint and fake blood, and then attached to her fabric mask with wiring from Christmas tree ornaments. Her efforts came together to create her character’s mouth as the “main jester” of the attraction.

Harry Lewetzow—known in costume as Rat Man—has played almost every character at The Edge of Hell over the 35 years he has been in the business. He met his wife there, and all his children have worked there as well. “Rat Brat, my second youngest daughter, has been in the show lately and loves the rats like I do.”

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Jennifer Kolb has worked at the West Bottoms as a street character for seventeen years. // Photo by Travis Young

Lewetzow feels it is important for both visitors and workers like himself that the attractions open this season. “We see people go through year after year who say the release from their haunt visit was just what they needed. Maybe it is the day’s stress or a bad month for them. We don’t ask, but as we say, their screams and laughter are our applause. When you see the joy of scaring, you get hooked to working the haunts.”

With the precautions set in place for actors and visitors alike, Lewetzow isn’t concerned about the virus. “It would be a bummer if I don’t pass the temperature check, because I won’t be able to work, but I get it.” The live rats he works with every year scare him more than COVID-19, he says. “It keeps me on my toes because I never know if they are going to bite me or not.”

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Ghost tours at the John Wornall House. // Photo courtesy of “Spectral Distancing” Ghost Tours

If you are looking for something more historical that can still give you the chills, turn to the real haunted houses of Kansas City. For those less interested in jump scares and interactive Halloween attractions, various historical establishments are hosting haunted ghost tours this season, with new rules in place.

The Wornall Major House Museum offers ghost tours in the fall that bring in hundreds every year. Sarah Badar-King, the curator and director of the public programming and events, gave a little background on the home:

“The Museum is a non-profit organization that manages two of Kansas City’s most historic structures—the John Wornall House at 6115 Wornall Rd and the Majors House on 8201 State Line Road. We offer ghost tours and paranormal investigations of the Wornall House, often rumored to be one of the most haunted Kansas City locations,” Badar-King says.


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Because the house brings in so many customers each season, tour planning takes a large part of the year to prepare. However, the museum did not predict what 2020 would bring. Badar-King explained that they didn’t know what reopening would look like, if even possible:

“We didn’t know what to expect. We were closed from March until mid-May. We expected to be back in the office by April, but we feel confident that we’ve made the changes to keep people safe at our programs and tours.”

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Things are very different this spooky season. // Photo by Travis Young

The museum has made many changes in order to keep their patrons safe. They require all customers to wear masks and have removed all of the museum’s touchable elements. They have also limited the number of people allowed in the museum for public tours, shortening the duration of tours to ensure visitors can maintain six feet of distance.

“Everything seems to be changing daily. We are always aware of the possibility of shutting down, we will deal with that if it comes,” Badar-King states. “Our main concern is keeping everyone safe. As for our Ghost Tours, we will offer full refunds for tickets if we decide we can’t hold the event safely and have to cancel.”

Wornall Majors Museum remains optimistic that they have done their part to ensure visitors enjoy themselves. Because many people look forward to the ghost tours every year, it’s important to the staff that they keep the event going rain or shine. “Community and traditions can bring us closer together even when we are physically separated,” says Badar-King.

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An old photo of the patient ward at Glore Psychiatric Museum. // Photo courtesy of Glore Psychiatric Museum

Another historical, but slightly less scary, site to visit this Halloween is the St. Joseph Museum, home to the Glore Psychiatric Museum—a popular site associated with paranormal groups in the area.

The museum was founded in 1968 by occupational therapist George Glore, who maintained the original exhibits that are still on display today. They were first created to be shown at an open house on mental health awareness.

The museum always hosts the annual “Spend the Night at the Glore” event on the first Saturday in October. This year the event will have some extra COVID-19 adjustments, but they have also added new elements. Sara Parks, the programming and events manager at St. Joseph museums, spoke about the changes they have made for this fall:

“Some of our changes included adding social distancing marks and paths inside the museum. We have also installed many more hand sanitizer stations throughout the building, limiting cash transactions, and masks are mandatory for visitors and staff.”

If you’re interested in creepy history, these two museums are a great stop for safe and exciting activities this fall. However, it can be difficult for families to decide what potential health risks are worth taking in the name of holiday tradition.

In the time of a global pandemic, Halloween presents a bit of a moral dilemma for many homeowners who put on their own haunts and parents with children who would typically trick-or-treat. In cities like Los Angeles, trick-or-treating or trunk-or-treat events are specifically discouraged by city regulations. No such guidelines have been put into place yet for Kansas City, but it is likely they will come further into the season.

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Mark Allen’s home decorated for Halloween 2019. // Photo courtesy of Mark Allen

Mark Allen, a homeowner in the KC metro, has put on a home-built haunted house for the last 24 years. Their haunt is a staple of the Olathe area, and they frequently encourage food donations to local food banks and charities.

“In all of our years of setting up this Halloween display, we have never experienced anything remotely close. We have had to make changes due to snow storms but never anything like this,” he says of the challenges his home haunt will face this year.

With a haunted house that usually takes about three or four months of planning, it was tough for Allen and his family to imagine back in May that Halloween might be threatened ultimately.

“We thought all of this would be over in a month or two. We were very surprised that we are still experiencing COVID-19 in September,” Allen says.

Their planning for a global pandemic Halloween is still in the works.

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Mark Allen’s home decorated for Halloween 2019. // Photo courtesy of Mark Allen

“We are considering whether to have a drive-by only display for the month of October and with no trick-or-treaters on Halloween. We are also looking at options to give candy out while being socially distanced safely, if possible. As the fall progresses, we want to make sure we balance our tradition with keeping our family, friends, and neighbors safe. As we get closer to Halloween, we will see where things stand before making a final decision.”

Allen stresses that some traditions are essential to keep running to keep spirits up in a turbulent year for families of all kinds.

“I think a lot of regular fall traditions are being upended this year. Going to the commercial haunted houses, fall festivals, etc. all seem to be out for this year. I think finding ways to safely continue family traditions are even more important given our current situation and its impact on everyone. I think the traditions help give us a little bit of normalcy in a terrible year.”

For trick-or-treating, Kansas City parents seem to be divided. With many younger children going back to school in-person and most fall festivities taking place outdoors, the risk level looks relatively low. However, the sheer amount of people that take part in trick-or-treating each year presents its own issues.

Eric Schmidt, a father of two young children, explained that his feelings are not strong either way about the safety of taking his children out on Halloween.

“I don’t think there is a ton of risk in it. But there could be. It just really depends. There are much worse activities going on every day. But there is definitely some risk.”

Megan Gunn, a mother of 13 and 16-year-old Halloween enthusiasts, says the spooky season will be different for their family, despite their love for the holiday.

“Both the kids and I don’t feel comfortable going out and about trick or treating. So we will stay home and do a scavenger hunt in costumes and possibly video chatting with [their] grandma.”

Chase Higgins, Kansas City native, says he will be allowing his daughter to trick-or-treat this year, but only if her costume has extra precautions built-in.

“If we’re able to trick her into wearing a mask, by telling her it’s part of her costume, we might be able [to] coddle her sensitive nature without too much of a fight because ‘protecting her from a global pandemic’ should be ‘fun,’” Higgins says.

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Jennifer Kolb, during the casting audition at The Beast. // Photo by Travis Young

Despite the challenges COVID-19 has brought to Kansas City, the spirit of Halloween is alive and well in the metro area. While traditional trick-or-treating may still be up in the air for many families, there will be opportunities for scares throughout the city.

Haunted attractions putting precautions in place is one thing, but expecting visitors to follow these rules is another. Even if guests pass the temperature test, wear a mask, and maintain social distance while at haunted venues, these attractions have no control over what people do prior to arriving for their night of fun.

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This performer incorporated a mask into their costume for The Beast’s auditions this year. // Photo by Travis Young

With bars still open, late night haunts give adults the opportunity to come from a night of drinking, where there are multiple people around who are most likely unmasked if they partaking in the drinking, to a haunted house, surrounded by more people. The super-spreader potential is endless. As much as we would like to believe that these haunted houses are completely safe to attend because of the care establishments have carefully implemented, they are not. It is up to the patron to decide whether it is in their best interest to attend haunted houses and ghost tours during a global pandemic, a decision that makes Halloween fear a whole lot scarier.

Once inside haunted houses, will attendees being chased have the self control to remember to maintain distance between themselves and the group ahead of them? Who will stop if they don’t? Perhaps the masked monster chasing them can also serve as chaperone/health cop. And all of this exists around the additional variables of whether or not children are involved.

People must remember that when you choose to partake in interactive attractions this Halloween season, the sign you’re traditionally used to seeing has become quite literal: “Enter at your own risk!”

Categories: Culture