Haunted Houses Staying Open Despite Scary Circumstances Amid Pandemic
Story | Penny Rae Hawkins
Operating a haunted house calls for a lot of fake blood with some real sweat and tears. And in 2020, it also includes concessions for COVID-19.
For the owners of 13th Floor Haunted House in Columbus,OH, these precautions exceed providing masks, floor markers and hand sanitizer.
Jessica Francis, 27, and her husband Nick, 28, have worked at haunted houses for years, with jobs ranging from build crews to assistants and actors. But, they’d always wanted their own haunt. So, when 13th Floor approached them about selling their Columbus location, the timing was scary good.
“Nick’s been doing their [13th Floor] marketing for a while, so it just kind of worked out that they came to the area right when we moved to Columbus,” Francis said. “We got a call from one of the owners who was like, ‘Hey, we’re looking to sell the business.’ So, Nick and I scraped together our pennies and got some help from some family and friends, and were able to purchase the haunted house.”
13th Floor Haunted House, formerly known as the Scare-a-Torium, is 40,000 square foot venue located at 2605 Northland Plaza. It features two indoor attractions; Darkest Dreams and Tales of the Unknown. Tales of the Unknown takes the visitor through the city of Rapture, a town where previously-unknown subjects with cannibalistic tendencies escape the asylum and terrorize the once-peaceful town of Rapture. Darkest Dreams puts the visitor in a house inhabited by a family “plagued by nightmares so horrid, they’ve chosen to forego sleep altogether.” This lack of sleep causes the family to have horrifying hallucinations during the day.
While the haunt is currently operating with 13th Floor licensing, Francis stressed 2021 would bring a whole new haunt experience with updated attractions, themes and marketing.
“We’ll get rid of all the 3D and make it something a little more dark and grungy, we’re gonna upgrade that [the city] a little bit too, but we’re still working on the theme idea for that,” they said. “Overall, it’s gonna just be mostly set designs and then we’ll also rebrand under a new name which is also still in the works.”
Of course, that’s not all that goes into keeping a haunted house fresh and interesting. According to Francis, “build season” usually begins in January, where they’ll sketch out and begin working out what they want their new establishment to be. In March, they’ll attend a Halloween and attraction show in St. Louis, Mo. to purchase animatronics, props, costumes and special effects like fog and “buckets of blood.” The grunt work of physically putting everything together will occur throughout the summer, which will be followed by shooting the commercial and marketing materials.
Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, not only do sales operate exclusively online, but only a certain number of tickets are available in fifteen-minute increments. But that is an obstacle the the
“I believe in Ohio, we’re allowed to have 1,500 people in line at a time,” she said. “We’re having about 100 at the most in our building, and then all of our customers are getting temperature checks before they enter the building. Actors are also wearing [medical grade] masks…even under their scary masks.”
While this has presented a unique challenge to the couple, there are some precautions Francis would like to keep practicing beyond the pandemic.
“This is a great year to come if you’re a customer because, number one, it’s the safest it’s ever been, and you’re not dealing with these long lines,” she said. “We’re cleaning constantly through the night. We’ve got a staff that’s dedicated to running through the houses and spraying everything down in between customers. We’re looking into how we could continue to do the event like this in future years.”
Something else to look forward to in future years, according to Francis, are escape rooms. While the existing escape rooms are closed due to the pandemic, year-round escape rooms are currently in talks. Additionally, she teased a Krampus-themed Christmas event, a Valentine’s Day event and a zombie-themed laser tag event. With so many plans in the works, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. However, especially in a world that can feel so uncertain, it helps to choose fun over fear, she added.
“I’m sure it’s gonna be a bunch of different crazy things, but we’ll also look into how to most likely keep our time ticketing system in place so we can give customers a good show without the conga lines,” Francis said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s going to be super fun. And I mean we’ll just see where we are with this pandemic, but we’ll make it work, I’m sure. Whatever this world throws our way.”