Haunting in the age of COVID: Halloween attractions adjust to the pandemic

Red Vein Haunted House at 13580 Ashland Road in Hanover County each year puts on a haunted house, corn maze, wooded trail and asylum. (Photos courtesy of Red Vein)

Folks who work in the haunting business are used to wearing masks and dealing in fear. But even they are spooked by the havoc the pandemic may wreak on their seasonal attractions.

Richmond-area haunted houses and haunted forests are preparing for strong demand while bracing for a sharp drop in revenue, thanks to capacity reductions necessitated by social distancing guidelines.

Red Vein Haunted House at 13580 Ashland Road in Hanover County each year puts on a haunted house, corn maze, wooded trail and asylum. Owner and operator Ryan Sligh runs the seasonal show as well as Red Vein Escape, a year-round escape room at 108 Robinson St. in Ashland.

Preparation for this year’s setup started when last fall’s season wrapped up, as the team spent a few months deciding on upgrades before constructing this year’s attraction.

But nothing could’ve prepared Sligh and his team for the challenges brought on by the virus.

He said they worked 16-hour days over the summer between their day jobs and Red Vein to prepare for a dozen nights of fall scaring, even though there was no guarantee the show could go on. The haunted house kept its staff roughly in line with previous years: 40 to 50 actors and 10 crew members to man the box office, parking, lines and gift shop.

“We work nights; we work weekends,” Sligh said. “If you’re working in the haunting attraction industry, you’re working constantly.”

Red Vein cut capacity to between one-third and one-half this season while mandating employees and guests wear face masks, get temperature checks and socially distance.

Red Vein cut capacity to between one-third and one-half this season while mandating employees and guests wear face masks, get temperature checks and socially distance. The haunted house can now host 100 to 150 per hour and 600 to 700 people per night, down from a maximum capacity of 2,000, and common surfaces are wiped down regularly.

Guests now buy tickets online for $20 and sign up for time slots in private groups to keep demand in check and groups separated. Lines take several hours on busy nights, Sligh said, so Red Vein offers a VIP ticket for $40, which he said cuts the wait time in half or more.

While it’s awkward for actors to wear gloves and masks under monster masks or face shields while scaring guests waiting in lines, Red Vein must adapt to the times.

“We just have to adjust and do the best we can,” Sligh said. “Usually we’re a very intense show; we’re in your face. This year, we’ve taken a step back.”

Red Vein all but cut out advertising, Sligh said, adding that the haunted house will rely on word of mouth instead of radio or newspaper ads.

So far, it’s working: Red Vein has sold out every night as of mid-October, Sligh said.

With few competing entertainment options like bars and movie theaters, Sligh said that Red Vein’s biggest adversary is the pandemic.

Blood Lake Haunted Trail, running at Windy Hill Sports Complex at 16500 Midlothian Turnpike, is in its ninth season.

Blood Lake features an outdoor haunted trail for ages 9 and up on Fridays and Saturdays in October as well as “No Startle Thursdays” to give younger kids a thrill without jump scares.

General admission is $18 for all ages for the trail and $10 on Thursdays and owner and operator Scott Bergman said the attraction is hoping to scare at least 2,800 people this season. That’s compared to its typical turnout of 4,000 to 5,000.

Hitting $50,000 in revenue would be a strong year, Bergman said, adding that he’s unsure if demand will be strong with no football games and limited entertainment or soft because of virus fears.

“I really don’t know,” Bergman said. “I would imagine it’s going to be a fairly normal year. I think it’s going to be the same amount as normal.”

Virginia’s Phase 3 guidelines loom over Blood Lake like a full moon on Halloween night. Social distancing and face masks are required for guests and actors, though the latter are incorporating them into their costumes to preserve an authentic experience.

“We just kind of said, ‘Look, this year, we aren’t expecting a high level of prosthetics (like fake scars and wounds),’” Bergman said. “We’re not going to be able to really do anything, since the actor’s mouth is hidden from view, we aren’t going to be able to do anything that has to do with your mouth, essentially.”

Blood Lake’s acting cast fell by roughly half from 30 employees, and actors have to be like traffic cops, Bergman said, monitoring guests’ speed and distance for safety.

Bergman acknowledged that many guests want to come the weekend before Halloween and buy tickets at the last minute, which makes it difficult to prevent long lines and people congregating. That’s why Blood Lake is encouraging online ticket sales purchased in 30-minute increments.

Like Red Vein, Blood Lake pulled back on advertising this year and will lean on word-of-mouth marketing while banking on the fact that there are few nearby competitors open, including Kings Dominion.

With trick-or-treating up in the air this year, other unconventional alternatives have popped up to capitalize on the uncertainty.

Tommy’s Express Car Wash at 7048 Forest Hill Ave. in Bon Air is hosting an inaugural “Covid-Safe Haunted Car Wash.” (Courtesy of Tommy’s Express Car Wash)

Tommy’s Express Car Wash at 7048 Forest Hill Ave. in Bon Air is hosting an inaugural “Covid-Safe Haunted Car Wash” this year from 6-10 p.m. Oct. 23, 24, 30 and 31.

“We thought, ‘What better year than a COVID year?’” said Tony Cannella, head of marketing. “A lot of the trick or treating is shut down, and we don’t want Richmond to go without trick or treating.”

The drive-thru car wash bought up Halloween decorations like spider webbing and light-up animatronics while hiring 10 scarers to host a safe, socially distanced experience for families looking to keep kids entertained while getting a chore done.

Cannella said Tommy’s Express Car Wash spent about $10,000 on marketing and decorations.

Tommy’s Express Car Wash has seen demand jump significantly year-over-year after launching in early 2019 and has held strong during the pandemic, Cannella said. Its secret to success is a $30 monthly club membership that offers unlimited washes and no lines, which generates consistent recurring revenue. The location’s two belts can serve 160 cars per hour and can get 700 to 800 cars per day on a good weekend and 400 to 700 throughout the week.

Keeping pace with demand is the car wash’s biggest challenge, Cannella said, adding that the business is planning on adding two locations with three lanes in mid to late 2021 on Arthur Ashe Boulevard near The Diamond and one near Hull Street and Courthouse Road.

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