By Scottie Andrew, CNN
For Summer and Kaleigh Kailani, the most wonderful time of the year is already here — haunted house season.
The sisters and horror buffs are hosts for Sharp Productions, a YouTube channel with more than half a million subscribers that sees the pair brave the scariest Halloween attractions around their native California and beyond.
And this year, after the pandemic threw a wrench in their 2020 Halloween plans, the two resumed their time-honored tradition of getting spooked at the king of all haunted events — Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The masked sisters, clinging to one another as they snaked through each horror-filled maze, cowered from a murderous Michael Myers of “Halloween” and evaded Leatherface in a very gory “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” homage.
One of their favorite houses, though, starred a monster who did not don a rubber mask. The Bride of Frankenstein herself was wearing what appeared to be a white cloth face mask, meant to blend in with her sickly reanimated skin.
The mask was noticeable in the footage they shared on their YouTube channel. And yet, when the Bride lunged at them, Summer and Kaleigh recoiled in terror. Both later recounted the “Bride of Frankenstein Lives” maze as one of the most immersive in the entire theme park.
“It should be noticeable, but I’ve gotten so used to people wearing masks that half the time, I didn’t even notice,” Kaleigh said of the masked monsters at Halloween Horror Nights.
After scaling back or skipping Halloween 2020 altogether as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, haunted houses and themed events across the US are back — only now, the monsters might be wearing masks (and not just the rubber kind). Inside terrifying mazes or along haunted hayrides, “scare actors” are often masked up, hiding behind clear vinyl or keeping their distance from the frightened masses.
And many of the attractions used the year-long break from scaring to beef up their operations to include more spooks, more space and more options for Halloween revelers who can’t stomach the scary stuff — improvements they’ll continue to implement even after Covid-19 is no longer a global bogeyman.
And for those who dearly missed scares in 2020, the return of haunted attractions, even those that have modified their operations, is a welcome treat.
“As someone who grew up loving Halloween, it feels like I get to celebrate this year,” Kaleigh Kailani said.
Covid-19 protocols vary by location
Whether monsters are masked according to Covid-19 measures depends largely on where the event takes place. At Universal Orlando Resort’s Halloween Horror Nights event in Florida, scare actors must wear face coverings indoors while guests are “encouraged” — but not required — to do the same (which means guests can end up unmasked in narrow haunted mazes), a spokesperson for the Florida park told CNN.
Meanwhile, at Universal Studios Hollywood, all guests must wear masks indoors and outdoors, regardless of vaccination status, as ordered by Los Angeles County, according to the park website.
Just one county down, when the Kailani sisters visited Knott’s Scary Farm in Buena Park, masks were optional for fully vaccinated guests but capacity was limited, they told CNN. In one maze, powder-faced clowns stalked the pair from behind before startling them, inches from the women’s faces, teeth bared.
At some attractions, including both Halloween Horror Nights events and Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, actors inside haunted houses are separated from guests by vinyl or plexiglass barriers. While Kaleigh Kailani said the clear walls were “more noticeable,” her sister Summer said some employees would “bang on the plexiglass, making the experience arguably scarier than usual.”
Six Flags Over Georgia, which isn’t requiring fully vaccinated guests or employees to wear masks, is taking its scares up several notches at its first Fright Fest since 2019. Thrill-seeking guests who ride roller coasters at the park might be seated next to a monster competing with the ride to make them scream.
In states where Covid-19 safety measures are stricter, some events have been toned down or done away with altogether for the second year in a row. Take New York’s Tarrytown, a Hudson Valley village that neighbors Sleepy Hollow, infamous for its Headless Horseman lore. The iconic Halloween parade has been canceled to protect its “most precious attendees” — children who have not yet been vaccinated, according to local paper the Hudson Independent.
Adults looking for Sleepy Hollow spooks fare better — tours of cemeteries and mausoleums and haunted hayrides continue this year, though younger visitors are advised against attending those and instead can choose from age-appropriate events at a public library.
Some attractions stepped up their scares
Kaleigh Kailani said that many of the Halloween events she attended this year “upped their game,” investing in more gruesome props, true-to-life animatronics and immersive set design.
Independent Halloween attractions like Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary, a nonprofit former prison in Philadelphia, have fewer resources than a major theme park, but they, too, took their time off to plan for a bigger and better event in 2021
“I really look at the pandemic with silver lining,” said Brett Bertolino, the nonprofit’s director of operations and a former vice president of the Haunted Attraction Association, a network for Halloween horror-themed events.
A Covid-imposed break in 2020 allowed Eastern State Penitentiary more time to create an event with more of a “choose-your-own-adventure” theme. Whereas in previous years, guests would be shuffled through the attraction’s haunted houses in a specific order without being able to deviate from the path, the penitentiary grounds are now wide open for guests to navigate at their leisure, a move that attracts horror-averse guests to the event for the first time and solves issues about capacity and distancing, Bertolino said.
“In a lot of ways, it was a no-brainer,” he told CNN of staff’s decision to overhaul the classic Halloween event. “It took some out-of-the-box thinking for us to figure out how to do a festival in an abandoned prison. But it’s working out really well — better than we expected.”
Guests no longer have to hit six haunted houses in a row before breaking for a snack. Now, they can choose which houses they want to visit — or opt to sip drinks at a speakeasy in Al Capone’s former cell or take in an undead performance by a zombie dance troupe.
Previous iterations of the event were known for their interactivity — horror buffs could upgrade their experience by wearing a tracking device that would let monsters follow them and be painted with a red “X” on their cheek to let employees know they could touch those guests and amp up the scare factor. While zombies won’t touch guests this year, they will still seek out guests who crave a more intense thrill, Bertolino said, just without getting too close.
“I think that’s what people are going to Halloween events for — ultimately to be entertained, to have fun,” he said. “To be scared is a part of it for a lot of folks, but it’s not the be-all, end-all.”
Halloween events were missed in 2020
The discerning Kailani sisters have occasionally felt let down by the changes their favorite events made this year. They said they’ve noticed some haunted mazes have been shortened or have employed fewer actors within them, which translates to fewer scares (and fewer screams in their YouTube videos).
“There’s no replacement for the unpredictable human element that a scare actor brings to the table,” Kaleigh said.
Still, Summer said, getting to return to Halloween attractions at all is something to celebrate.
“After over a year indoors, I think there is something so special about getting to attend a theme park,” she said. “Overall, we had a blast running around and being scared just like old times and highly recommend adding a haunt to one’s October calendar if they feel comfortable and safe doing so.”
Every Halloween event differs when it comes to Covid-19 safety precautions, but it’s safe to say that the scariest ones strive to make guests uncomfortable. For Halloween fans like the Kailani sisters, who have been eagerly awaiting the return of haunted attractions, the scarier an event is, the more chilling fun they have.
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