Pandemic brings new creativity and scaring tactics to haunts across Canada


Halloween is back on, but the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about changes in the haunt industry.

Halloween is back on, but the pandemic has made the haunt industry reconsider a lot about how it scares.

Pat O'Neill, who has been designing Halloween haunts year-round for four years, is currently working on three of them with Screamworks Inc. in Calgary and has previously worked in Ottawa.

His busy season starts now. Octobers are for building the haunts, Novembers are for tearing them down, and Decembers are for catching up on what worked for other haunts throughout North America.

Before the 2020 season, O'Neill made many tweaks made to accommodate COVID-19 safety measures, including the elimination of STIFs — an industry acronym that means "stuff in faces."

"If you had a room that was just cobwebs in your face, you can't have that. You need to pull them all down," O'Neill said.

Same goes for fear flaps — the hanging rubber pieces that often block off one room from the next in a haunted house.

This people-eating couch is actually a giant puppet manoeuvred by someone situated safely behind the wall. Pat O'Neill found the couch as a free giveaway on Facebook and turned it into the focal point of a room in a Calgary haunt.(Submitted by Pat O'Neill)

Actors learn to fill 2-metre gap

In 2020, haunt designers such as O'Neill walked through their creations and pulled out everything that would no longer be allowed under COVID-19 rules.

"It was a curse for moment, but it had a Catch-22 silver lining, because we changed how we make stuff," he said. "It gave us an opportunity to be creative."

A new addition to one of the Calgary haunts is a people-eating couch — a giant puppet manoeuvred by someone situated safely behind the wall. O'Neill found the couch for free on Facebook and repurposed it.

Mark Saunders and Angela Grant Saunders, who have run Saunders Farm's haunted attractions in Ottawa for 30 years, said characters might choose to get in your personal space, now they'll always be two metres away.

"How do you elicit a really big scare from somebody that you're scaring when you can't, you know, jump right in front of them?" Angela said.

She's found it's in the eyes that actors can engage guests and the actors have learned how to fill more space with larger movements.

At their current attraction, The Sawmill, all actors will wear masks that have been made to fit their costumes as closely as possible, while still clearly being masks, so guests feel safe. All guests and staff will also be fully vaccinated.

Mark Saunders, left, and Angela Grant Saunders have run Saunders Farm for 30 years. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Secret hiding spots to keep safe

If screaming doesn't seem COVID-friendly, O'Neill pointed out there have always been risks to actors who get too close.

"We always would work closely with the physicality of the actors because before COVID people still would punch you in the face. Fight or flight is real," O'Neill said.

Grant Saunders says this year's attraction has nooks and alcoves guests might not see, but the actors know so they can get out of the way. Their choreography is also what's helping keep the guests physically distant.

This is the Saunders's first haunt that's centrally and electronically controlled (it doesn't make use of levers and pulleys).

Behind the scenes of The Sawmill attraction by Saunders Farm, everything is monitored closely to make sure groups are moving through safely and don't crowd each other.(Sara Frizzell/CBC)

The entire space is designed so guests consistently move through while never being in an enclosed space for too long.

The haunt is made out of a series of shipping containers positioned in a park. Each container is equipped with a camera to monitor guests' progress through in order to keep the crowds separated from each other.

If guests are too scared to move forward, a scare from behind will encourage them. If they think they can just run through, they will likely run in to other obstacles, Saunders said.

The person monitoring all the cameras aims to keep guests about a minute and a half apart from other groups.

A glimpse of the mill workers' quarters in The Sawmill attraction in Ottawa.(Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Finding the 'spook and sparkle'

If you've been a little bit too much in your own head this past year, both Saunders and O'Neill suggest a good scare might be just what you need.

"There is a lot to say about the endorphin rush. It's healthy to feel icky for a second and then come out of it," O'Neill said.

O'Neill says that's one of his favourite things about working in the industry — it's different for everyone and if he can't scare someone, he wants to leave them with a "wow."

The industry was already changing before COVID-19, reconsidering its glorification of blood and guts, O'Neill said. Now it has a chance to leave behind some of its cheaper tricks.

"I'm bringing the spook and sparkle, bringing the ghosts and skeletons back into Halloween," O'Neill said. "I think the world is ready to do something different."

This hand has an RFID tracking chip and 'plays a role' in the experience of the infirmary at the Ottawa haunt.(Sara Frizzell/CBC)

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