NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When temperatures cool down and a chill creeps through the air, it's time for haunted houses.
The haunts will be open to the public at limited capacity this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they're still welcoming visitors seeking thrills.
Patrick Warner, who owns Devil's Dungeon and Haunted Hell, said the attractions worked with the Metro Nashville Health Department to devise the safest way to open: fewer crowds, temperature checks, mask requirements and changing up the scenes a bit to comply with health precautions.
Usually as Halloween inches closer, hundreds of people cram into the haunt looking for a scare, Warner said. This year the attractions will be opened at 50% capacity and tickets will be sold online to ensure compliance. Haunted Hell is open this year for its last season.
THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT BUT STILL SCARY
A potential perk of the new health rules is the added spookiness: You won't be paired with other groups – only the people you came with. There will be several scenes between you and anyone else, putting you all alone with a cast of frightening monsters.
"It's more of a personal experience this year," Warner said.
Normally cast members get in the "uncomfortable zone" where they crowd your space to up the terror, but that won't be happening this year. Absolutely no touching will be allowed by employees or visitors.
"We've definitely coached the cast to back off a little more where you still get a good scare, but there's distance," Warner said.
Both Haunted Hell and Devil's Dungeon are huge: 20,000 square feet or more of scares. Each haunt has about 60 different scenes throughout the buildings, and Warner said they try to swap out about a third of them each year with updated scenes, new props or different lighting. Some fan favorites are brought back annually.
The attractions already have creepy medical and quarantine scenes but nothing specific to the coronavirus. Warner said maybe a few years down the road a COVID-19 horror will be unveiled.
With the moon tucked behind clouds in a scene straight from a horror movie and against a backdrop of Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller music video playing on a big screen, exhilarated visitors spilled into the parking lot of Haunted Hell on Oct. 2.
Emily Davis, who comes to the attraction every year, said the coronavirus precautions hadn't changed the substance of the haunt: It was frightening and provided a dose of adrenalin.
She said being in a small group of three added to the chilling experience.
Tracey Sovine agreed. She went to the haunt with her husband and, like Davis, is an annual visitor.
"I'm pretty seasoned when it comes to these, but it scares me," she said of the checkered maze, a scene from the attraction that has tilted floors and strobe lights that throw the visitor off balance.
"We haven't been out on a date for almost a year because of COVID and everything else," she said. "We needed to get out of the house for a bit. What's better?"
'ABOVE AND BEYOND'
Warner said the attractions went "above and beyond" with coronavirus precautions to ensure a safe season. He collaborated with another haunted house owner to bounce ideas back and forth to figure out the best way to reopen.
"We went as far as we could go safety-wise to ensure a full season," he said.
And although he loves a good scare, the fear of the coronavirus isn't one of them. The attractions will have a strict "three strikes" policy about guests wearing their masks. They'll be warned twice to keep it on, and if it's off a third time, they'll be asked to leave, according to rules posted online.
Opening weekend was a success, Warner said, and went "surprisingly well." The turnout was on par with what the business has seen in years past, and guests enjoyed themselves.
"People have been cooped up for so long," he said. "There's so many things you can't do. No one has been able to get out and enjoy time with friends."