It should by now come as no surprise that Halloween—a holiday built on strangers coming face-to-face with other strangers to ask for food—will look a lot different during a deadly pandemic. But trick-or-treating isn’t the only tradition that will take a hit. Haunted houses all over Washington have either been canceled altogether, or are scaling way back.
“A lot of places have chosen to already close down, and it totally makes sense,” says Dave Harding, who manages training and staffing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson. “There’s just so many additional risks and precautions that need to be taken.”
Markoff’s, which has the benefit of being an outdoor attraction, is planning to open October 9, with a number of significant changes from previous years. But Harding cautions that Montgomery County could still pull the plug. “At any time, they can come back and say we can’t do this now.”
Fields of Fear in Centreville has called off its 2020 season entirely. Shocktober in Leesburg has canceled its in-person haunted mansion, instead offering live-streamed walk-throughs and virtual experiences such as “haunt classes” and ghost hunts.
Still, Markoff’s isn’t the only spot trying to make a go of it. Bennett’s Curse in Dundalk and Laurel’s House of Horror are both planning to open, with Covid-19 safety protocols. Field of Screams Maryland plans to open October 3—though executive director Mike Lado says that date could still change—with a strict mask requirement for both staff and guests, and social distancing measures in place. Which raises an obvious question: Can a haunted house possibly be scary if the performers have to maintain a safe distance?
Markoff’s Harding insists the answer is yes. “You can still be startled from six feet away,” he says. “A classic style of scare is the drop panel, where a wall panel slides down and an actor pops out. You can still do that [from a distance]. The sound and motion of it are scary.” He says Markoff’s is also adding more animatronic props and other technological tricks “to break through the social distancing bubble.” Plus, he says the woods will be much more desolate than usual, which will actually make for more effective frights. Rather than a “conga line” of patrons streaming through, groups of no more than six will brave the trail on their own.
In addition to keeping their distance from guests, performers will wear face masks or face shields disguised with prosthetics and makeup, and they’ll have their temperatures checked upon arrival to work. Markoff’s patrons will also be required to wear face masks. To prevent crowding, the sideshow attractions and carnival games that Markoff’s regulars will remember from previous Halloweens won’t be offered.
Even though it’ll be different from past years, says Harding, “This is a passion for all of us. We all look forward to it.”
*This story has been updated with information about Field of Screams Maryland.