When the announcement was finally made, it really wasn’t unexpected, but it still felt like a slasher’s knife to the heart: Halloween Horror Nights is canceled for 2020.

We had been holding our breath since the theme parks closed in mid-March. But back then, March felt so far away from October, that few people really worried about Halloween at the time. But there was at least one telling sign, even in the early months: the usually prolific and teaser-filled Twitter feed of HHN, run by John Murdy (creative director of the Hollywood event), went silent in late February. And aside from a few flashback posts, he stopped sharing even the most vague news of what was being worked on for 2020. It really looked like plans were on hold, even in the beginning of the pandemic.

Still, HHN Orlando pressed ahead, buoyed by the fact that their theme parks reopened in June. They even sold tickets and offered discounts for the event. So certainly there were plans in place for a modified, socially distanced Horror Nights. But what would that really look like? No details were provided. But with Horror Nights being well-known as the absolute epitome of the “conga-line” haunt, it was hard to imagine how they’d be able to keep guests 6 feet apart inside a maze without reducing capacity so much that it would made sense financially to open the gates. And that’s not even considering how the actual scares would work in the same environment. Much of what makes haunts effective is the surprise of an actor getting close to you—even right in your face—to deliver the scare. With COVID, would actors need to be behind some kind of protective Plexiglass? Would there be more animatronics and fewer live scares? Would scare zones have to be scrapped completely? The many questions swirling around this issue made our head spin. And the logistics (and probably revenue loss) of this current nightmare are ultimately what resulted in Halloween Horror Nights pulling the plug on 2020.

What About Other Haunts?

The only other major Southern California haunt to announce the cancelation of their event so far has been Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor. But we fully expect Knott’s Scary Farm to follow Horror Nights with an announcement in the coming days. (Although Cedar Fair, which owns both Great America and Knott’s, does plan to open their Halloween Haunt at Great America, which is interesting.) After that, it will likely be a rolling tide of cancellations in the coming weeks. However, there are a few major haunts in California that have so far confirmed openings this year:

Of course, this list is likely to change as we get closer to fall, as restrictions either ease or tighten up and cases surge or decline. The problem most haunts face is the uncertainty; planning and constructing a haunt takes months, and if you can’t be reasonably sure that you’ll be able to open, all the work, planning, hiring, etc. will be wasted. In some cases, it makes more more sense financially to keep the haunt closed than spend money preparing for this year.

New Restrictions, New Experiences

Haunt designers are some of the most innovative problem solvers around, so expect to see some very creative changes this year. The heavy restrictions required to keep people safe in a haunt could lead to some new types of scares and sets. We’re likely to see an increased number of animatronics and a heavier use of lighting and sound to execute scares. Some haunts have even indicated they will be changing to an Escape Room format for 2020 (like the SKreamZ haunt in Fairfield, CA). It’s likely that any haunt will rely on online presales of tickets with timed entry to control the number and spacing of guests. Some events might scale back their event or offer only certain portions. For example, it seems likely that LA Haunted Hayride would scrap their mazes and instead offer the hayride only, for which tickets can be sold for specific times and the number of guests on each tractor limited (and the actors are already kept at a safe distance from the vehicle).

The prospect of “Drive-Through Haunts” has also been raised this year. Earlier this summer, Secret Los Angeles teased an “immersive haunted drive through haunt” in Irvine, but this event
doesn’t seem to be active right now on the website. Nights of the Jack also sent out a customer survey to gather opinions on a possible drive-through event this year. Although drive-through haunted houses are an intriguing possibility, there are a lot of logistic considerations, and nothing has been officially announced yet.

Will Home Haunts Save Halloween?

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Over the past decade or so, home haunts have become a very important part of the Halloween season. Some homeowners even create full walk-through haunts with professional-level sets and scares. As such, they’re also being affected by the pandemic and are adjusting their plans. Many of the walk-through home haunts are converting to displays only (Rotten Apple 907 in Burbank, Beware the Dark Realm in Santa Clarita, Restless Souls Manor in Palmdale). But despite this scale-back, they still promise awesome yard scenes. And other home haunters who usually only do displays are working on improving and adding to their yards to make them bigger and better than ever. Because they know that 2020 could be a huge year for home haunts. With so many Halloween events canceled or scaled back, driving around town to gaze at the amazing talent and imagination on display at free home haunts will likely become one of the best things to do this Halloween.

Luckily, SoCal Haunt List publishes an up-to-date listing each year of all home haunt displays in the area. Be sure to check that site closer to fall for this year’s listings so that you can make your map of the best displays to check out. And if you have a yard, porch, or even just a window, think about making it extra spooky this year to spread some additional Halloween cheer. 2020 is going to need the extra boost of Halloween spirit.

Stay safe, wear your mask, and keep it creepy.

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