Halloween 2020 has come and gone. Some would say this year has been scarier than anything you can see inside a haunted attraction. And as a haunter, myself, I have to agree with that statement. We, in the haunt industry, manufacture terrors and frights. They are far from real, and the only dangers one should experience in a well-run, professional haunt is bumping into something or stubbing a toe. The real world is wrought with violence, anger, death and destruction. All very real and all very scary.
Like every single Halloween season, I ventured out to some of the Middle Tennessee-area haunted attractions to get my fill of ghoulish delights. I also found myself wanting to see just how well the haunts in the area were handling the COVID safety measures that had been laid out by their individual local governments, as well as what the state health departments mandated. Tennessee was pretty lax on the rules, but still followed the social distancing and requesting the use of masks, but ultimately left the decisions up to the local governments to enforce how they saw fit.
Now, before I start talking about the haunted attractions I visited, I want to take a moment and make my obligatory statement. As a member of the haunted attractions industry, my opinions are purely my own. They do not represent any organization I have worked with in the past, present or future. I am being objective in my reviews. Any criticism I give is in the hopes that they lead to the betterment of the haunted attraction in which they are aimed at.
And now, on with my reviews.
My 2020 Halloween Haunted Attraction season began with the longest-running haunted house in Nashville: Slaughterhouse. This attraction has been held in many different places over the years, but the current location in Hermitage is by far my favorite. As a kid, I remember coming to this very theater almost weekly and catching a movie. The building sat dormant for a long time after the theater closed, but Ben and Stacey Dixon purchased it a few years ago, turning it into their main location for Lone Wolf Body Art, along with the haunt. On top of that, they brought back the theatrical venue, renovating rooms to be “dinner and a show” rooms, playing some cult classic films throughout the year. With Ben running the tattoo parlor and Stacey running the haunt operations, they make a well-run business venture.
The outside aesthetics of the haunt are minimal. Only a single decorated stage area and some lights stand in as the decoration. I think this slightly hurts the draw of the haunt. I am not sure why there is so little decor on the outside. Based on the inside, I am sure it is a city or property regulation preventing them from adding too much. Still, Slaughterhouse could use a huge boost in the outdoor queue line area.
Once inside, the true haunt vibe of Slaughterhouse takes over. After meeting some of the iconic denizens of the attraction, the terrors begin. For it being the COVID times, the haunt was pretty stocked with actors. You can tell they went to lengths to keep them distanced from the visitors. It was a good experience throughout, and the staff should be commended for taking the steps necessary for this season. The pace through the haunt was not rushed, and the walkthrough time was on par with what it has been in the past.
One scene that sticks out in my mind is the laser mist maze area of the haunt. It was designed to appear to be an underwater area, something I have not seen in a haunted attraction before. Most haunts that have the laser mist setup use it in a darkened room to hide actors. The idea is that the lasers prevent the visitor from seeing what is lurking ahead, allowing for an easy jump scare. But Slaughterhouse uses it with some colored lights to give an ethereal look to the room. It was a very beautiful scene, which is not something I usually say about haunted houses.
My biggest complaint about Slaughterhouse Nashville is the use of ramps throughout the attraction. I don’t know if I am just getting older and more out of shape or what, but the ramps inside the haunt are numerous and oftentimes steep. I found myself having to hold the handrails to pull myself up some of these ramps. I assume they are there due to how the building is laid out, as it was a movie theater before being transformed into its current form. Whatever the reason, it still makes for a more physically demanding walkthrough. I would implore them to find a better way to moving from scene to scene and cut out some (if not all) of the ramps.
Usually, I am not one for taking long trips anywhere. I tend to stay within a few miles of my home. A lot has to do with my issue of driving at night. And since most haunted attractions are night-time events, my range is somewhat limited. But I decided this year to change that, so I ventured out to Rigor Mortis Haunted House in McMinnville, Tennessee.
After almost a two-hour drive (made easier by my driving companion, Matt Scott of Von Grimm Productions), we arrived. Initially, I started feeling like maybe I had made a mistake. Rigor Mortis is inside a shopping center, appearing to be extremely small. There were no outside decorations except for one tabletop searchlight. We saw an actor in the parking lot, but other than that, it was really dead outside (no pun intended). Like Slaughterhouse, this attraction may be limited due to the location.
We got our tickets and ventured inside. It was a great Thursday night, so my expectations were low in regards to actor count. In fact, the outside actor had soon moved inside when we arrived, leaving the searchlight as the only animated object in the queue line area. But my fears of sparse actor scares were put to ease quickly. The introduction area of the haunt was good, and soon we found ourselves moving fairly quickly through Rigor Mortis. Actors came at us from all sides, with some getting fairly close. Normally, this is not an issue, but during the pandemic, it was almost a little too close for me. I noticed that we saw many of the same actors throughout, but they worked hard to deliver the scares. Kudos to those actors who pulled off many different scares.
Soon, we found that we had reached the end of the haunt. It felt like we had only been inside for 10 to 15 minutes, at most. But this was a “false finish.” We were led out of the back door of this shopping area, down a set of stairs and then into the second half of Rigor Mortis. After another introduction area, we worked our way through my favorite half of the haunt. This area was a lot larger than its upstairs counterpart, with lots of theming. The first part was more of a medical facility gone wrong, while the second half was more themed to the traditional Victorian haunted house motif, and I found myself really digging it.
At some point in this second half, we were ushered into a room and asked to take a seat. It is there I saw something I have never seen in a haunted attraction before: A magic show. A woman was brought out and laid on an altar by the haunt’s icon, The Candle Man. He then proceeded to not only levitate her into the air, but also make her floating body disappear. It was all well done, though I am not sure how well this part would work during a busy night when throughput is a must. However, it is innovative and new, so I greatly support it.
As far as complaints go, the biggest would be the lack of outdoor theming. It was very difficult to recognize where the haunt is, and there was very little out there that would entice passersby from stopping in to see the show. The show inside is great, and thus the presentation outside must be brought up. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, and that holds true for Rigor Mortis Haunted House, but sometimes the cover is all the general public goes by. Look the part of a scary attraction.
The third and final haunt of my 2020 haunt tour was Beast House. Touted as the “Money Back Haunt,” Beast House is one of the newer haunted attractions in Nashville. They have a great location, taking over the building formerly known as the Starlight Lounge. The haunt boasts that the landmark is actually a real haunted house, alluding to events that allegedly occurred on the site decades ago.
Out of all the attractions I had the pleasure of visiting, Beast House had the best outdoor queue line area setup. After parking, we made our way to the courtyard. There, we found all sorts of photo-ops, actors and other entertainment. Beast House is the only haunt in the area that allows guests to jump off the roof of the building, called the Beast Jump. The whole area was very visually appealing, and was pretty awesome to behold.
After buying tickets, we made our way to the entrance. Again, it was a Thursday night, so I set my expectations low for a fully staffed attraction. But, as with Rigor Mortis, I was pleasantly surprised. Every scene appeared to have either a live actor or some sort of prop to give the scene some sort of life. However, I did not realize that Beast House is a “full contact” haunt, so the moment I was grabbed on the shoulder by some hands coming out of the wall, I was kinda taken back. I am normally OK with this type of physical contact, but these are not normal times. And as the actors were in touching distance, the idea of “social distancing” was out the window. I feel that during this pandemic, no matter what your beliefs of it are, it is best to err on the side of caution. Beast House did not, and it is slightly disheartening.
Sounds in a haunt go a long way in helping tell the story or get the scares. I have worked on several attractions and had the pleasure of working on sound engineering for one of the top haunted attractions in the nation. Giving an ambiance to each scene sets the tone. Allowing for lulls in the sound to happen gives you the chance to have an even more impactful jump scare. My philosophy is to immerse the guest in a movie, complete with musical score. Beast House went the opposite route with this. From the beginning of the interior haunt to the end, the same heavy metal music played from scene to scene. It was so loud in points, my ears actually rang. They also used a very large number of cracker units, designed to simulate either firecrackers going off or electrical explosions. One hallway in particular seemed to have four of these units together, along with flashing strobe lights. We rushed through the area, as the sounds were just off-putting. Whoever made that decision needs to rethink it.
After escaping the audio assault of the inside, we entered the final leg of the haunt. Now, it had been raining this day, so I cannot totally fault the haunt for this, but the ramp leaving the interior haunt to the exterior section was as slick as ice. I almost fell down multiple times trying to get to the bottom. And at the bottom was mud. So, even after making it off the slick ramp, I was now walking through slick mud. I had a very hard time getting through this area, but managed to slide through. The importance of regular safety walkthroughs of a haunt is paramount. What was safe at the start of the show may deteriorate over the night. Thus, it is important to have a zone manager walk through regularly and address any problems in their zone. I wish Beast House had done this.
Haunting during COVID in Middle Tennessee was not nearly as bad as I was thinking it would be. All but one of the haunts I visited took the steps to ensure that social distancing was followed, actors were kept a safe distance from the guests and sanitation stations were made available. I experienced no lines, mainly ’cause I chose nights that are typically unpopular (Thursday and Sunday nights). But in talking to some to some of the owners, they experienced one of their best years ever. Maybe the Coronavirus pandemic will lead to changes in the haunt industry that are sorely needed (limiting tickets per night, enforcing timed tickets and keeping distance between groups). Let’s just hope that the next haunt season works out well for these haunts, and also the ones I was unable to visit this year.