A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Haunted houses are experts at scaring people — but do they keep you safe?

The Halloween season brings forth haunted houses and festivities across the country. According to Statista.com, consumers in the United States are projected to spend a record-breaking $12.2 billion on costumes, candy, and haunted attractions this year. Both large-scale for-profit haunted houses and nonprofit organizations, including community groups, schools, and charities, open their doors to entertain and scare guests who willingly enter at their own risk. Research indicates that people enjoy being scared in a safe environment and are willing to pay for the experience provided by these seasonal haunted houses and attractions.

However, as a risk management and safety professional, I am concerned about the potential dangers associated with these attractions. Beyond the fictional zombies and chainsaw-wielding murderers, there are other risks that need to be addressed especially when you introduce the flight of fear into the equation.

Wiki Commons photo)

One significant issue is that temporary haunted houses & attractions can pop up and disappear before local officials have a chance to inspect them. I have spoken with fire marshals, code enforcement officials, and planning and zoning authorities who have admitted that these small enterprises often go unnoticed until it is too late. Fire marshals typically inspect venues such as festivals and outdoor amusement events for fire and life safety violations, focusing on temporary structures. Planning and zoning officials assess the suitability of the venue for the area, considering factors such as local traffic patterns and neighborhood concerns. City code enforcement may not be aware of a change in occupancy if a building has already been issued an occupancy certificate and they have not been notified that it is being used as a haunted house.

Every year I write an article concerning the safety of haunted houses and attractions to better increase public awareness, and every year I am contacted by attorneys with stories where a guest was severely injured in a haunted attraction.

What I have found is that some haunted house & attraction operators are experts at scaring their guests but are not experts at protecting their guests and are found negligent. Many will prioritize the quality of the theatrical scare over guest safety. Furthermore, what can increase the exposure for injury is that many of the actors in these haunted attractions are teenage volunteers, some as young as 14 years of age, that are poorly trained beyond the scope of the scare, which can be found negligent.

The fact is these operators have a duty of care to act in a reasonable manner that does not cause harm to their guests to prevent a jury from finding them negligent. This includes inspecting and maintaining safe premises, adequately training actors, and selecting safe props. Many operators breach that duty of care through their actions or culpable omissions, and don’t exercise a reasonable degree of care to adequately protect their guests.

Unfortunately, I have heard stories from attorneys about severe injuries suffered by guests in haunted houses and attractions. One such incident after a guest was severely injured and bleeding, other guests mistook her and her mother distressed pleas for help as part of the attraction in the haunted attraction, and it took management over 20 minutes to discover and render her first aid.

Haunted houses and attractions must take reasonable actions to identify, and control known and unknown hazards to protect the safety and well-being of the public and all guests on their premises. These operators have a duty of care, or an obligation to act in a reasonable manner so as not to cause damage or injury to their guest. This includes steps to inspect and keep a premise safe, adequately educate and train the actors and select the safe props while they go about their job to scare you.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@higusa.com

Furthermore, many haunted houses are configured in ways that potentially increase the risk to public safety. They incorporate audio-visual special effects, props, fog, mirrors, reduced lighting, combustible materials, and confusing maze-like layouts. Haunted house operators strive to create realistic experiences to attract their communities, often blurring the line between fantasy and reality. In these cases, safety may not be the operator’s top priority, as more emphasis is often times placed on the theatrics of the scare.

In the event of a fire, guests may initially believe it is part of the show, as fires often go undetected for several minutes. If the operator is unaware of the fire, guests may continue through the structure, unaware that they have limited time to escape. It is crucial for trapped guests to locate the nearest exits, which should be properly marked and unobstructed for a swift and safe evacuation. However, many haunted houses & attractions are intentionally designed to be disorienting, with maze-like layouts, strobe lights, mirrors, and loud noises, making it difficult for guests to determine the correct direction to proceed.

Another significant consideration is whether these temporary haunted houses have adequate insurance coverage in case of serious injuries. It is essential to ensure that there is sufficient coverage to cover potential claims or lawsuits. However, some insurance policies may exclude haunted houses from their coverage, as they may not fit within the scope of the original policy. This leaves injured parties without recourse to seek compensation for their injuries, medical bills, or loss of future wages.

Given the number of tickets sold and the volume of people inside haunted houses, the risks involved cannot be ignored. Compared to other countries, America has some of the best safety standards, guidelines, and regulations to protect the public, volunteers, and employees. However, many of these safety regulations have been reactive rather than proactive, often implemented after tragic events. For instance, Kentucky implemented sweeping safety rules after the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire in 1977 and the Carrolton Bus Crash in 1988.

Unfortunately, it often takes a large-scale tragedy to drive safety regulatory changes, even when it would make sense to implement them beforehand. For example, in 1984, eight teenagers lost their lives in a haunted attraction at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey after being trapped and unable to locate an exit. This prompted the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to issue a special provision for “Special Amusement Buildings” requiring properly installed and maintained automatic sprinkler systems. While this made amusement park haunted houses safer, it did not address the safety of small-town community haunted houses.

Photo: Wiki Commons

Currently, the state of Kentucky does not have specific fire codes for haunted houses and attractions, and only a few states have attempted to address this potential for tragedy. States should consider implementing regulations that ensure the safety of haunted attractions using maze concepts, including requirements for illuminated fire exits, limitations on group size, supervision of patrons, and the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) for monitoring.

Indiana has implemented stringent safety codes for haunted houses operating within their jurisdiction. These codes include limitations on maze width and height, total occupancy, and the placement of fire extinguishers and automatic smoke detectors. Open flames and temporary heating sources are prohibited, and all materials used in displays and construction of the maze must be flame-resistant.

While excessive governmental regulations may not be desirable, public safety should be a priority. Implementing preventative measures before incidents occur is far better than reacting to tragedies afterwards. It is crucial to prioritize the safety of guests, volunteers, and employees in these seasonal attractions. After all, none of us have nine lives to spare.

Be Safe My Friends

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