CHICAGO — This year’s calendar was a Halloween-lover’s dream: Oct. 31 falls on a Saturday, and Chicago’s costume shops, haunted houses and candy companies were gearing up for a blowout season of spooky thrills.
So what happens when the scariest thing on Halloween isn’t ghouls, witches or zombies, but the prospect of trick-or-treating in the middle of a pandemic?
“Obviously it’s not going to be what it has been,” said George Garcia, owner of Fantasy Costumes, who has been selling costumes in the Portage Park neighborhood for more than half a century. “We waited six years to get Halloween on a Saturday, and now this.”
Headed into a Halloween unlike any other, towns are weighing whether to announce trick-or-treating hours while haunted house operators determine if there’s any way to make a room packed with screaming teens safe. Costume shops are trying to adapt by offering inflatable costumes and trick-or-treating bags that promote social distancing.
“With everything going on, people are going to be looking for a little bit of escape or relief,” Garcia said.
Towns already have called off Halloween events to avoid crowds, while trying to come up with safer alternatives. Highwood has canceled its annual Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival but hopes to do something smaller for residents.
The headless horseman even may skip his annual ride through Sleepy Hollow, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. In past years, as many as 800 people turned out for the Halloween bonfire, costume contest, hayrides and pumpkin decorating, said John Florance, a member of the group that organizes events in the village.
Sleepy Hollow is trying to come up with a safe alternative but worries about attracting crowds, especially if other communities cancel events.
“Usually we worry about not getting enough people, and this year it’s the opposite,” Florance said.
The uncertainty may not worry families who are focused on kids’ academic instruction during a pandemic. But it’s a different story for companies that rely on the holiday, from costume shops to haunted houses.
Last year, consumers were expected to spend about $8.8 billion on Halloween, mostly driven by costumes, candy and decorations, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. That’s not much compared with other major holidays — Father’s Day drives roughly twice that much spending, according to the retail trade group.
But those figures don’t include spending that takes place at Halloween-themed bar nights, and trips to pumpkin farms, corn mazes and haunted houses.
Commercial haunted houses number at least 1,200 nationwide and are especially popular around Chicago.
About $400 million a year is spent on haunted attraction tickets, according to Brett Hays, president of the Michigan-based Haunted Attractions Association.
The industry has grown large enough to spawn a national franchise: the Denver-based Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group runs more than a dozen haunts across the country, including 13th Floor in Melrose Park.
Hays estimates roughly half of haunted houses nationwide won’t open this year. Many are small businesses that operate year-to-year. As many as a third will go out of business in 2020, he predicted.
“Think about it, we get one chance a year to make our money,” he said.
Haunts also are big seasonal employers. For instance, there’s a zombie army in the southwest suburbs with an annual payroll of $250,000. Or make that Zombie Army, capitalized, as in the Zombie Army Productions that owns Hellsgate in Lockport and operates Statesville Haunted Prison, as well as various video ventures and year-round entertainments.
That $250,000 is just for actors — the “scare staff” — and managers at the two haunts in past years, said company owner John LaFlamboy. But he won’t be making those hires this year; LaFlamboy announced Friday he won’t open either house in October.
“My kids are going to be devastated,” he said, referring to his young staff.
LaFlamboy (who also is a ensemble member of the shuttered Artistic Home theater in West Town) has steeped himself in the dangers of COVID-19 and concluded there’s no safe way to operate a haunted house — which is essentially an enclosed indoor space with dozens or even hundreds of screaming teenagers and nothing special in the way of a ventilation system.
His houses are big businesses, with cash reserves, and he says he took out a bank loan to stay afloat this year — “we’re risking everything” — but he knows smaller haunts won’t be able to survive. Most own or rent their locations and have year-round costs.
“At the end of the day I can have sympathy for them. It’s a terrible situation. We’re all in a terrible situation,” he said. “But to go ahead anyway and open, it’s not responsible, not for your staff, not for your guests, not for your community.”
Stephen Kristof agrees. His Realm of Terror in Round Lake Beach also will not open this season. The theme park at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, home of the annual Fright Fest, has been closed all summer. Many other area haunts, which typically open in late September, haven’t announced their plans.
Kristof owns the building for his 20,000-square-foot haunt and says he’ll be back in 2021. “We’ve been around 18 years,” he said. “This year it came down to the question if we could put on a show that was Realm of Terror and that was safe, not just for us but for our customers. We looked at a million possibilities. But we couldn’t ask our actors to come out and scare potentially thousands of people a night and say, ‘Hope you don’t get sick.’”
He also was wary of investing in opening only to be shut down by the state or find COVID-19 was too nerve-wracking even for thrill-seeking haunted house fans.
Others are planning to open, including 13th Floor, one of the largest haunted houses in the area. It is slated to open Sept. 18 and run through Nov. 7. Asked about the decision to open, a spokesperson said each haunt is following local guidelines and referred the Tribune to a list of COVID-19 precautions on 13th Floor’s website that includes masks and social distancing requirements for staff and guests and employee temperature checks. There will be no hanging scenery and other props that can be touched, and admission will be timed, at reduced capacity.
Basement of the Dead in Aurora also plans to open, with similar precautions, plus plexiglass shields between actors and customers in some places, said owner Todd Baraniak.
The extra space between groups may heighten the experience and with his bloody surgical rooms and meat grinders, masks on the actors should fit the environment, “which is weird,” Baraniak said.
In southwest suburban Crestwood, the smaller D.E.A.D. Rising is already open. Located in the back of a strip mall, it’s run by John and Sally Vitiritti and has been open for occasional adults-only nights over the summer.
Their largest turnout this summer was about 60 people, Sally Vitiritti said, and she compared the risks to those of a visit to a grocery store. She also said they’ve tried to make their show safer: Actors no longer occasionally spit fake blood, for instance.
“You’re only going to go through with the group you came with, masks on. You’re only going to hug the person you came with,” Vitiritti said. “I’m not going to live my life afraid of this virus.”
Candy manufacturers hope consumers who have already been buying more sweets while stuck at home will spend during the industry’s biggest holiday. Halloween accounts for $4.6 billion in chocolate and candy sales, said National Confectioners Association spokesman Christopher Gindlesperger.
While few people shop for trick or treaters in July, Halloween candy sales over the four weeks that ended Aug. 9 jumped 68% compared with the same period last year, Gindlesperger said.
About 63% of adults believe people will find creative, fun and safe ways to celebrate, and 74% of millennial moms and young parents said Halloween would be more important than ever, according to polls commissioned by the trade group.
“They look at it as a way of creating normalcy for the family,” said Alex Corcoran, head of seasons at The Hershey Co., whose biggest Halloween brands are Reese’s, Kit Kat and Hershey’s. “We saw that at Easter too.”
Facing uncertainty about how many communities would allow trick-or-treating — and how comfortable people would feel getting close enough to a stranger to grab a piece of candy — Mars Wrigley created an online app, Treat Town.
People create a virtual avatar, decorate a virtual door, and knock on friends and family members’ virtual decorated doors. People can purchase credits to give their trick or treaters, redeemable for real candy like Snickers and M&Ms, the company’s top Halloween sellers, online or in stores.
Pop-up store Spirit Halloween also is adapting. There are new “Plague Doctor” and Hazmat suit costumes for both kids and adults, along with a wider range of inflatable costumes, for automatic social distancing. New treat bags dangle from an outstretched plastic hand at the end of a stick, so kids don’t have to get close enough to reach into a bowl of candy.
Some costume shops, though, are being cautious.
At Fantasy Costumes, Garcia estimates he’s bringing in about half as much new Halloween merchandise as usual, in some cases because the manufacturers he works with canceled orders.
Garcia expects kids’ costume sales could drop 30% if there are no school parties. Parties in bars or on college campuses could be more subdued, if they happen, shrinking spending by young adults who typically “really like to deck out,” Garcia said.
Charlotte Walters, owner of Lost Eras, a vintage, antiques and costume shop in Rogers Park, skipped her usual $25,000 Halloween merchandise order, even though she’s optimistic about the season.
“I’ll be honest, I really believe that people are really anxious to just party out,” she said.
Even big chains are having trouble making up their minds about what to expect, according to Zagone Studios, which has been making Halloween masks and costumes in the Chicago area for more than 40 years.
At first, big-box chains scaled back the bigger-than-usual orders they placed in anticipation of a Saturday Halloween, said sales and marketing director Franco Pacini.
“When the northeastern states started to recover, we got calls from those stores saying ‘We want to reconsider, we want to ramp up again,” he said. “Unbelievably, the next week, Florida and Texas exploded, and that was the end of that discussion.”
Pacini is still expecting a solid year, thanks to sales to people holding parties at home and haunted houses that are allowed to open.
“There’s a group of die-hard Halloweeners who are going to do something, no matter what,” he said.
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