Anti-vax and anti-mask selfishness is scarier than anything found at this year's crop of haunted houses


A masked scare actor watches guests at Howl-O-Scream Orlando. - IMAGE VIA JAYCOB PORTER
  • Image via Jaycob Porter
  • A masked scare actor watches guests at Howl-O-Scream Orlando.

After two decades at Busch Gardens Tampa, Howl-O-Scream made its Orlando debut last Friday at SeaWorld. The rain-dampened debut featured goblins, pirates and Jack the Ripper, but the scariest character of the evening may have been the guest wearing a shirt proclaiming their refusal to receive the vaccine or wear a mask.

When Halloween rolled around last year, with the promise of vaccines just weeks away, many of us, myself included, naively thought 2021 would be a return to normal. Now, as we grapple with the fact that some people would rather ingest horse medication than take the FDA-approved vaccine readily available to adults, we’re staring down yet another altered Halloween season.

Like Halloween Horror Nights, the two Florida-based Howl-O-Scream events don’t require guests to wear masks, though they are highly encouraged. Most of the scare actors at Howl-O-Scream had facial coverings. Unlike those at Halloween Horror Nights, the masks at Howl-O-Scream were printed with mouths, allowing them to blend in better.

A scare actor at Howl-O-Scream Orlando with a face mask designed to blend in with their character. - IMAGE VIA JAYCOB PORTER
  • Image via Jaycob Porter
  • A scare actor at Howl-O-Scream Orlando with a face mask designed to blend in with their character.

At A Petrified Forest in Altamonte Springs, the crew is readying to open on Oct. 1 with three new scare trails. The independent local haunt, now in its 14th year, quickly adapted to the challenges of the pandemic last year. Guests were assigned time slots for entry and the haunt ensured their actors had thematically appropriate facial coverings.

Wardrobe manager Danielle Christopher says the addition of face coverings was a challenge last year, one that she had hoped wouldn’t be required again. But this year, just like last, A Petrified Forest will be using the masks.

“This year, even with vaccinations, we’re still going to go with the face coverings because it’s not gone; we’re still in the height of things,” Christopher says.

Stephanie West, special event coordinator at A Petrified Forest, chimes in, “We also have the benefit of being an outdoor haunt. We’re practicing the six-foot rule for most of our actors, or they’re in a very well-ventilated area.”

Christopher notes that the haunt is using fewer masks that fully cover the face this year due to vaccinations and the ability to design this year’s event with the pandemic in mind.

The wardrobe trailer at A Petrified Forest is filled with masks, many purchased last year to help hid the face coverings actors wore. This year the mask and the face covers will return. - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • The wardrobe trailer at A Petrified Forest is filled with masks, many purchased last year to help hid the face coverings actors wore. This year the mask and the face covers will return.

For HHN, this is the first official event since the pandemic began. Haunt events have been struggling to keep up with the onslaught of anti-safety measures instated by the Florida Legislature while also trying to ensure the safety of employees and guests. In the constantly changing realities of hosting an event in a global pandemic hotspot, Universal has tried to stay ahead of the curve by placing many of its actors behind plastic dividers, even though studies studies question their effectiveness.

After lifting their indoors mask requirement earlier this summer, Disney reinstated it when it became clear Florida was becoming a COVID hotspot. Those same requirements weren’t reinstated at Universal or SeaWorld, including at their haunt events. Also long gone at both resorts are the social distancing markers and any attempt at spreading out the crowds. But other safety measures remain in place, including signage encouraging facial coverings and ample access to hand sanitizer.

A Petrified Forest is also evolving its pandemic protocols; unlike last year, guests aren’t required to adhere to a timed entry reservation, but West recommends guests not wanting to mingle with large crowds visit on Thursdays or in the first few hours of operation on Friday nights.

The pandemic-induced labor shortage has also affected local scares. Both HHN and Howl-O-Scream continue to seek workers, even as the events have begun. At tryouts a few weeks ago, A Petrified Forest saw just a fraction of the number of actors that typically show up. With social distancing in mind, the event was already looking to bring on fewer actors than normal, but the low turnout was yet another hurdle in a year and a half filled with them.

With fewer actors and with social distancing in mind, the experience has moved beyond simple jump scares. “We’re able to get the scare from a distance [by] incorporating other technical features, such as lights going out or audio cues, that the actors can trigger as people come into a room,” West explains. “That way, it’s not necessarily the actor creating the scare; they’re just triggering it and being there to facilitate the story.”

But West acknowledges the guests themselves must also work to ensure haunt events are safe. With a tone of frustration in her voice, she notes, “It’s our responsibility to protect our actors. When it comes to the general public, there’s only so much we can do. There’s also personal responsibility.”

West is completely correct in this assertion. While Florida comes off its highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates, more than 45 percent of residents remain unvaccinated, prolonging a pandemic that could’ve been behind us by now and sowing doubt that we’ll ever truly escape its grip.

As hospitals fill up with children (and adults unwilling or unable to get vaccinated), the fact that our neighbors, elected representatives and, in some cases, our own families can be so callous as to wear shirts declaring their unwillingness to do the bare minimum to help others is far scarier than anything a haunt event can offer. Unfortunately for us, for the moment, this is one scare zone we can’t escape.

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