ESSEX – With Halloween fast approaching, Marylanders are being inundated with seasonal advertisements beckoning them to tour a haunted house, take a haunted hayride or hike a haunted trail . . . if they dare.
Many people of all ages do and pay as much as $20 to enjoy the thrill of being scared while secure in the knowledge that there isn’t actually anything to fear.
But about those haunted houses, hayrides and trails: How safe are they?
As far as Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor can recall, there haven’t been any serious accidents involving haunted attractions in Maryland.
“We receive fewer and fewer complaints each year” with regard to potential safety problems, Taylor said. “We contribute that to greater awareness by people trying to create an attraction such as that.”
Inquire about safety at the ticket booth of The Cox’s Point Haunted Mansion in Essex and Shannon Myers will show you a bulletin board with fire and safety inspection reports.
The haunted mansion has been a fund-raiser for the Essex Recreation and Parks Council since 1968 and is Maryland’s oldest haunted house. Myers’s husband, Steve, has run it since 1996.
They are very careful about the materials they use in the haunted mansion and the way they train volunteer workers, Steve Myers said.
“All of our tour guides are trained in CPR,” he said. They also have a system of code words so that staff can communicate effectively without alarming visitors during an emergency.
At Nightmares from Elmridge in Arbutus, Melinda Vaccaro said the staff uses radios to keep in contact at all times.
They also have a system of code words. “Code green” is the most commonly used, said Vaccaro. It means that “someone is scared to death” and doesn’t want to continue through to the end of the tour.
In addition, Vaccaro said, her husband and haunting partner, Robert, is a paramedic and they have police officers on site to help with security.
The major incident that helped raise awareness of the importance of safety is the 1984 Haunted Castle fire at Six Flags Great Adventure theme park in Jackson, N.J.
Eight teenagers died in the fire, which began when a patron accidentally ignited a foam wall-covering with a cigarette lighter he was using to light his path through the dimly lit attraction.
Causes for the tragedy were found to include flammable materials used in the attraction’s construction, insufficient emergency exits and a staff that was not trained to handle an emergency.
“That is the worst-case scenario,” said Brett Bertolino a member of the International Association of Haunted Attractions board of directors. “That has rippled through the industry for years and still affects how people do things.”
This year’s IAHA president, Larry Kirchner, has made promoting safety his top priority. He is also the publisher of HauntWorld Magazine and this year devoted an entire issue to articles on how to create a safe haunted venue.
“Our industry can’t afford any kind of major accident,” Kirchner said.
Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal has developed a list of minimum fire and life safety guidelines for haunted attractions, but does not oversee individual haunted attractions.
Fire inspections and other safety inspections, performed by city or county officials, are usually a requirement for opening a business, even a temporary one like a haunted house, Taylor said.
Visitors to haunted attractions can always ask to see inspection reports, Taylor said, but “there is no requirement that they have to keep the copy of the inspection report on site.” Additionally, people can ask haunted house operators what safety precautions they have taken and how their staff is trained.
“Adults can get a really good feel about safety from how those questions are answered,” Taylor said, “then decide if that is a venue they want to patronize.”
Also, Taylor said, patrons shouldn’t jeopardize their own safety by smoking or using cigarette lighters while enjoying haunted attractions.