BOSTON — Mary Barrett Costello is a horror buff.
“I just love it,” Costello said. “There’s something about being afraid but knowing that it’s not real.”
Her passion helped her build one of the longest-running haunted attractions in the Boston area. In a normal October, Barrett’s Haunted Mansion in Abington allows an average of 22,000 visitors through its haunted halls.
But there are no such terrors at Barrett’s Haunted Mansion this year. Instead, there are classic horror movies projected on two big screens for guests to watch from the isolated safety of their cars.
In and around Boston, haunted attractions like Barrett’s have had to reevaluate the ways they operate to accommodate state and federal COVID-19 safety regulations. Some weren’t able to open at all. But others have adapted.
There are no “jump scares” at Salem’s Lost Museum in Gallows Hill this year. No strangers in masks wait just around the corner. In fact, “we’re afraid of people if they aren’t wearing masks,” said owner Erik Rodenheiser.
Still, the “interactive adventure” has not lost its touch of terror. Rodenhiser knows horror. The life-long Salem local said he can trace his operations in the “spook” industry to the first haunted house he opened in the basement of his childhood home.
“I love Halloween,” he said. “I don’t get that scared, so scaring people is a lot of fun.”
Halloween is usually a month-long celebration in Salem. The “Haunted Happenings” festival accounts for an estimated 30% of annual tourist spending every year — more than $40 million. The city braces itself for around 500,000 visitors in October, said Destination Salem Executive Director Kate Fox.
“A strong October is what gets us through the winter,” Fox said.
Salem canceled the festival this year. Mayor Kim Driscoll asked visitors to postpone their visit if they have not booked it already in a press conference on Oct. 16. According to the city’s website, parking is limited, capacity in buildings is capped at 40%, and businesses are closing early.
Rodenhiser said he is feeling the crunch of the pandemic’s regulations. He lost actors. He has also lost customers — about 60% a day. But he’s still open, and he’s at capacity every weekend. For that, he said, he is grateful.
“Even in these COVID times, I’m still happy with it,” he said.
Coming up with creative solutions to unusual problems is something horror fans are used to, said Ani Schiller, makeup director for Witch’s Woods in the Nashoba Valley Ski Area.
“I’m blown away by how everybody has adapted,” Schiller said.
For example, actors in these Halloween attractions must occasionally play “mask police” to ensure guests are following company policy and state mandates, Schiller said. The catch, Schiller said, is enforcing mask policies while remaining in character, but the actors find ways to improvise.
“Zombies smell bad enough,” Schiller recalled one actor telling a maskless guest. “Nobody wants to smell your bad breath.”
While the attraction’s actors would get ready together, they now get ready at home and drive themselves to their stations in the Nashoba Valley Ski Area.
Schiller said she can’t do makeup this year like she’s used to. But she said she can teach actors, virtually, how to apply makeup themselves.
“Most people are perfectly capable of making themselves look bloody and dirty,” Schiller said.
Guests have to book their visit in advance, and tickets are limited. Still, like the Lost Museum, Schiller said Witch’s Woods has sold out every weekend. People want to get scared of something that isn’t a deadly virus, Schiller said.
“A lot of customers are people that are just looking for something to do right now,” Schiller said.
Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, too, is sold out every weekend. But Costello said it’s been a harder blow: she estimates she’s made this whole season what she’d usually make in “two good nights,” and her usual employees are all volunteering this year.
“I couldn’t have done it otherwise, honestly,” Costello said. “That’s how little money there is.”
It has never been about the money, though, Costello said. What keeps people coming back year after year, Costello said, is that the attraction is never the same.
“If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t change it every year,” Costello said.
This year is just more different than most, Costello said. Instead of hiding behind doors and around corners to spook guests, actors roam the property and surprise unsuspecting movie viewers already on the edge of their seats. Screams still pierce the air.
Katy Aldoupolis, who works at Barrett’s, isn’t a professional actor, but when she puts on her “Curtis” costume, she becomes a “Texas Chainsaw, Hills Have Eyes-type character,” Aldoupolis said.
Sure, Aldoupolis spends some of her nights this year parking and working security, but she said it doesn’t bother her. Aldoupolis said Barrett’s is a chance to escape for a few hours and bring other people joy, even if through terror.
And Aldoupolis said making customers happy is worth the pay cut.
“Honestly just hearing the screams and the laughter, that’s what brings me back,” Aldoupolis said. “It’s just a blast.”
Costello said Halloween night, the penultimate of the season, was as successful as it could have been in 20-degree weather.
“The weather the last couple of weekends has not been my friend,” she said.
Costello and her team will spend the next “week or so” taking everything down. Then, in March, they’ll start preparing for next year.
“That’s how long it takes us to redo it,” Costello said.
Costello said she “really hopes” to prepare for a normal season next year. It will be Barrett’s Haunted Mansion’s 30th year in business, so Costello said she has big things in store.
Exactly what those plans are will remain a secret until opening day, she said. The mystery is part of the fun.
“I wouldn’t even tell my best friend that,” Costello said.