The zombies have been practicing at home. They stand before mirrors, screaming and grunting through their masks. "They want to make sure they are loud enough," says Jennifer Condron. "That people can hear their snarls."
Condron is the founder of New York City-based BulletProof Productions, whose centerpiece is Bane Haunted House, transplanted last year to Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood from New Jersey. Most Halloween attractions aren't much creepier than Disney's Haunted Mansion. Bane, rated by BuzzFeed as one of the nation's scariest, is more like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The gore is cinematic, the spaces tight and disorienting. Visitors are separated from their parties and forced to undergo the terror--which includes crawling, sliding, and spinning in the dark--alone.
In this uncertain season, Halloween business owners like Condron are enduring their own kind of terror. Just 25 percent of small-size haunts are opening this year, according to the Haunted Attraction Association. To diversify her revenue stream beyond the crucial weeks of September and October, Condron in the spring built a new suite of escape rooms, into which she sunk around $275,000. But those rooms are mothballed until next year because of coronavirus.
Condron has spent another $100,000 preparing Bane for Halloween 2020. That investment includes normal expenditures--refreshing the space with new scares, hiring actors, marketing--and Covid-related ones, like equipping the zombie hordes with PPE and installing MERV 13 air filters on all five floors.
Normally Bane would have begun welcoming fear fans by the end of September. Now Condron is hoping for October 16. She says she has been cleared to open by the state but can't get a straight answer from the city. "Over the past two months, we have been hearing rumblings that we can't because we are indoor family entertainment, and the city is not allowing those attractions to open in phase four," says Condron, referring to the current stage of New York's reopening plan. She has put in multiple calls to the NYC Department of Small Business Services. "It is always, 'We don't know,'" Condron says. "'We will get back to you.' This has been going on for weeks."
So Condron is proceeding with fingers crossed. That means reimagining Bane--whose rules include "Don't touch us! We may touch you!"--for current conditions. In the back of her mind lurks the fear that for her business, Halloween may be dead. "Anything could happen," she says. "It is scary."
Socially distanced scares
The daughter of a makeup artist, Condron fell in love with haunted houses at age 18, when she landed a job in a pop-up version. (A versatile actor, she played both a house ghoul and a parking lot ghoul.) After majoring in political science at Rutgers, she joined her husband running an auto-body shop. In 2010, Condron had saved enough money to open Bane in a 3,000-square-foot tent outside a mall in Livingston, New Jersey. After two more moves to larger indoor spaces, Condron in 2019 relocated to New York.
"I always felt we were more of a New York attraction because we were really scary and hands-on," Condron says. "New York City is a little more gritty." Bane opened in Hell's Kitchen last season to crowds and stellar reviews on social media and in publications like TimeOut.
When Covid struck in March, Condron postponed the planned escape room expansion but continued preparing for Halloween. At the time, it seemed unlikely pandemic rules would apply in October. Still, she began reimagining Bane as a no-touch experience.
One thing the business had going for it: Groups were already limited to four people and enter the house 45 seconds apart. But ordinarily Bane is a full-contact attraction. Isolating visitors from their parties significantly amps up the tension. "Let's say you are holding on to your boyfriend or girlfriend," Condron says. "We will come between you, separate you, and lead you off into dark corridors by your shoulders or hands."
This season, the actors will direct visitors by voice. That's why Condron was so pleased when most showed up for training having already practiced at home. In addition to their torn, dirtied, and bloodied costumes ("I tell them to wear what you would have died in during the zombie apocalypse," she says), they must don masks, which largely disappear beneath the makeup airbrushed over their faces. Still, they'll need to grunt and snarl louder to be heard. "I think it will be scary because they'll have no mouths," Condron says.
Bane also benefited from a larger-than-usual applicant pool when casting this year's walking dead, in part because the city's theater industry is shut down. Condron hired around 180 actors, compared with 120 in 2019. "I sent out casting calls, and they can't wait to start working," she says.
Condron is tight-lipped about specific tweaks she's made to the experience "because it might ruin the scare." In general, she will be relying more on lights and sounds: "more startle than in years past." A monster won't touch you. But it will suddenly appear behind you.
The only thing that had to go completely is the Squeeze Room, which comprises two 16-foot-airbags through which visitors must push. There was no way to disinfect it for every customer.
Even if Bane is allowed to reopen, Condron's not sure whether folks will come. With trick-or-treating at a minimum and beloved events like the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade canceled, people may be desperate for seasonal entertainment. On the other hand, fact-based fear might overwhelm fun-based fear.
Whether or not Bane opens for a truncated Halloween, Condron hopes to recoup some of her money in November and December. "I think the city needs a Christmas haunted house," she says. "Fake snow. Lights and Christmas trees. Scary elves. Dead Santa."