Candlelight dinner and roses? Yawn. How about clutching your date’s hand in fear on Valentine's Day?
As the haunted house industry transforms from homespun to Hollywood-esque, bigger facilities with permanent sets and elaborate props mean higher overhead for operators. Putting a scary spin on holidays like Valentine's Day helps defray some of their costs and keeps their business on fans' radar year-round.
“Valentine’s Day has become really popular,” said Todd James, owner of Cutting Edge Haunted House in Fort Worth, Texas. “You’re providing an alternative for Valentine’s for people that want to do something different.”
People like Jennifer Milligan.
The Pittsburgh resident and mother of four went to the haunted Valentine’s Day event last year at Castle Blood in Monessen, Pa., about a 45-minute drive from Pittsburgh, with her husband and another couple.
“Physiologically, there are a lot of similarities between being scared and being sexually aroused. In both cases, adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream, resulting in the same primal physical sensations.”
“I find it more exciting, something more to do than just sit there and watch a movie,” she said.
In previous years, Milligan said, she and her husband had more typical Valentine’s Day dates like restaurant dinners or riverboat cruises, but a haunted house offered a unique kind of escape.
“You’re not sitting there talking about your kids or work. It gets you talking about different things,” she said. There was even an element of romance, she said. “When you’re walking around, you’re holding hands. It’s nice.”
Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. The human body responds to lust and fear in similar ways, said John Edward Campbell, assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University.
“Fear is a very intense primary emotion. It gets our hearts racing, our breaths quickening, and our bodies sweating,” he said via email. “Physiologically, there are a lot of similarities between being scared and being sexually aroused. In both cases, adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream, resulting in the same primal physical sensations,” he said.
A haunted Valentine’s Day makes sense from a business perspective, too.
“The top commercial haunted houses represent a significant investment of time and resources into a seasonal attraction,” Campbell said. “It makes perfect sense to try to expand the appeal of haunted houses to different times of the year.”
Operators can make money on Valentine’s Day events because they don’t spend the kind of money re-inventing their spaces the way many do each Halloween. With some inexpensive tweaks and a core cast of character actors — some of whom may be volunteers — owners can put on a spooky show on a shoestring.
“Our paid staff [costs] probably around $1,000,” said Richard Alvarado, owner of Moxley Manor in Bedford, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. Last year’s Valentine’s Day effort brought in about $10,000 or $11,000 in revenue. “We just put that towards our Halloween budget.”
And those budgets aren’t cheap. Alvarado estimated he spends up to $20,000 a year on new props and set pieces; rent and utilities on his leased space cost $30,000 to $35,000 annually.
“If you can find an event to do every three to four months it helps pay the bills … helps just keeping you alive if you run into an October that’s full of rain or something,” Cutting Edge’s James said. “It might pay your rent for a month or two and your utilities for a month,” he said.
Ricky Dick, owner of Castle Blood, said his business is “very aggressive” in finding other options. “We need to be pulling in a couple of grand a month, year-round, just to keep the doors unlocked.”
Haunted-house owners say the other advantage of opening up for a night or two in February is keeping the business on fans’ minds between Halloweens.
“The main thing is, we have to do our community outreach and be visible in the public all year round,” Dick said. Most owners that hold Valentine’s events promote exclusively via social media and text or email blasts. Dick said about 80 percent of his Valentine’s Day customers last year were return visitor.
Katherine Held is one of these. The Pittsburgh resident said she and her husband plan to visit Castle Blood’s Valentine’s attraction for the second year in a row this weekend. “It was kind of exciting to do something different for Valentine’s Day,” she said. “It wasn’t just going to dinner or getting candies.”