Can a haunted house even scare us in 2021?

By Luke Winkie

Man in a scary mask crawls towards the camera while bloods spatters on the floor and red lighting illuminates his body.
Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor

Part of the Horror Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

A small infographic details the extent of the Covid-19 measures at New York City’s Blood Manor. “YOUR SAFETY IS OUR PRIORITY,” it reads, next to a sinister Michael Myers facsimile getting his temperature checked, a green-skinned zombie wearing a mask around its mandibles, and a bloodstained hand-sanitizing station ready and waiting at the mouth of the torture chambers.

The image pierces through the fantasy of the attraction, one of the thousands of haunted houses that open seasonally each year, and return even now, in the midst of a pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine the Cenobites paying much mind to a deadly virus. But due diligence must be done, even in the depths of perdition.

This is, of course, all presented alongside the rest of the Blood Manor offerings, which include such exhibitions as Maggot Invasion (“They’ll get under your skin!”), Mayhem (“Beasts and demons vie for your body and soul!”), and Hannibal’s Hell (“1,000 ways to die!”). Blood Manor wants to abate any fears that its sanctum may be compromised by the ongoing global pandemic, all while stoking your more primal anxieties — like a man in a mask waiting to scream at you at the next left turn.

Image of the entrance to the scary halloween attraction Blood Manor.
Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor

So, it makes perfect sense that I ended up at a bar off the Canal Street stop in lower Manhattan, lubricating with a few gin and tonics and a small group of friends, girding ourselves for our eventual descent into darkness. I was here to discover how I’d process a haunted attraction after the single strangest period of time in my life.

Since March 2020, my girlfriend and I have become accustomed to a hellish variety of stale, slow-paced terror. We spent last spring cocooned in our living room, listening to the foreboding ambulance sirens that blared through the windows all night long. The streets were bereft of life, save for the few scavengers bundled up with masks and plastic gloves on their weekly subsistence trips to the grocery stores. (I was one of them. Honestly, we all looked a bit like scare actors.) New York City was rendered a wasteland, and even though the delta surge has declined since its peak — as restaurants reopen and the Moderna high courses through my body — I still double-take with every errant cough. After more than 18 months, a lot of us have given up on feeling normal.

“Normal” was the gift bestowed on me by Blood Manor. As I waited in a line surrounded by costumed beasties, menacing from the perimeter and posing for pictures, I was taken by a familiar, almost refreshing feeling of comic dread. I’m not a horror movie guy; I don’t like being scared. In fact, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d visited a haunted house since high school.

So it was nice to know that after being besieged and beleaguered by the very real threat of death and suffering — watching the infection numbers tick up every day, reading constant scattershot reports about transmission rates, worrying about the fate of my loved ones — I’ve somehow retained the capacity to be freaked out by an undead bride.

Perhaps that is the primary appeal of horror fiction. I’m not saying I want to be stalked by Freddy or Jason, but you can find some strange peace of mind when, ever so briefly, a madman on the loose represents the only pressing peril bearing down on the world. At least you can run from a killer. Covid-19 never offered us that opportunity.

We scanned our tickets at a tent out front, and our group was guided into the bowels of a nondescript brownstone across the street from a wine store. That’s the thing with haunted houses; they’re rarely permanent attractions. Usually they drift into town and take up residence in some leased basement, like those Spirit Halloween outlets.

If you’ve been to one of these “houses” before, you know what to expect. Wander through a handful of macabre scenes, marvel at the twisted prosthetics, and endure every jump scare you discover. I flashed a picture of my vaccination card to the doorman and was escorted downstairs where a troupe of ghoulish theater kids, splotched in black-and-white corpse paint, kept us pinned against the wall as we awaited our turn to enter the gauntlet.

This is where the delusions begin. The ticket stub guarantees a brief sojourn to an alternative dimension where you’re at the mercy of these haunted house denizens. Ideally, for a split second, the actors can force their customers to spring the tripwire of fantasy — to enjoy the seismic jabs of anticipation, shock, and relief that reassures everyone that they are truly alive.

Blood Manor was operating last Halloween. October 2020 represented a nadir of the American Covid-19 saga. Case numbers had reached a new high, the vaccine was nowhere to be found, and people in New York City returned to survival mode after a sunny, summerlong respite on makeshift patios around the boroughs. Blood Manor enforced a strict mask mandate on its staff and customers in those days — performers hid behind rubber and silicone, which was obedient to citywide pandemic ordinances, and also, frankly, more frightful than the alternative. They stood 6 feet away from the adventurers and devised new ways to shock our human sensibilities from a distance. Remote scaring, just another sign of the times.

Up close photo of a man smiling with creepy halloween face paint.
Michael Delrosso/Courtesy of Blood Manor

All of the Covid-19 concessions listed on the Blood Manor website did not seem to migrate into our unsteady 2021. My group was packed together like sardines in the staging area as the bare, fleshy mouths of our captors barked out orders against our ears. We were funneled into a pitch-black maze, daisy-chained together, feeling out the path forward with our hands and feet. A woman, taken prisoner by some maniacal surgeon, begged for our help in an operating room filled with bodies and meathooks. Later, we were condemned to a cursed subway car, which frankly did not differ too much from our usual commutes. This was pure slasher pastiche, hosted in a compound heavy with spittle and sweat.

That was the scariest part of my Blood Manor experience. I was not shaken by the wild-eyed clown who clicked an empty staple gun against my forehead; I didn’t react to the woman who came tumbling out of the chimney; the horned, purple demon who ushered us into the underworld seemed like a good guy, and the psychedelic 3D circus tent was more impressive than it was chilling. Maybe I would’ve reacted differently before a prolonged period of isolation. In 2021, it’s just kinda nice to be around people again, even if they’re serving the forces of Hell.

In the back of my mind, I was a little worried about potentially participating in a superspreader event. Yes, I am fully vaccinated; yes, my chances of enduring a serious bout of Covid-19 are exceptionally low, but no, I do not yet feel completely at peace in close quarters as unknown microbial agents float through the imperceptible ether. I don’t think there’s a better articulation for how drastically the pandemic has altered our sense of being; even here, among so many ghosts, goblins, and incredible Halloween camp, we know what the true danger is. That’s a bitter irony. The one thing Blood Manor wants to reassure us about is the only thing anyone is afraid of.

After dodging one final group of unhinged clowns, we exited, stopping to take some celebration photos in a throne room. My friends and I had survived the Manor, and already I was coasting on the sweet euphoria that follows any period of heightened senses. The six of us gathered outside on the street and started planning the rest of our Saturday evening. Should we go back to the bar? Should we book a karaoke room? Is there a good dance floor around here? It reminded me of a hope I’ve nurtured from the very beginning of the pandemic: my god, how we will party at the light at the end of the tunnel, when Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror. Until then, the night continues.

Luke Winkie is a reporter from San Diego. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.