MOUNTVILLE, Pa. — Hours before the blood-curdling screams, before the chain saws and moans of approaching zombies merged into a symphony of terror, workers tidied up the old farm with leaf blowers.
For Jim Schopf, that was a joyful noise. Nothing scares the owner of a popular Halloween attraction more than silence.
“What do you got there, a box of heads?” Schopf asked an employee hurrying past him before opening night on Sept. 11.
Schopf and his brother, Gene, turned their family’s 40-acre farm in Lancaster County into “Field of Screams" in 1993, harvesting fear instead of chickens, potatoes, and corn. One old chicken barn is now a haunted “asylum” filled with mannequins in various states of decay.
In a normal year, Schopf said he’d see tens of thousands of customers come through the gates, but this year, he expects far fewer to take a hayride, venture into the “Den of Darkness,” and walk the “Nocturnal Wasteland.”
“Field of Screams” is one of several haunted attractions that opened in Pennsylvania and New Jersey over the last three decades as Halloween became America’s fastest-growing holiday and evolved into an entire season encompassing two months. The National Retail Federation expects Halloween spending to be $8.05 billion this year, down slightly from last year’s $8.78 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many questions about the 2020 holiday remain unanswered, particularly whether officials will ask residents to pass on traditional candy-giving and whether parents will allow their children to trick-or-treat anyway. Facebook posts lament the “cancellation” of Halloween, but in a survey, the retail federation found that the number of households that planned to hand out candy dropped from 69% last year to 62%.
Haunted attractions range from simple corn mazes and pumpkin patches to multimillion-dollar pyrotechnic displays like “Field of Screams” or Creamy Acres' “Nights of Terror” in Gloucester County. For the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purposes, they fall under the umbrella of “agritourism.” As of the agency’s 2017 census, 711 Pennsylvania farms offered agritourism activities, bringing in a combined $27 million annually. Southeastern Pennsylvania had the most, with 191 in Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties.
Liam Migdall, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said most agritourism farms focus on the fall season.
“For a lot of suburban farms, agritourism has been what’s kept them in business, because they don’t have enough land to make a living simply producing a commodity, and development prevents them from expanding,” Migdall said. “Income from agritourism will likely be especially critical for those farms this year because of the market and price volatility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Most of the attractions are finding a way to open, offering socially distanced haunts, requiring masks, and posting hand-washing instructions in horror-themed fonts.
“One of the main things we had to change was our capacity," Jim Schopf said. "You used to be able to just show up and wait in line, and if there was 500 people in line, you get in and you’re 501. Now we are making everyone purchase online and pick a time slot and arrival time to limit and spread out those people.”
“Field of Screams” has about 300 employees, most of them seasonal. Schopf said additional restrictions have been placed on their interaction with customers, limiting contact and distance, meaning the zombies and ghouls won’t be as close.
“They’re not going to be breathing down your neck,” he said.
Some of the nation’s largest and best-known haunts, including “Halloween Horror Nights” at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and “Terror Behind the Walls,” a major fund-raising effort by Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, have been canceled this year. There are several other attractions across the country called “Field of Screams,” and at least one of them, based in Kentucky, is not opening.
“Terror Farm,” an attraction in Perry County, won’t be opening either, and a statement on its website said it was “unable to get clear guidance on what will be expected for haunted attractions to safely operate in the age of COVID-19.”
“Our monsters and madmen," it said, “simply can not stay six feet away from their prey — and we’d be fools to ask them to.”
Sean Kelley, vice president of Eastern State Penitentiary, said the historic prison in the city’s Fairmount section would have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Terror Behind the Walls" but will instead hold night tours for small groups through the Halloween season. The prison’s traditional Halloween event saw tens of thousands of customers, even busing them in from parking lots elsewhere in the city.
“If there’s a lesson in 2020, it’s that long-term planning is not possible,” Kelley said. “It was just impossible to run a haunted house. People are touching each other, they’re very close together. What we’re putting together now will be low-key, quiet, and suspenseful.”
Kelley said each haunted attraction made decisions based on its own comfort level and what percentage of its space is indoor vs. outdoor. He said no decision has been made for next year.
Linvilla Orchards, in Media, Delaware County, isn’t focused on scares for customers, but rather the family-friendly pumpkin- and apple-picking that draws droves of families before the sun sets on fall weekends. Like “Field of Screams,” Linvilla is moving to time-ticketed purchases for activities like hayrides.
“It’s definitely going to be a slower season for us because none of the schools signed up for their weekday tours this year," said farm manager Norm Schultz. “The last two weekends, including Labor Day, saw really nice weather, and we actually had bigger crowds than we expected. Every week, we’re reevaluating and learning how we can make it better. It’s a learning process for everyone."
Linvilla has 60 full-time employees, Schultz said, and brings in 200 part-time workers for the fall season.
“So many farms depend on the fall,” he said. “For those that just got started in this and made big investments, the pandemic could really devastate them.”