In normal times, Barrett’s Haunted Mansion in Abington is the scariest thing around – a hair-raising, shriek-inducing spectacle featuring a Scream Team of more than 100 costumed actors that draws as many as 23,000 thrill seekers in the 27 days leading to Halloween.
But for the first time in 29 years, something scarier has shuttered the haunted house. Because of the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mansion did not open this Halloween season.
Instead, owner Mary Barrett Costello switched to Screens and Screams -- drive-in movies in the parking lot, with a limit of 84 cars. About a dozen creepy costumed actors roam among the vehicles, scratching on car windows and trying their best to make the experience more horrifying.
Tickets to the movies quickly sold out, which Barrett Costello attributes to both people’s desire for diversion and need to maintain tradition in trying times.
“Every movie we show people have seen 10 times, but it’s something to do, and it’s still coming to Barrett’s Haunted Mansion,” she said.
Barrett Costello said the haunted house is redesigned every year; one year the mansion became a hospital filled with bloodied patients and demented doctors, another year a prison with cells of alarming inmates. Planning starts in March, and it soon became obvious this year that the restrictions imposed to keep people safe from COVID-19 would make it impossible to open as usual.
“We thought maybe we could do time slots, but our rooms are small, so no matter how we did it, it wasn’t right,” she said. “But I didn’t want it to sit empty this year, because next year is 30 years and that’s a milestone.”
Barrett Costello said long-time employee and Scream Team member Mike Pearson came up with the idea for scary drive-in movies. He passed away in August and this haunt season is dedicated to his memory, with proceeds going to his wife, Barrett Costello said.
Barrett’s Haunted Mansion sits behind the Abington Ale House, which Barrett Costello and her family operate and own. They also own The Charlie Horse restaurant in Kingston and three catering facilities on the South Shore.
Barrett Costello said it was her idea to make the empty house on the Abington property a haunted attraction – an idea her late father first scoffed at and then fully endorsed.
The first version of the mansion was modest, she said.
“We talked to a gentleman from Brockton who did one for the Boy Scouts,” she said. “We had little hideaways where people would pop out. Now we have entire sets. That it’s realistic is really important; it becomes a sense of pride to all of us.”
One of her favorite iterations was when the mansion became a hotel – with an “elevator” set on airbags that gave the illusion of moving and opened into a totally different space, courtesy of a wall that flipped over.
She also made sure that people could tolerate the experience by adding three scary rooms on the way to the ticket counter. “It’s a great barometer; if you can’t make it through, you won’t make it,” she said.
Mike Snoonian of East Bridgewater and his family have been going to Barrett’s Haunted Mansion for years, and he and his 10-year-old daughter Ada went to the first drive-in show. A therapist, Brockton school counselor, and horror aficionado, Snoonian runs a horror movie festival and co-hosts two horror podcasts: The Pod and the Pendulum and PsychoAnalysis.
He said that research shows horror movies help people deal with anxiety and trauma, and some new research has found that people who enjoy horror movies are having an easier time than most handling the current pandemic.
“'The Thing' and ‘American Werewolf in London’ are two of my top five favorite movies, so it was a no-brainer,” Snoonian said of going to Barrett’s drive-in. “It was great. They’ve taken a negative, where they can’t do their season, and turned it into a positive, a communal activity.”
Ada also praised the experience. “I loved it,” she said. “I loved the movie and the snacks and the people who came to the [car] window and scared you.”
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.