When the First Parish Haunted House in Bedford opens on Friday, Oct. 28, it will be filled with monsters, ghouls, and horrors, but some particular freakish frights will be missing.
“No clowns,” said Gene Kalb, a First Parish parishioner who helps organize the attraction at the Unitarian Universalist church. “It’s so weird this year. But we’ve never had clowns.”
Clown hysteria has brought an early, and often unwanted, start to the usual terror of Halloween. Since August, police in at least two dozen states have received reports of people dressed as creepy clowns lurking in the shadows, trying to lure children with candy, or chasing unsuspecting people. Massachusetts hasn’t been immune, with schools in particular vulnerable to sham or real clown sightings.
So the debate within haunted house circles this year is whether someone in a harlequin costume with red nose, exaggerated makeup, and a particularly bad wig is simply too terrifying for an audience that has grown immune to skeletons, ghosts, and gore.
Some haunted houses in the area have no intention of pulling the clowns from their attractions, though the phenomenon has made them more cautious than in years past.
“Anyone who’s a clown has to do their makeup here instead of driving in with it on,” said Bob Connors, owner of Hysteria at Connors Farm in Danvers. “We don’t want them to be hurt or mistaken on their way in. But I’m not gonna let the bad guys win here. When we start doing that stuff we might as well all stay home.”
Mary Barrett-Costello, owner of Barrett’s Haunted Mansion in Abington, said clowns are integral to the 25-year-old attraction and will remain this season to creep around and creep guests out.
“I’m not putting on more clowns, and I’m not putting on less clowns,” she said. “I’m keeping the clowns I have out there. I know people are scared of clowns, but they come here to be scared and have a good time.”
First Parish Haunted House takes a different tack, opting for a less terrifying Halloween.
“It’s easy to be gross,” said its designer, Karl Winkler. “It’s hard to be scary and not gory.”
Over seven Halloween seasons, the haunted house has found a way to strike the balance between frightening and family friendly. Last year, more than 800 people visited the Bedford church as part of its fund-raiser, where the decor harkened back to the era when Bela Lugosi played Count Dracula.
“The goal has always been to be very family-friendly,” Kalb said. “Not that many people do haunted houses as elaborate as this one if they’re not a commercial enterprise. But we plan a year in advance and everyone helps out in some way, whether it’s writing scripts for the different rooms or building sets off site.”
This year’s theme is the “Bedford Alchemy Society.” Guests will be led through themed rooms on three different floors and will have the chance to interact with various alchemists, their creations, and the magical creatures they’ve collected from around the world.
Over at The Newton Haunted House in Newtonville, Lisa Feldman Barrett uses science — not blood or guts — to scare guests.
This is the 12th year that Barrett, a neuroscientist who heads the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital, has run the haunted house out of her home. The one-night charity event, which will take place on Oct. 28 this year, raises thousands of dollars for the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Barrett’s daughter, Sophia, had the initial idea for the haunted house when she was 5 years old. To make the haunted house scarier without resorting to gore, the family has used Barrett’s research about how the brain generates emotions..
“We terrify people, to be perfectly honest,” said Barrett’s husband, Dan. “People’s eyes can be very effective in scaring, particularly if a visitor is not sure if the eyes belong to a prop or live person. We play with what’s alive and what’s not, rather than using cheap thrills.”
The house has three “scare” levels — no scares, medium scares, and full scares — to cater to every type of guest.
At the first level, actors stand completely still and will unmask at the guests’ request. At the next level, actors will lightly brush against visitors and move about in a creepy manner. And, in the most extreme version, actors leap out unexpectedly and grab guests by the arm. But no matter the scare level, there is one consistent theme inside.
“There are absolutely no clowns,” Dan said. “We have a no-clown rule. There’s something frightening about clowns and we have never used them.”