By Jackelyn Velilla and Amos Patterson
Aug. 27, 2020
Trumped-up terror is big business. According to Zombie Buzz, haunted houses scared up nearly $700 million in ticket sales across more than 5,000 U.S. commercial attractions in 2018.
So it’s no surprise that investors are drawn to the spooky festivities, attracted by a lucrative seasonal industry that’s as reliable as pumpkin spice.
Francis Dunning, a volunteer analyst for Rural Economies Now, keeps an eye on the business side of the haunted attraction world, which predominantly affects suburban and exurban tax bases.
“This year, of course, everything is upside-down,” said Dunning. “A few attractions say they’re going forward with business as usual, but every week more and more managers announce they’re shutting down because of COVID-19 — and it’s just a huge blow to these local economies.”
A large number of these horror havens operate as nonprofits to benefit local institutions, according to Dunning — think police precincts, public schools, and veterans organizations. One Halloween haunt in Massachusetts raised $1 million in 2016 for a new children’s hospital.
So it furrowed a few industry brows when Haverhill Road, a Florida investment firm acquired by The Trump Organization in 2012, made overtures to a handful of fear factories in recent years, many of which operate as community fundraisers.
“It just didn’t make any sense,” said Dunning. “Why would a minor investment firm try to turn a buck on what amounts to a glorified bake sale for your local fire department?” But the offers kept coming. Sixty-two haunted attractions across seven states reported interactions with Haverhill to Rural Economies Now and other seasonal industry watchers. Dunning characterized the interactions as unusual.
The pitch went something like this: hire Haverhill to overhaul the logistics of your seasonal shock farm — everything from makeup and costumes to food and live music — and you can rake in even more October dough. “It was downright weird,” added Rural Economies Now Director Zona Coppin. “For bigger operations it kind of made sense. But for these micro haunts raising money for a new town clock? I mean, really?”
So it gave industry watchers like Dunning and Regional Farm Trust Director Nöel Moessner a bad case of the heebie-jeebies when Haverhill switched up its already unconventional approach and focused all of its attention on just one haunted attraction.
“More than a dozen house managers across mostly southern states all reported strange contacts with Haverhill Road in 2017 and ’18,” said Moessner. “Last year it was only one.”
This particular spook-fest, located in rural Kentucky, happens to be run by one of these non-profit organizations.
“It’s almost like they were hunting for something.” Dunning compares Haverhill’s interest in this attraction — which prefers, perhaps understandably, to remain unnamed — with a scavenger hunt.
“They would hit some attractions harder than others, then quickly lose interest and move on,” said Coppin. “I know of at least two in Georgia that said Haverhill representatives actually drove out to their corporate offices to make their pitch in person. Which under normal circumstances would be considered charming, if not a little aggressive.”
Charming, perhaps, but definitely not business as usual in such a cottage industry, according to Coppin.
Business is even more unusual in 2020.
“I mean with the coronavirus, just forget about it,” said Coppin. “It’s no big surprise that we haven’t heard from [the unnamed attraction] so far this year. We haven’t heard from many of our contacts.” (As of our print deadline, there were no cancellation alerts on the unnamed attraction’s website.)
Coppin and Moessner both confirmed that Haverhill representatives visited the manager’s Kentucky office over two dozen times in the spring and early summer of 2019. “I mean they just bombarded them with visits and emails and phone calls,” said Coppin. One of the visits included an offer to buy the attraction outright. At one point, according to Moessner, the manager threatened legal action, citing an inability to perform basic daily functions — and locals were beginning to ask uncomfortable questions.
“Weird. Just weird,” said Coppin. “Looking back, they should have sold it. If they only knew what was coming with the pandemic. I bet they’re kicking themselves this year.”
No haunted houses have reported interactions with Haverhill Road this year, a firm whose motives remain as mysterious as the attractions they’ve courted.
(Haverhill Road and Trump Organization representatives did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)