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Halloween Haunts Go Drive-Thru Thanks To COVID-19

Decorations are displayed during Nights of the Jack Friends & Family Night 2020 at King Gillette Ranch on Sept. 30, 2020 in Calabasas. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Nights of the J)
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This Halloween looks a lot different, as do a lot of things this year. Among those hit by the pandemic have been large haunted houses and other themed Halloween amusements, known as "haunts" to fans.

The Los Angeles area hasn't been a particularly friendly one for providing a large COVID-safe Halloween experience, beyond whatever neighbors can put together, thanks both to space limitations and local pandemic restrictions. The famed L.A. Haunted Hayride is... no longer in Los Angeles, moving to Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas. Room for cars also means more limited capacity, so events like the Stranger Things drive-thru experience in downtown L.A. is sold out until February.

Nights of the Jack is holding its third annual event at Calabasas's King Gillette Ranch. They focus on the pumpkin of it all, with a family-friendly event featuring more than 5,000 handcarved pumpkins in jack-o' lantern displays, with themes from dinosaurs to celebrities.

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It's been a walking experience in previous years, with a pre-show area featuring food trucks and a full bar.

"That was all pre-COVID. This year was challenging," Nights of the Jack's Ben Biscotti told LAist.

So they also pivoted to a drive-thru, contactless model for this year. A lot of the original parts of the show are still a part of it, but they did extend the trail and add some new content -- including projections and other elements to make it feel more immersive while people are watching from their cars.

"[We] adapted to this new driving format the best we could, in the time that we're living," Biscotti said.

And as people are hungry for COVID-safe entertainment, they sold out their full run -- but they're offering a 360-degree virtual reality version of the tour, with tickets on sale now. That experience launches on Halloween.

Decorations are displayed during Nights of the Jack Friends & Family Night 2020 at King Gillette Ranch on Sept. 30, 2020 in Calabasas. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Nights of the J)
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In Riverside County, Fright Farms has had their own difficulties shifting to a COVID-world.

"When COVID hit, we were in the depths of the design and implementation phase -- and of course, everything got turned upside-down, on its head," creator David Luff told LAist. He's worked on other live events, including Coachella. "Adapt or die, as they say. We're in a very uncertain environment, especially in entertainment."

They shifted to a drive-thru format, and adjusted the event's story to fit while expanding the event's footprint. A character drives a pace car ahead of a group, rigged with an FM transmitter that lets you listen along to the story on your car's radio. You get to park in different areas and watch actors perform scenes.

"Each scene has at least one performer in addition to the pace car driver," Luff said. "Each narrative has about 20 to 30 actors. And the way that we're doing back-of-house is all socially distanced and following the rules of compliance, and then we're doing weekly COVID checks."

They're also distancing even from your car.

"A lot of these other experience have actors that come and bang on your car, or jump out at you from the darkness, and that honestly scares me to death. So I didn't want to do anything like that," Luff said. "And for the most part, where the action takes place with the actors is several feet from anywhere where a car would be. And part of the narrative in the beginning, as far as setting the ground rules, is to keep your car windows rolled up."

Since you can't reach out and touch anything outside your vehicle -- plans for photo opportunities had to be canceled once it shifted away from being a walk-thru event -- but there are interactive elements on your phone. They also use projections, TVs, and LED video tiles to add to the suspense.

Fright Farms also offers an option for kids, along with those who just don't want to be scared: Not So Spooky Farm. But plans for kid-friendly activities like baking and pumpkin carving had to be cut from the event thanks to COVID-19.

Both of the events take place in what would normally be parking lots -- but thanks to COVID, the location, which is normally used for youth soccer, doesn't have anything lined up at the moment.

But they've faced additional problems this week, having to delay their opening thanks to high winds and wildfires for the safety of both visitors, as well as their live performers. Thanks, 2020.

As restrictions start to lift, Luff is considering perhaps using more of a tram model when you don't need to be fully confined in your car anymore. Luff hopes to also be able to stage large live concerts at the space that's being used for Fright Farms, eventually -- but doesn't expect to be able to do so until 2022 or even 2023. Pretty scary.