Haunted house returns to West Virginia city

By ALAN OLSON, The Intelligencer

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — The vacant shell of old businesses shudders back to life tonight as the Infernum In Terra haunted attraction rises from its ancient slumber for its second year.

The haunt, which opened its doors for the first time last year, returns to find a world in turmoil, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing many aspects of society, and the scaring business is no different.

Owner Sean Cooley said he was happy with how the changes to accommodate social distancing practices have come. Performers and guests all wear masks as they tour the facility, and groups will be kept small, and sent through on timed intervals. No more than 40 guests will tour the building in a half-hour, he said.

Cooley said he had been working for about five months reimagining the year’s scares, as restrictions and health concerns forced the haunt to abandon many staples of the genre, such as claustrophobic spaces and close encounters of the scary kind. Many actors have had their spots in the smaller rooms filled with animatronic or pneumatic props. The haunt now employs 16 actors to fill the narrow halls of the tour, with efforts made to keep them, and the guests, safe.

“You can’t get as close to people like you used to,” he said. “You can’t jump out and get right in their face, and obviously wearing a mask hinders the experience a little bit, we can’t do all the makeup that we usually do. … It has to adapt to what’s going on, which is exactly what we’re doing.”

Cooley said the close-knit haunting industry has been top notch about helping one another with tips and tricks to keep the scares flowing when times are tough.

“I’ve added a lot of animatronics to rooms that previously had actors, and some rooms are small, so we’ve added other scares there,” he said. “There’s a bunch of little things that we’ve learned how to do, and in this industry, everybody helps each other out. It’s really nice when another haunted house calls you and is like, ‘Look what we’re doing!’ … Everybody just shares their knowledge. Everyone is a team player, and you don’t have to be so secretive, like you used to.”

Cooley’s informant network on haunting techniques ranges across the country, with some local assistance as well, he said.

Cooley said this year has been tough for the emerging business, and hopes that people looking to break cabin fever in a safe way will help carry them ahead.

“It’s definitely a challenge. We had to place the limit on how many people can come through, and if we have to extend our times, that’s something we’ll do,” he said. “People have been cooped up in their house, and they’re looking for something to do, something that’s safe. They’re going to get scared, but it’s all for fun. It’s a safe experience, and we’re looking to provide that for them.”

Cooley touted his exhibit as “a little more theatrical” than other haunted houses, with the theme — nightmares — tying each room together.

“We don’t copy movies. We’re an original haunted house with our own original ideas.”

The location had served other purposes throughout the last year, with a Christmas event and a St. Patrick’s Day event, although the pandemic forced the another springtime event to shut down just days before its opening. In the off-season, Cooley also develops and sells Halloween props for sale at conventions, which have been shuttered for the time being, further inhibiting the revenue stream.

“It put a pretty good hinder on business. … We haven’t made anything. Very, very little sales. It’s hard to get a presence online, versus at a convention, 25,000 walking past your booth, making sales.”

Infernum In Terra opened Friday and operates Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 13.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and closes at 11. Cooley recommends ordering tickets online, as tours are timed and outdoor waiting space is limited.