Culture

Drive-in haunted house: A good scare ... without the coronavirus

A scare squad adjusts to the new normal and frightens at a social distance

AFP-JIJI

A car horn beeps and the horror begins: a bloody murder and rampaging zombies. But this drive-in haunted house in Japan protects against the most terrifying enemy of all — the coronavirus.

Inside their cars, guests can scream as loudly as they like, with no mask required, as hideous creatures daubed in blood swarm toward them.

In fact, the new format might even be scarier than a traditional haunted house, according to producer Kenta Iwana, 25.

Producer Kenta Iwana leads the squad of actors who usually create haunted houses at amusement parks and similar venues. | AFP-JIJI
Producer Kenta Iwana leads the squad of actors who usually create haunted houses at amusement parks and similar venues. | AFP-JIJI

“At the drive-in haunted house, guests are confined in a car so they can’t escape the horror until the end,” he said. “It makes it even more scary for them.”

Iwana came up with the idea after struggling with a string of cancellations as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

“It’s because a haunted house creates an environment with the ‘three Cs,'” he said, referring to the conditions that experts warn risk spreading the virus: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.

“Orders for conventional-style haunted houses were canceled one after another and we lost about 80 percent of our clients,” said Iwana, whose squad is usually hired to set up haunted house experiences at amusement parks and similar venues.

The blood flows freely during the shows staged by the Kowagarasetai troupe. | AFP-JIJI
The blood flows freely during the shows staged by the Kowagarasetai troupe. | AFP-JIJI

A normal experience might involve a windowless facility with actors playing ghosts quietly following visitors and whispering directly into their ears to scare them — all impossible in the age of COVID-19.

Iwana and his team, Kowagarasetai — roughly translating to “Scare Squad” — initially tried to create coronavirus-compatible performances by wearing masks painted with fake blood and playing recorded screams rather than unleashing real ones, but found that most of their events were canceled anyway.

“We’ve even had Halloween events scheduled for October and November canceled,” said Ayaka Imaide, 34, head of the squad.

Iwana, who quit university to become a ghost house producer, wondered if a drive-in format might work instead.

The horror of the haunted house stays firmly out of reach, with guests being safely enclosed in their cars. | AFP-JIJI
The horror of the haunted house stays firmly out of reach, with guests being safely enclosed in their cars. | AFP-JIJI

Ghost stories and haunted houses are popular forms of entertainment in Japan and are associated particularly with the summer, though the reasons for the link are unclear.

Iwana says he was told the tradition began when up-and-coming kabuki actors began performing ghost stories in the hot summer months, when star actors took time off.

Kota Hanegawa, 28, plays a blood-soaked killer in the squad, though he admits he is not a big fan of scary things.

The group's first shows are set to take place at a Tokyo garage. | AFP-JIJI
The group’s first shows are set to take place at a Tokyo garage. | AFP-JIJI

He says the new format — with the actors outside accompanied by a soundtrack and narration playing inside the cars — has a few positives, particularly in terms of audience feedback.

“I can get very close to guests even though they’re behind the windshields,” said Hanegawa. “It’s interesting to see their reactions so close up, while keeping social distance.”

Imaide said she hoped the new format would help lift the mood of entertainers struggling during the pandemic.

“Maybe we should just not do anything and keep our heads down,” she said seriously, from underneath a full face of zombie makeup. “I don’t know what the right thing to do is. … But we want to continue offering a haunted house, even if it means we have to change the style a bit. We want many people to enjoy it, to enjoy being scared.”

Actors and actresses are required to wear copious amounts of make-up to help create the full zombie effect. | AFP-JIJI
Actors and actresses are required to wear copious amounts of make-up to help create the full zombie effect. | AFP-JIJI

Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency has already been lifted, and some amusement parks are slowly beginning to reopen, with restrictions on guests.

But the squad is moving ahead with its drive-in concept for now, and tickets for its first dates later this month at a Tokyo garage have already sold out.

Imaide hopes guests will feel comfortable letting loose and getting the full, horrifying experience.

“Let out all your fears. That’s the way to enjoy it,” she advised.

For more information, visit https://kowagarasetai.com/covid19-drivein

Bloody murders and rampaging zombies are part of the program for the new drive-in haunted house. | AFP-JIJI
Bloody murders and rampaging zombies are part of the program for the new drive-in haunted house. | AFP-JIJI

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