Jason Hackney and his wife Sarah hosted a Halloween party at their Westminster home a few years ago, and Hackney decided he’d build a scary attraction in his front yard to liven things up.
The following year, Hackney moved the haunt to his backyard. Soon after, about 400 people invaded the Hackneys’ house to get into the Halloween spirit.
“We were shutting the street down,” Hackney recalled. “We knew it was time to take it to the next level.”
So Hackney Haunts was born ― a spooky attraction that has a home inside TownMall of Westminster, where the Hackneys take pride in giving Carroll County a spirited fall season.
“We’re going to scare you, and you’re going to like it,” Hackney, a self-proclaimed horror and Halloween junkie, said Monday morning at his mall location. “It’s my prime time.”
Hackney Haunts moved into its mall space last year, and Hackney said he had six weeks to get an attraction ready. When some 1,500 people paid to walk through it, Hackney said he knew he had something.
This year, Jason and Sarah began working on the 2020 theme in February, with help from Baltimore resident Carlos Rivas, who was enjoying his own scary success in Hampden. He said he contacted Hackney to learn about the Westminster walk-through attraction.
“I was doing home haunts in my backyard, and last year I had over 600 [people] in two nights,” said Rivas, whose specialty is set design despite a fear of scary stuff. “I knew I needed to get a place. I reached out, asking him how he got started. And then we met up. We linked up and it was just a perfect fit.”
Consider a match made in, well, you know ― the opposite of heaven.
This year’s Hackney Haunts is set to be open 6-10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays from Sept. 25 through Oct. 31. The theme is “Horror Holidays,” a creepy journey through some of the calendar’s most cherished dates.
Tickets are $7, or $12 for a “fast pass” admission to avoid the line. Hackney and Rivas recently unveiled a preview trailer for the haunt, and Hackney said it got more than 4,000 views in a hurry. Hackney Haunts’ social media followers have surpassed 12,000, Hackney said, since Halloween of 2019.
And this year’s attraction is much different, he said, in scope and aesthetics.
“It’s daylight from dark,” Hackney said. “This thing has taken off like I never expected. ... We’re laying the foundation for something big.”
Travelers will see scares that recognize New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and the Fourth of July, among others. Hackney and Rivas want to keep some of their visuals in the dark for now, but they said the attraction is a mix of technology and old-fashioned haunted house ingenuity.
Actors will be positioned throughout the walk, poised for the perfect jump-scare moment. Hackney said he’s also working with Carroll County Public Schools to give high school students an opportunity for service hours. (Hackney Haunts also has a charitable side. The attraction will be donating to Hampstead Volunteer Fire Company and MCQE Mobile Pet Pantry, Hackney said.)
A state-of-the-art sound system should have customers covering their ears, not to mention their eyes, during several moments of confusion throughout the walk. Some areas feature mist and flashing lights.
But it’s a combination of fun and fright, organizers said.
“The main idea is to scare you ... but then you laugh afterward,” Rivas said. “You don’t run around the whole time terrified.”
Hackney said he drew up a safety plan to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 while operating his business, and sent it to the Carroll County Health Department, which he said thanked him for being proactive.
Hackney Haunts will have disposable gloves at its entrance, and accessible hand sanitizer stations. Hackney said he’ll be helping control the line to allow only small groups through, and room dividers will be cleaned after every haunt.
They’ve been working since February, Hackney said, to have things ready for opening night. Despite a six-week hiatus while TownMall was closed during the pandemic, Hackney said they’ve been logging long days at a nonstop pace.
“We take huge, huge pride in our sets. Each set is like a movie set,” Hackney said. “The quality is over the top. That’s how we make ourselves different from everybody else.”
There are some horror movie aspects to his attraction, but Hackney said it’s not an “extreme haunt,” and customers won’t get prodded or chased throughout their walk.
He likens his scare tactics to those from “Halloween Horror Nights” at Universal Studios theme parks. For every creepy clown or potentially possessed creature, there are a fair number of skulls and bones along the way.
Sets were crafted by Rivas with the Hackneys’ approval, and they said they’ll likely be tinkering on things right up until the first person is waiting in line.
And they’ve already got plans for next year ― and beyond.
Hackney said he’s hoping to add two more attractions for 2021, and they would like to access a bigger space inside TownMall (they’re working with about 3,000 square feet right now). His dream, he said, is to one day purchase land and use it for his own “Halloweentown” attraction.
Rivas said he’s looking forward to watching people soon flock to the mall and get their fright fix.
“That’s what I love seeing, just people excited to see stuff,” he said. “I don’t like to terrify anyone, [but] it gets you excited.”
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“I’m looking forward to when the line piles up and people come in here and they’re just like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” he said. “After a while you just get used to [seeing] it, but when other people see it it’s wild. ... This thing has just taken off.”