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The Plague Doctor does more than provide scares at Nightmare on 13th

In the pandemic, a haunted house is a refuge

SHARE The Plague Doctor does more than provide scares at Nightmare on 13th

Mike Henrie, owner, left, and Jimmy Dilley, art and cast director of Nightmare on 13th, pose with a longtime resident of the haunted house.

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a character called the Plague Doctor who comes through every 20 minutes to sanitize all the surfaces that people touch.

Talk about art imitating life.

There is of course no bubonic plague flooding the Earth in the year 2020 — at least not that we know of yet — but there is a virus going around, and the Plague Doctor, wearing a beak-like mask just like they did in the 1600s when the Black Death was sweeping the planet, is doing his best to keep that from spreading — with the added bonus of ensuring that the haunted house known as Nightmare on 13th stays open.

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If you think COVID-19 scared the daylights out of you, put yourself in Mike Henrie’s shoes. Mike is the owner of Nightmare on 13th. He was all set to open the doors for the first time in 2020 this past March on Friday the 13th — always a good day for doing business in the haunted house world.

But on March 12, the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic shut down all businesses not considered essential.

Haunted houses were not considered essential.

Losing one weekend could be overcome. But in a business that depends on doing big volume on essentially seven weekends a year — the last part of September, all of October, and a couple of Friday the 13ths — you can’t give up many more than that.

Mike’s nightmare was that the pandemic wouldn’t let him open his Nightmare at all.

“Gut-wrenching,” is how he describes wading through the uncertainty of the spring and summer.

“Still is gut-wrenching,” he confesses. “If there’s an outbreak that gets traced to here we might have to quarantine for 14 days and sanitize, right? So we’re trying our best to do all the governor has asked and everything else we can think of so we can continue to provide entertainment for folks and keep everyone safe.”

In the process, Nightmare on 13th has gone from an in-your-face scary place to an in-your-face-from-a-distance scary place. No ghouls breathing down your neck, no crowded lines, no touching whatsoever.

Tickets are sold every half-hour and in limited quantities. Everyone must stay 6 feet apart, except for household groups. All characters wear masks, many of them double masks; rooms where creatures used to reach out and grab you have been closed off like Dracula’s tomb; hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the building — in addition to the Plague Doctor’s scrubbing duties.

On top of all that, the blood-curdling screams heard throughout the house are all recorded so as not to contaminate the air.

Every customer must wear a mask to get in. And if they take them off while walking from room to room? There are signs throughout the building that warn: “If you remove your mask inside the attraction our actors and staff will not interact with you.”

You will be treated as if you have the plague, in other words.

And that guy with the big pumpkin head lurking in the shadows might follow you home.

The result of all these precautions is a haunted house with the front doors wide open. Crowds are down from normal years — capacity is about 2,000 a day instead of 3,000 a day — but demand is up. At peak times, tickets on the half-hour are selling out fast.

Turns out, when times turn scary, people want to be scared. In a pandemic, haunted houses — well, fake haunted houses — become places of refuge and respite.

“I think it’s more important than ever. People need escapism,” says Jimmy Dilley, Nightmare on 13th’s art and cast director. “When you’re quarantined for months on end without getting out, that affects your mental state.

“You can leave the very real horrors of the world outside when you come in this place. People want to have that feeling of being terrified but knowing they’re in a safe situation, they’re not going to get hurt, they’re going to enjoy it. Fun horror is a very different thing than true horror.”

So. So far, so good. The haunted house is open every day except Sundays throughout October, through Halloween, and plans to open for two weekends in November, culminating with the weekend of Nov. 13-14, featuring the final Friday the 13th of the year.

The Plague Doctor will then retire. Hopefully.