Regulations put the scary back into haunted houses

Craig Hall, Publisher
Craig Hall, Publisher

Anyone who knows me well knows I love fall.

The Grand Valley offers many of the things I grew up with in Michigan. We have crisp mornings. The fall colors in the mountains rival any I recall from my youth. Orchards abound, and therefore, so does cider! My favorite holiday — Thanksgiving — nears, bringing in the Christmas season. Did I mention FOOTBALL? Finally, Halloween and trick-or-treating in a great community is something I’m thankful my kiddos get to enjoy.

And with Halloween comes haunted houses — that is, until the great haunted house disaster of 2013 in our fair city, where lives were lost, thousands were injured and children’s lives were ruined for all time due to trauma. You didn’t hear about it? Well it had to happen.

The proof is in the six pages of regulations the City of Grand Junction created for “special amusement buildings, haunted houses and other similar operations” published on Nov, 1, 2013. The spate of last year’s haunted house tragedies really spurred our city into action. It’s almost as if some lump of coal in his butt becoming a diamond bureaucrat wrote this in advance to take the fun out of Halloween fund-raisers the public has enjoyed for years.

You do realize that pretty much every haunted house in our town constitutes fund-raisers various groups stage to help cover the costs for their members’ activities, didn’t you?  Well, that’s what the hard-working kiddos at Express All Stars have been doing for years. But probably not this year. Every year, the athletes and parents of the Express All Stars volunteer thousands of hours so their daughters can travel and represent Grand Junction all over the country with superior sportsmanship, talent and love of their sport. Every year, these families count on the money the “Trail of Terror” has raised in helping them cover competition expenses. But in 2014, it seems less and less likely a possibility.

Here’s a small taste of just how difficult the government can make a fund-raiser. First off, if your haunted house is larger than 1,000 square feet — and what good one isn’t? — it must be equipped with a sprinkler system, a smoke detection system that’s been inspected within the past year and fire extinguishers placed within 75 feet of all points, to name just a few.

As they say on TV, “But wait, there’s more.” The groups must file a site plan with the City of Grand Junction that would make an architect blush (seriously, there are 16 bullet points in this section), have a fire inspection (you know, due to the great haunted house firestorm of 2013) and provide an emergency procedure plan including the establishment of a Maze Master (because we all got lost on level 2571 of Dungeons and Dragons), myriad common sense electrical and exit requirements now spelled out for folks who’ve been doing this anyway, labeled flame retardant materials (that’ll scare the kids — open views of government regulation compliance) and recognition that setting off of pyrotechnics and having open flames is a bad idea along with eliminating the use of smoke and finally, my favorite: Approved “No Smoking of Open Flame” signs placed above all exits and entrances. Who’s smoking an open flame, and just what the hell does that entail?

Now I know some will say, “Craig, we need some oversight on these kinds of things to assure the safety of the customers.” Fair enough, but why can’t we rely on the good character of the people providing the product to provide the oversight? Are you trying to say that groups that do fund-raising through haunted houses will make more money if they don’t kill their customers? I would think they know that. Remember, these are the folks who stored DNA evidence in Lady Kenmores under a leaky roof with extension cords duct taped to the floor. Codes for thee, but not for me?

The real killer in this scenario isn’t making sure cords are safe and exits are illuminated. The death of haunted houses in Grand Junction is in making the sprinkler system mandatory and the added expense and time involved in the site plan. It’s hard enough convincing owners to make their properties unavailable to sell for two months for a small fee so some kiddos can make a few bucks. But to properties that meet the basic regulations makes it near impossible. I doubt I have to explain how making it more expensive really doesn’t help a fund-raiser, but I will for city employees: The kids are trying to raise money. Stop increasing costs.

I guess if the kids in town really want to be scared out of their wits this Halloween season, they can go to the Avalon and be forced to watch the symphony or some crappy, artsy movie. At least when they run screaming from the event, their path to the exit will be illuminated and with signage all up to code. Then again, it’s easy to have an event location when the building and its safety is all paid for by taxpayers.

But when some kids want to make a few bucks, let’s make all but it impossible.