For the past two Halloweens, the Hallsville Optimist Club has been host to a haunted house, scaring people as they made their way through a darkened maze. The spooks will be in hiding this year, though.
A chance encounter between a county inspector and a town employee raised a question that hadn’t been asked before: Does the Halloween attraction meet safety codes?
“Twenty years ago there was nothing in the codes about haunted houses,” said Rich Sternadori, Columbia’s chief building inspector. That was before eight people died in 1984 in a haunted house fire at Six Flags Great Adventure park in New Jersey.
Pete Herring, who doubles as Hallsville’s police chief and city administrator, said that after the issue with the Optimist Club’s haunted house arose, he took samples of the materials used for Halloween spooks, including plastic used to cover the walls, to fire officials for testing. Wood panels used in the maze were the only material to pass the test, he said.
The town of Hallsville has the power to waive any building requirements for the haunted house, but has opted not to.
“Our attitude is we’re cautious about overriding the building inspection and the fire department for safety reasons,” Herring said. “No one wants to call up some parent and say there’s been an accident or someone’s been hurt.”
Construction of another haunted house, on a lot at 1414 W. Worley St., was halted recently after city inspectors determined it was being built with highly combustible materials, Chief Building Inspector Rich Sternadori said.
Enterlight Ministries was building the haunted house, and it was using shipping pallets and plastic to direct people into dead ends, Sternadori said. Enterlight Ministries, a company dedicated to affordable housing for minorities, could not be reached for comment, but Sternadori said the city’s role “wasn’t to dissuade or stop them but to regulate how the amusement was constructed.”
Sternadori said questions about the safety of haunted houses arise each year, especially when they are old houses or warehouses.
Last month, the Castle of Terror, a haunted house sponsored by the local Jaycees in an old Baptist Church at Collinsville, Ill., burned to the ground before it could open for the season. Even though it passed inspections, fire officials had worried for years about the safety of the operation. After the fire, city officials said they would consider requiring sprinklers in future haunted house displays.
Columbia and Boone County have building codes that govern special amusement buildings, including haunted houses. In addition to requiring fire-resistant materials, the local codes call for sprinkler systems in certain cases, clearly marked exit signs and exit paths, and a backup source of electricity. Extension cords also are scrutinized because they are a major source of fires.
“Our haunted house is actually a shed or a building that is approximately 5 years old, and it’s a metal building with a cement floor,” said Jodie Wheeler of the Hallsville Optimist Club. “It’s very safe in my opinion.”
Sternadori, however, noted that metal “reacts very quickly to fire.”
“It bends and reflects,” he said. “When a metal building gets exposed to heat, it has a high tendency to react differently than wood, making it more difficult for firefighters.”
Under warping metal, doors and windows don’t open to provide escape routes, Sternadori said. Building codes in Boone County, which Hallsville has adopted, call for a sprinkler system for special amusement buildings such as the one used by the Optimist Club that are larger than 1,000 square feet.
The not-for-profit club suggested a temporary sprinkler system involving a hose, which county fire officials rejected.
Other requirements include exits that are no more than 50 feet from any point in the building holding the amusement.
“From the middle, it’s 30 feet to either door, then you only have 20 feet to work with,” Wheeler said. “We weren’t able to come up with a workable floor plan that quickly to allow for those accommodations. There was just so many things that we weren’t coming up with that we were going to have to buy that it just wasn’t economical.”
This year, the Missouri Symphony Society and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity are collaborating on a Boo Fest at Missouri Theatre and a Haunted House on the Hill at the SAE house. David White, executive director of the Symphony Society and the Missouri Theatre, said no inspections are needed because the setup at the theater will be prop-oriented, with things like coffins and fountains geared toward young children.
SAE’s Haunted House on the Hill has been operating for 16 years. Matt Lauman, SAE philanthropy chairman, said that because the event takes place in the yard, no building inspections are needed. Even so, he said, the fire marshal checked the electrical lines.
In Hallsville, the Optimist Club is planning a dance and a hayride to replace the haunted house for this year.
Herring has not lost his optimism, though. “We’re going to work with them as much as we can to make sure this thing works next year,” he said. “Those people put on one heck of a show.”