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'The haunt's always evolving' | QC haunts dead and alive reflect on industry challenges and future

Halloween season is descending on the Quad Cities once again, but you might notice a gap in the local haunted house landscape on the Iowa side.
Credit: WQAD
Factory of Fear's location on 4th Avenue in Moline.

MOLINE, Ill. — As the calendar turns to October in the Quad Cities, haunted house enthusiasts and workers are gearing up to prepare their haunts for the Halloween season.

The QC metro area becomes the home of a variety of haunted houses and attractions every October. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its waning stages, many guests are returning to the industry for potentially the first time in a few years.

However, Quad Citizens might notice that there have been fewer scary thrills to go visit in recent years.

Major attractions around this year in just the immediate four Quad Cities include Moline's Factory of Fear and Rock Island's Shock House and Terror at Skellington Manor. In the surrounding counties, there are other options in Orion, Cordova, Mount Carroll, Port Byron and Mt. Pleasant, among other smaller operations.

Only one of those attractions falls on the Iowa side of the river, and it's not in Davenport or Bettendorf.

After two years and counting of the COVID-19 pandemic, many haunt businesses and organizations had trouble staying afloat when fewer customers came out, and that sting was felt even at living and successful haunts like the year-round Factory of Fear. 

Credit: WQAD
Factory of Fear's location on 4th Avenue in Moline.

"So, a lot of it is staffing issues after the pandemic," Factory of Fear's Haunt Director, Brett DeLeo, told News 8. "We benefit from having year-round. My cast is together once a month, whether it be a movie night or whatever it might be. They act every other month because we're open for the off-season stuff. So my cast doesn't have to wait from November to September before they see each other again."

He also added that the lower attendance numbers many haunts saw during COVID caused a chain reaction that easily sunk them because most seasonal attractions rely on that income for the entire following year.

"Being closed for a season, for a lot of haunts, due to the pandemic, was enough to put them under," he said. "A lot of people, a lot of haunted houses rely on the money in October to pay the bills for the year prior, and as soon as you pull a year of revenue out, you know, it's a domino chain and you have to find something. Most of those haunt owners had to find something to supplement their income in that offseason that they weren't able to run."

Factory of Fear was able to stay afloat thanks to the fortunate nature of its different year-round operations and a price increase that DeLeo was begrudgingly forced to implement partway through the 2020 season to cover increased expenses like hand sanitizer and cleaning crews.

Fortunately, Factory of Fear's customers were receptive to the price increase and attendance stayed strong enough, especially with the unique benefit of many Chicagoland-area customers venturing out into the wider state while their local haunts were closed due to COVID-19.

"Would we be able to do it again, who knows?" DeLeo said. "A dedicated crew, I would say, really saved us from that. You know, honestly, as cheesy as it is and as faux pas it is in the haunt industry; It really is a giant family of people who have a common interest and strive to make sure that that common interest is successful."

However, Factory of Fear is one of the lucky ones.

One of downtown Davenport's former haunted attractions, the House of 1,000 Screams, fell under even before the pandemic.

Credit: WQAD
A former location of the House of 1,000 Screams on 4th Street in Davenport.

Owner and operator Rod Keding started the haunt in 2006 at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds, moving it to different locations before its closure in 2018. He hasn't yet gotten the chance to open it back up because he doesn't have his own place to put it.

"But since I don't own a building, you know, I kind of rely on people to let me use their space and (that) kind of shut us down," he said. "And so I sold it, and the individual who bought it didn't fare so well because of COVID and returned ownership back to me... but we haven't done it since then."

Haunted houses have been in Keding's family for years. As the story goes, his uncle and grandfather ran one in the bottom of their church, and his grandfather's construction company built props for the family.

Currently, the two major Iowa Quad Cities, Davenport and Bettendorf, have no haunted houses within their limits, and Keding believes that's the way the cities like it.

"Unfortunately, I was the last on the Iowa side," he noted. "I mean, there are haunted mazes and cornfields and stuff like that, haunted forests. But official haunted houses? They're nonexistent in Davenport and Bettendorf. You go across the river. You can find them. Got plenty. I haven't talked to the current city administration, but in the past, Bettendorf and Davenport just don't like 'em. They look at 'em more as a hazard than as a benefit."

In Iowa, haunted houses fall under sections of the Code that pertain to other seasonal attractions, like festivals, carnivals and fairs. According to Keding, the state code is fairly loose, which gives cities more power over the operation of haunts.

"So when you go to say a building, well, then they can enforce building codes and stuff like that.," Keding said. "There have been incidents in the past with other operators, you know, who have opted to do things that probably weren't the best and that's what the city looks at."

"Our record was impeccable, as far as safety went, and they really knew that they weren't going to be a problem with us, but I think it wouldn't be on, like ,the fire inspection and health inspection and stuff. I think that they would just not rather have the risk."

Keding laments the lack of haunted houses on the Iowa side of the river and believes that they're a benefit to the cities that host them.

"It's unfortunate for Halloween, you know, not to have something in Davenport and Bettendorf because I look at it as a positive," he said. "It's something to offer people something to do. It's tourism. It's something that attracts people to your city, brings them into your city. But not everybody looks at the same way."

In a fitting, Halloween-spirit twist of fate, many pieces of old Davenport haunted houses were brought back from the dead at Factory of Fear after they were sold on Facebook, such as the freshly-painted black walls that make up this year's new Fear Underground dark maze. 

In the absence of Iowa haunts, many actors from that side of the river joined Factory of Fear's cast, even from outside the Quad Cities. Some talent from Des Moines took notice of the haunt's off-season gigs and wanted to get a taste of something different.

DeLeo said that he doesn't think the haunted house industry is about competition and he wants to see other haunts succeed.

"We're not really in competition. It's like we're all at a theme park and we're just different roller coasters," he explained. "You're going to ride them all. So why should the roller coasters have battles against each other when everybody's coming to all of them? You put on a good show, a customer is going to come and see it, you know? As long as the show is good, and the price is in check, you shouldn't have a problem with attendance."

Looking to the future of haunts on the Iowa side, Keding said he's not out of the game yet and that he wants to give the thrill-seekers what they want.

"It's just, you got a family and stuff, things get in the way and take up your time," he said. "It is quite an undertaking to pull one off because you don't want to put something up that's subpar. And you don't want to put something up that really doesn't provide the customers what they want. But I'll be back!"

Factory of Fear opened its doors on Sept. 23 and operates every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the season. General admission begins at $25, with the new Fear Underground old-school haunted maze costing $5.

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