VERMILION — After 23 years in the same location, operators of the Vermilion Haunted Schoolhouse are now running a haunted schoolyard after learning state fire codes prevent them from operating indoors.
|JASON MILLER / CHRONICLE
|Jonathan Halliday, director of the Vermilion Haunted Schoolhouse.
Moments after opening for its 34th season late last week, volunteers were told to shut down because the state fire marshal’s office decided that buildings used for special amusement purposes cannot operate indoors without a full sprinkler system.
The Haunted Schoolhouse, which is the major fundraiser of the Friends of HarbourTown 1837, operates out of the Old State Street School.
It does not have a sprinkler system beyond a few sprinkler heads attached to a water line in the makeup room, said project chairman Kenneth M. Baughman.
Only the basement and two rooms of the first floor are used.
The code dates back to 1995, said Shane Cartmill, spokesman for the state fire marshal. However, after a recent workshop on haunted house fire safety, local fire inspectors realized the code read a lot differently than they thought.
“They understood some of it for the first time and left with a better understanding of what to look for during inspections,” Cartmill said. “That’s why this happened. But people should understand that the most important thing is the safety of the people. We are not out to spoil the fun.”
The nature of a haunted house is to confuse, disorient and distract its occupants.
As such, it is extremely important that maximum safety features are provided in those facilities should an emergency of any kind occur, the state agency said in a letter to fire inspectors.
Still, no one was prepared for the shocking news delivered by a member of the Vermilion Fire Department. The schoolhouse was immediately shut down after receiving a violation notice.
County fright sites
• The Haunted Forest of Carousel
• Haunted Train and Hobo Path
• Rockin’-R-Ranch Spooktacular Hayride, Haunted House, Maze and New Funhouse
• The Haunted Schoolyard
Opening weekend generally generates about $2,000 in sales, money that can never be made up, Baughman said. HarbourTown 1837 raises funds for the preservation and restoration of historic downtown buildings.
Volunteers were immediately faced with two options: stay closed until $150,000 to $300,000 can be raised to install the sprinkler system or move the entire operation outside.
“We could work for 20 years and never have the money to pay for that,” he said. “Moving outside was our only choice. We will, as they say, go on with the show.”
About 75 volunteers from as young as 11 years old to those in their 60s and 70s have worked almost nonstop since Thursday dismantling, moving and rebuilding the haunted schoolhouse in the backyard, Baughman said. It is now a half-maze, half-outdoor walk that is just as good, if not better, than the original, Baughman said.
Zombies, werewolves, vampires and other classic haunted house characters will scare up more than a few screams as guests walk through 20 different scenes and a freshly dug graveyard.
“There will also be a couple of extra surprises that guests will have to see to believe,” Baughman said. “The walk won’t be any shorter than usual — about five to 10 minutes — depending on how fast they run if they get scared.”
Although the haunted schoolhouse has always operated with a standard of safety, Baughman said the move has not strained the relationship between the nonprofit organization and the fire department.
“Every day the schoolhouse was open for business, we had volunteers whose only job was to watch the building in case of a fire or other emergency,” Baughman said. “The building can be evacuated in less than two minutes. That’s better than a sprinkler system that doesn’t kick on until a fire is hot. But the law does not specify that our systems are adequate.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 653-6268 or firstname.lastname@example.org.