Can a theme park haunt be too scary?

February 4, 2019, 11:56 AM · Are you ready for another "crazy lawsuit" story? A woman in Pennsylvania is suing a Cedar Fair theme park, claiming that a Halloween Haunt scareactor so frightened her daughter that it caused debilitating injuries.

Having worked the legal beat at a couple of newspapers before, I can tell you that reporters love lawsuit stories. They're easy — almost all the story is told for you, right there in the filing. Just call the defendant's attorney (or PR rep) for an opposing comment to go with your summary of the brief, and you're good to go. Any decent-sized jurisdiction sees a bunch suits filed daily, so you're looking for ones that will really fire up readers. That means finding ones featuring outrageous injustices... or ridiculously absurd claims.

The archetype for these stories was the now-infamous McDonald's coffee case, which started out looking like a ridiculous claim but turned out to be an outrageous injustice. (TL;DR: McDonald's left an elderly woman with nearly fatal injuries because the company was too cheap to buy decent coffee and instead heated it to burning to disguise its lousy taste. The case actually helped prompt McDonald's to get its act together and invest in better coffee... which allowed it to earn back waaaaay more money than it lost in the case. See, lawsuits can make things better for everyone!)

Anyway, the lesson is that even ridiculous-sounding claims can illustrate real issues. Last week, we wrote about a lawsuit over a ECV (electric scooter) collision at Walt Disney World. That reopened a debate over the use of scooters and strollers on increasingly crowded pathways in the parks. This case, too, touches on an issue that has been provoking many theme park fans.

Peter Hall of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania details this new case, involving a teenaged girl who visited Dorney Park in September 2017.

While passing through a Halloween attraction, several of the park’s costumed ghouls approached, and the girl pleaded with them to back off because she did not want to be scared. When it appeared the monsters were retreating, the girl turned to continue through the attraction. The suit says that’s when a costumed employee ran up behind her and shouted loudly in her ear. Startled, the girl lunged forward and fell forcefully to the ground, suffering severe, permanent and debilitating injuries, the suit says. The suit doesn’t detail the injuries.

The suit alleged that Dorney Park and its parent company, Cedar Fair, were negligent for not honoring the girl's request not to be scared, as well as for not informing her or her mother about the option to purchase a "No Boo" necklace, for people who do not wish to be confronted by scareactors.

I can feel the disturbance in the Halloween Force, as thousands of haunt are trigged by all these claims. First, the "No Boo" necklace sounds like something straight out of a "Nathan For You" episode — a chance for a company to make extra money from people who don't actually want the product that they just paid the company to provide... namely, Halloween scares.

Halloween fans' biggest fear isn't a chainsaw-wielding scareactor emerging from the dark. It's that theme parks will neuter their beloved Halloween events, making them less scary to appeal to a wider audience of fans. This lawsuit enflames that fear, by threatening a $150,000 legal judgment against the park for scaring the heck out of people.

We live in an era of niche media. Websites, social media, and streaming services have enabled the creation of content serving a wider variety of topics and tastes than ever before. Theme parks have responded to things change by programming more special events and upsells — from Halloween scarefests to princess tea parties — all designed to appeal to an audience that wants a more tailored experience.

But theme parks do these things to increase their overall attendance and revenue. If a special event turns off more people than it attracts — or if it threatens to cost a company more money than it brings in — those special events and initiatives won't last.

That's the fear with Halloween scare events — that parks will begin to believe that they're better off with less-scary events that might elicit fewer complaints and appeal to a wider audience. As much as fans love these events for forcing them to confront their fears, complaints such as this lawsuit illustrate this one fear that no Halloween fan wants to face.

Replies (19)

February 4, 2019 at 12:51 PM

I'm going to sue you Niles from laughing how stupid this claiming culture is. It's costing the consumer billions a year.

February 4, 2019 at 1:04 PM

Good Lord, help us all! I wish we had the same common sense laws in place here that they have in England. But unfortunately Lawsuits are a powerful industry in the US.

February 4, 2019 at 1:16 PM

I worked quite a few Universal Horror Nights in Hollywood. Some people showed up expecting a "Disney" level of scary, despite the warnings that the event wasn't meant for children. Some of them would decide that it was too much for them, but huddle in a store I was managing to not have to face the monsters, wanting to leave but afraid to do so because leaving the store meant facing the scare actors that stood between the store and the park exit.

I ended up working out a system with the scare actors. After confirming that the guests understood that leaving was final, that there were no refunds nor reentry, I would escort them to the exits, waving my flashlight in a pattern that the scare actors had agreed meant that they were to stay away from those I was escorting -- they had had enough.

I also saw scare actors go too far. There was a woman on the ground in a fetal position, literally sobbing in fear, and a chainsaw-wielding actor standing over her, continually firing up the chainsaw and moving it towards her head.

For some guests, that's exactly the type of scare they want. For others, they don't realize until it's too late that they're in over their fear thresholds -- they think they can handle it, but then it turns out that it's too much for them. Or they thought it would be like watching a horror movie -- scary stuff happens on the screen in front of them, not TO them.

I actually love the idea of a "No Boo" necklace. Those who want to get the bejeebus scared out of them can, and others can just enjoy the atmosphere and take in the shows without worrying about being the target.

Plus, you know...I was a retail manager. I wouldn't have said no to the extra revenue. And also to not having my store staff have to act as babysitters for kids whose parents ignored the "this isn't for kids" warnings and brought them anyway, then dumped the kids in the store when they got scared while the parents themselves went out to go through more mazes.

So while I understand the "what did she expect?" response, not everyone realizes just how intense these attractions can get until they're in too deep.

February 4, 2019 at 2:22 PM

This is a real fine line here. I think it's pretty absurd for a guest to enter a Halloween event and not expect to be scared. I also think it's pretty ridiculous that Cedar Fair takes advantage of guests by charging for the "No Boo" necklaces. However, as someone who worked as a scare actor, I can see how certain situations could occur where guests are "targeted" or "over-scared", which could lead to an injury.

Scare actors at many Halloween events are not normal park employees. They're typically hired as temp workers or are contracted through a 3rd party (hiring firm or event planning company). That means, they are not held to the same standards and customer service expectations as normal park employees. From experience, I can also say that scare actors are usually having as much fun doing their job as many of the guests, and one way to break the monotony of a long night stuck in a dark maze behind a mask is to find clever an inventive ways to get reactions out of guests. Also, when scare actors get good reactions, it's like chum in the water for sharks. In fact, the haunt I worked at had roving actors in black cloaks with walkie-talkies that would alert actors when certain types of guests were coming. From the scare actor perspective, the higher you jump or the louder you scream, the better job they feel they're doing.

I've personally witnessed the situation detailed in the lawsuit from both sides of the mask, and in the end I don't think it's anyone's fault. The guest is inviting harder, more intense scares based on their reaction, and the scare actors are simply trying to do their job the best they can. The injury is an unfortunate side effect of the desire of the park trying to give the guest the "best" experience possible.

The common argument here is that the guest asked to be scared simply by entering the event. However, many Halloween events have become more than just walking through haunted houses. They include rides, foods, stage shows, and lots of other things that go beyond scares. Personally, I enjoy being scared, but I go to Halloween events to enjoy and admire the craft. I like to see unique and inventive ways to scare guests, and am intrigued by the designs of the haunted attractions. I'm the guy that walks through the maze to see the props and makeup, and rarely jumps at a scare actor while the people in front and being can't stop screaming. My initial reaction to a lawsuit like this would be that it's frivolous, but I can also see its merits because I know scare actors will go overboard when they've got a fish on the line.

February 4, 2019 at 2:26 PM

Cedar Fair has offered those "No Boo" necklaces at their chain's Halloween events for years and they are very visibly available. They light up. Claiming to not have known about them is even less credible than claiming a newly opened venue that most haven't visited wins a legit popular vote. Think the plaintiffs included the "No Boo" in their action specifically to allege they were the only timid guest that somehow didn't see them when they are available to prevent exactly what they're claiming. Since incident is from 2017, might also be hoping little evidence would exist of the actual incident by 2019.

February 4, 2019 at 2:51 PM

The "No Boo" necklaces are available, but are an additional charge. A guest cannot walk into a park and then tone down the intensity of the scares without spending more money. I would also note that at least at Kings Dominion, if you're in the back of the park when Haunt begins (perhaps trying to get in a night ride on Twisted Timbers), there's no way to exit the park without walking through multiple scare zones. If the guest claimed injuries from walking through a maze or specific haunted attraction, they wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on, but if there's no way out of a theme park that avoids a scare zone with predatory scare actors that continue to target a guest after they've verbally requested them to stop, then there probably is some responsibility there on the part of the park.

A smart lawyer would instantly identify this situation as a bait and switch. The fact that these necklaces cost extra is very relevant to the case, bolstered by the fact that the claimant verbally asked for the scare actors to stop, and they refused. I know why they kept "hammering the nail", but that doesn't necessarily make it right, and Cedar Fair's choice to profit from their "No Boo" necklaces and to not have alternative paths around the park to avoid scare zones puts them into a bit of a legal corner.

February 4, 2019 at 3:04 PM

I'm honestly surprised at how many of you feel it's the fault of the park, rather than the guest who paid to enter an attraction designed to scare them and then got scared. At best I'd say Cedar Fair owes them the cost of one of the "no boo" necklaces.

February 4, 2019 at 5:23 PM

Doesn't California have a law against Malicious Lawsuits? If the rest of the country adopts something like that, it could help cut down on some of the nonsense claims.

February 4, 2019 at 5:26 PM

Plaintiff claims that they had no idea No Boo necklace existed- that's the specifics of their lawsuit. Not that there's an upcharge. Mother was never a Guest, teenaged daughter claiming these injuries was with a group of her friends. They weren't attenpting to exit Dorney Park, she literally entered a specific haunt. And, suspiciously long ago in 2017's Halloween Haunt. It's not like they're complaint is about the upcharge since that would imply they knew the No Boo necklace option existed in advance. Though it is widely advertised in park and in social media. Just the fact other guests likely had them lit up around her and weren't being spooked by scare actors makes this claim appear frivolous.

February 5, 2019 at 11:13 AM

I'm not arguing that this lawsuit should not be considered frivolous, just trying to point out that it doesn't matter how much the "No Boo" necklaces cost or the guest's knowledge of their existence. The simple fact is that whether she did or did not know about the "No Boo" necklace, their mere existence as an upcharge means that scare actors are encouraged to ignore verbal requests from guests to stop. If scare actors simply toned it down when someone walks by asking not to be scared, it would eliminate the need for the "No Boo" necklaces and the revenue that they generate for the park. The fact that these items exist, whether the claimant knew about them ahead of time or not, provides merit to the lawsuit.

The bottom line is that the scare actors were doing what they were supposed to do, but in doing so ignored the simple request from the guest to tone it down. This would be akin to a ride opp allowing a ride to complete its pre-programmed cycle even when guests were yelling in desperation for the ride to be e-stopped. I was once on a flat ride where this happened, and while sometimes you hear guests yelling "stop" during operation, most people can discern when a situation is dire. The incident I observed was exacerbated by a ride op that "triple-cycled" the ride despite the desperate cries to stop from a mother and child that had clearly had enough. The situation did not appear to result in a lawsuit based on the way the guests left the ride (shaken, but not physically injured), but it was clearly a situation that went over the line. It is a very fine line, but it's there, and parks need to be careful about pushing the envelope even if they think they're protected by ticket disclaimers, signage, and other mechanisms. Sure, the guest walked into a Haunt event, and by doing so exposed herself to scary elements. However, it should be expected that when a guest makes a verbal request that the scare actors would comply, not ramp up the intensity even more. There are haunted attractions where guests have to physically sign waivers before entering, but those usually involve scare actors touching you or putting you in physically tortuous situations. I don't think theme park haunts are anywhere close to that, but they need to understand that disclaimers and signs are not iron clad, and they are still responsible for the safety of the guests that pass through the gate.

February 5, 2019 at 1:55 PM

Hello Robert.
Quote : "I can feel the disturbance in the Halloween Force, as thousands of haunt are trigged by all these claims."

I would rather think.... "Can a scary US lawsuit be too haunting ?" Or the whole US law system ?
I'll explain why I say "US lawsuit".
For instance, in +90% of European countries [I mean, just the UK(*) does not fit..], filing such a lawsuit is a (rightfully) lost case. By definition. That is, because +90% of European countries are founded into 'French law" (< Napoleon < Roman law), in which legal structure (1) 'precedents' are not allowed as a base for justice, and (2) 'enrichment' (whatever degree) as goal or outcome of justice is fatally unlegal.
Right the opposite would be the outcome: the so called "reckless plaint" would be (obligatory) verdict, meaning that the plaintiff must pay a compensation to the other party, for besmirch of the good name.

(In the USA, the only state which has a mainly French law system, is Luisiana , far as I know... I once had to help a US attorney, friend of mine, to provide some speed-understanding for the Louisiana law.)

(*) > @ AngryDuck , quote: "I wish we had the same common sense laws in place here that they have in England." Well, that's actually the only partly bad example from Europe you could give ! :-)

February 5, 2019 at 5:27 PM

The answer to the question is "yes" of course they can as everybody has different thresholds of fear, different themes which scare them more, different levels of intensity which can be too much re Scare Kingdom's Psychomanteum - this is not for everybody even those who love the regular houses. The question is "should parks be liable for lawsuits for being too scary?" If they advertise that it is intense and recommend a minimum age then "no". You pay your money and take your risk.

February 5, 2019 at 2:52 PM

"If they advertise that it is intense and recommend a minimum age then "no". You pay your money and take your risk."

Sure. However, if you do find the event more scary than anticipated and expressly ask the scare actors to not scare you anymore (or to tone it down), and are physically injured because the scare actors actually increase the intensity of the experience because of your request, then I think there could be some liability on the park. That's even more true when the park is profiting from guests not wanting to be scared, meaning that actors are encouraged to make the experience as intense as possible. The fact of the matter here is that if the guest expressly asks to opt out of the experience, the park should try to comply with the request.

February 5, 2019 at 4:58 PM

Mostly all the parks have signs displayed at the entrance stating what time the "haunts and scares" start, not including the park maps. If you dont want to be scared, get the heck out of the park before that displayed time. Next people will be saying "well I asked the DJ at the club to turn the music down. He didnt comply but I stayed and tripped over the bass". That aside, I agree they could at least pass provide the flightless necklace for free.

February 5, 2019 at 5:08 PM

Anything to keep the shysters in Ferraris and yachts...

P.S.: Why do stupid parents bring children to these events??

February 5, 2019 at 5:46 PM

So, can I put a lawsuit in to every park for their coasters and simulators making me feel sick as a pig for hours every time I ride them leading to acute disorientation causing me to walk into a wall breaking my nose and loosing teeth........or do I know that before I go on them? Or do I insist that as I don't want to suffer motion sickness the ride operator must slow everything down just for me and stuff everybody else? The world has gone bonkers!

February 5, 2019 at 6:15 PM

As many of you state, scare actors do target those who are especially scared. Pleas of “stop” never work as that just eggs then on more. I’m a target for the scare actors - I have a high pitched scream, my legs go out when I’m frightened and I’ll fall down, and I have a “flee instinct” which has caused me to run into multiple walls in haunted houses - and I even fell into a grave once. Scare actors love me. I make them crack up with my antics, and they often communicate ahead “look for the bald guy with the beard - he’ll scream and run.” Difference here is - I LOVE it and I purposely set myself up for the scare knowing very well where they’ll emerge from.

I had never heard of “no boo” necklaces. Great idea. Parks should hand them out for free.
Why is this lawsuit coming to light now - when the incident happened in 2017?
I remember Trapped at Knott’s - you had to sign a waiver. Perhaps it’s time for waivers for all haunt events?

Bottom line - I get there may be more to this story - but the US has got to get out of lawsuits like these.

February 8, 2019 at 12:12 PM

Although I don't consider myself unobservant - I have to be observant to some extent in order to write about theme park attractions, lol - I don't recall ever seeing a sign advertising "no boo" necklaces and I see that I'm not the only one who can make this claim. As to the suggestion that those who don't wish to be scared should stay away from Halloween events, this is not always feasible. As far as I am aware, the closing of Firehawk at Kings Island was not announced until late September, when the Halloween Haunt would already have been underway. My only opportunity to ride Firehawk before it became the victim of a demolition crew was during the Halloween event. And while I did not go through any mazes or other Halloween-themed attractions I still had to deal with all the maniacs running loose in the park. Personally, I don't like being scared and felt put out about having to repeatedly dodge scare actors during my visit to the park. At one point a guy wielding an axe was coming up on my left and although this happened on October 27, 2018 I can still picture him as clearly as if it were yesterday. Had I known about "no boo" necklaces I would have purchased one. For those who enjoy being scared, have fun but leave me alone! I cannot help sympathizing with the plaintiff in this case.

February 11, 2019 at 9:41 AM

@bobbiebutterfield - Kings Island included daytime operation hours on 10 Saturdays and Sundays after the Firehawk announcement was made. Halloween Haunt does not run during the daytime.

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