By STEPHANIE GLEASON
WASHINGTON (October 22, 2010)Pennsylvania's dominance of regional haunted attractions has created a scaring-industry graveyard in Maryland, but after 10 years of growing his medieval-themed haunted house in Jessup, Allan Bennett isn't spooked.
Bennett's Curse, ranked No. 17 on trade website Haunt World's list of America's Best and Scariest Haunted Houses and one of the top 10 of America's Best Haunts, is expanding every year, said owner Allan Bennett. This year the attraction moved to Blob's Park in Jessup, after outgrowing the old location in Arundel Mills.
The attraction is expecting 20,000 customers this season, Bennett said, which puts it in the top 10 percent of haunted attractions in the nation in terms of attendance, according to the Haunted House Association. The season runs from the last weekend in September through October, and, at an entrance price of $25, it will earn roughly $500,000 in revenue.
Haunted houses have become frighteningly popular—generating $400 million to $500 million in ticket sales annually, according to the Haunted House Association. A National Retail Federation survey showed that 20.8 percent of consumers will go to a haunted house this year, up from 17 percent in 2009—and almost 40 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds will go.
Jennifer Cundiff, 35, went to Bennett's Curse on Saturday, the first time she'd been to a haunted house since she was a teenager in Virginia.
"This blew that one out of the water," she said. The scariest part, she said, was when you walked through a three-dimensional tunnel that made you feel like you were moving. At the end you had to push through a bean bag wall. "It surrounds you and no one else is there."
Still, "Maryland is not a hotbed of haunted houses," said Larry Kirchner, owner of HauntWorld.com, blaming the state's proximity to the Philadelphia area.
"If you live in Baltimore and you want to see a quality haunted house in a reasonable distance, do you think you'd go to Philadelphia or look around Maryland?"
The problem is that despite Marylanders' lust for screams --Kirchner said that the state is one of the top five or six clicked on in Haunt World's state-by-state Internet directory—"people are trained to go to Pennsylvania."
Nevertheless, "to Allan Bennett's credit, he's fighting the Pennsylvania haunts," Kirchner said.
Randy Bates, owner of two Philadelphia-area haunts, The Bates Motel and PennHurst Asylum—together ranked America's Scariest Destination by Haunt World—agreed. "(Maryland) didn't have the quality of the Pennsylvania shows. There's a lot of really great shows in Pennsylvania—it was dominating the Maryland market."
The Bates Motel averages about 65,000 customers each October, Bates said. This places them in the top 1 percent of attractions in the country, according to the Haunted House Association.
While his Philadelphia haunt still dwarfs Bennett's, Bates said that by building the show's production and increasing advertising, "(Bennett's Curse is) building a reputation for having a good show."
In addition to stepping up advertising, Bennett's Curse has received sponsorships from several companies including the Baltimore Sun Media Group.
"They take it seriously as a business," said Steve Kopelman, owner of America's Best Haunts and HauntedHouse.com, adding that he thinks Bennett's Curse is the best "tented" haunted house he's been to. "That's what you need first and foremost to compete—they've got a good product."
After seeing pictures of Bennett's characters for this year, Kopelman estimates that they must have spent $10,000 having Hollywood professionals sculpt silicon masks for them.
And, "by doing a medieval theme, they're unique from any other haunt," Kopelman said. "(Bennett's Curse) is scary. They've got all the bells and whistles."
Bennett knew what he was up against when he started Bennett's Curse. Creating a haunted house in Maryland, despite the giants nearby, was 100 percent intentional, he said.
"We're trying to bring some credibility to Maryland," Bennett said. "Pennsylvania has been so strong for so long, it's prohibited growth."
Bennett got his start in the haunted industry volunteering at a hayride in Maryland. The haunt was "the typical Maryland haunted house, content to do something on a smaller scale. I approached them about doing something big and they weren't interested," Bennett said. "That's a microcosm of Maryland haunted houses."
"Until Bennett's Curse came in, (other haunted houses in Maryland) treated it like a mom-and-pop," Kopelman said. "Bennett's Curse is the first professional haunted house in the state," and that could be a catalyst for a stronger haunted industry here. "I wouldn't be surprised if you start seeing more Maryland haunts spring up."
"I know he's doing good and continuing to grow the business," Haunt World's Kirchner said. While Kirchner said that Bennett's Curse "has a hard road to hoe," and isn't on the same level as the Philadelphia haunts yet, "His attraction is by far the best in Maryland, and his attraction just keeps getting bigger. He's developing a market for haunted houses in the Maryland area."
"I wanted to create (a haunted house) that's the top one in Maryland and as good as the ones in Pennsylvania," Bennett said. "We want to have an attraction that's on par with the best in the country.
"It remains to be seen," if it will get there, Bennett said, "but it won't be for lack of enthusiasm and effort."
For more information about Bennett's Curse, go to www.bennettscurse.com.