The thing that really scares the folks behind the Scarity Haunted House isn’t ghosts, goblins or ghoulies. It’s the Billings Fire Marshal.
Their second event in 2019, which was held in a spooky warehouse off 19th St. and King Ave., was planned to take place over three nights. But it was shut down after two by order of the Fire Marshal.
“It’s very difficult to have a haunted house in the city of Billings,” said Sean O’Daniel, a State Farm insurance agent in town who is also the President and creator of Scarity.
It was a hiccup, but O’Daniel improvised. They did an impromptu venue change to the High Horse Saloon. And it worked.
Improvisation is a hallmark of Scarity. They’re on their fourth year of doing this, but they’ve had to change the venue every year. This year, they’re at Oscar’s Park, the event space at 3670 Wise Lane just outside of Billings.
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Oscar’s makes sense for Scarity. Partially because moving the haunted house outside alleviates any capacity related red tape. But also because Oscar’s marquee draw is its faux-Western town, complete with a church, a historic schoolhouse, a railroad depot and a bank, alongside other period buildings.
“It’s kind of like a little ghost town out there,” said O’Daniel. “It’s kind of perfect.”
He’s right. Because this year’s theme for the haunted house is the apocalypse. What’s scarier than the end of everything?
They’ll have zombies, Mad Max style road warriors and general malcontents everywhere, roaming and wreaking havoc in Oscar’s townsite. For the first time, the tours will be led by storytellers, with guides leading unsuspecting patrons into the terrifying unknown.
"This one's gonna be intense," said O'Daniel. "It's gonna be scary."
It’s a huge undertaking. O’Daniel said he needs 78 volunteers each night to act as cast members and help facilitate the parking, ticket taking and other minutia. They’re utilizing around 150-200 volunteers in all to put on the show for two weekends, four nights each from Oct. 20-23 and 27-30.
That’s a big step up for an event that’s in its fourth year. The first year, in 2018, was at O’Daniel’s State Farm office. Around 50 people showed up. The year after, the ill-fated fright fest at the warehouse, drew about 600. COVID shut down the party in 2020, but Scarity returned with vengeance in 2021, pulling off a weekend of scares at the Metra, attracting between 2,500 and 3,000 folks.
O’Daniel wanted to do a haunted house for a few reasons. For one, he loves scaring people.
“In my office,” he said, “we have probably 100 videos of me scaring my employees, or my employees scaring me.”
It’s the unknown, he thinks, that draws people to this.
“Why do people go see scary movies?” he asked. “Deep down, we want to get scared.”
Tina Hirschkorn, Scarity’s vice president, agrees. She runs DAME Talent and Modeling Agency in downtown, a useful position since the high concept scares at Scarity require talented actors to pull off. Hirschkorn has been involved since the 2019 event.
“Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year,” she said. “And I go all out.”
But it’s not just the frights. It’s something deeper, and altogether more wholesome. All of Scarity’s proceeds go to charity.
“I wanted to create a haunted house in Billings,” O’Daniel explained, “but also give back to some local nonprofits.” The first year, they donated to the HER Campaign, which helps survivors of sex-trafficking integrate back into life. They wound up giving $150.
Things escalated from there. In 2021, proceeds went to Big Brothers Big Sisters and The Phoenix, a nonprofit that helps recovering addicts. The haunted house raised $30,000, with $15,000 going to each charity.
“We felt really, really good about that,” O’Daniel said, noting that the total exceeded his goal of $20,000. “That was a huge win.”
This year, with eight nights and two weekends, he wants to raise $60,000. With a bigger number, the proceeds can be spread out a bit more. They’ll again be donating to The Phoenix and Big Brothers Big Sisters, along with the Magic City Rollers roller derby league and the MSU baseball and golf teams.
“We’re kind of spreading the love a little bit more,” O’Daniel said.
The love is being spread back. They have well over a dozen community sponsors who help the event take place. The two big title sponsors, Bob Smith Motors and realtor Wayne Wilcox, got Scarity produced parody commercials featuring zombies and other apocalyptic beings.
Hirschkorn is a big fan of haunted houses. She’s been to them in Denver, Florida and Utah. Those places do big business, huge scares that inevitably cost huge money. But she thinks Scarity can on day be on that level, with the funding they’re getting from the community.
That includes all the volunteers who help Scarity come together. There are no real zombies – that we know about – at Scarity. Each is an actor, a person donating their time and labor to help raise money. There are folks from Black Widow Entertainment and Projectile Comedy, to name a few.
“We really are putting on a huge show this year,” said Hirschkorn.
The Scarity Haunted House runs Oct. 20-23 and 27-30, Thursday to Sunday each weekend. The fun starts at 6 p.m., and goes until 10 p.m. on Thursday and Sunday and 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
It costs $10 to experience what Scarity has to offer. There are tickets available at the gate, as well as online at scarityhauntedhouse.com/buy-tickets. And they’re always looking for volunteers and nonprofits for next year. Each tour of this year’s Scarity Haunted House ends with a teaser of what’s to come.
Even with a bit of inclement weather forecasted for this weekend, the Scarity crew is excited and looking forward to the frights.
“Everyone loves a good scare,” said Hirschkorn. “Even if they say they don’t.”