A version of this blog written by Kristin Bigda, publications strategy director at NFPA, first appeared in 2016. The article has been edited to reflect more recent code editions.
With Halloween quickly approaching, thoughts of candy, ghosts, and haunted houses are surely on your mind. While haunted houses may be an entertaining way to spend an October evening, there can be devastating consequences if a fire were to break out and proper protections aren’t in place.
What are haunted houses and special amusement buildings?
Haunted houses may be temporary in nature or permanently installed. Sometimes, they are used only near Halloween, while others may be open year-round. This was the case in the tragic Haunted Castle fire that occurred at a permanently installed, year-round haunted house located at a Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey on May 11, 1984. Eight teenagers died in that blaze.
To prevent a similar tragedy to the Six Flags haunted house fire, provisions were added to NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, to address special amusement buildings—the category in which haunted houses typically fall.
According to the 2021 edition of NFPA 1, a special amusement building is “a building or portion thereof that is temporary, permanent, or mobile and contains a ride or device that conveys patrons where the patrons can be contained or restrained, or provides a walkway along, around, or over a course in any direction as a form of amusement or entertainment, and arranged so that the egress path is not readily apparent due to visual or audio distractions, contains an intentionally confounded egress path, or is not readily available due to the mode of conveyance through the building or structure.” A special amusement building is an assembly occupancy regardless of occupant load.
Special amusement buildings often use special effects, scenery, props, and audio and visual distractions that may cause egress paths to become difficult to identify. In haunted houses, in particular, the presence of combustible materials and special scenery can also contribute to the fuel load and, may result in rapid fire spread should a fire occur.
Haunted houses use special effects, scenery, props, and audio and visual distractions that may cause egress paths to become difficult to identify
What does the code say?
Code provisions for special amusement buildings are found in Section 20.1.4 of NFPA 1. The code requirements for haunted houses are summarized below:
Haunted houses must apply the provisions for assembly occupancies in addition to the provisions of Section 20.1.4.
Automatic sprinklers are required for all haunted houses unless it is less than 10 feet (3050 millimeters) in height and has less than 160 square feet (15 square meters) of aggregate horizontal projections. If the haunted house is considered moveable or portable, an approved temporary means is permitted to be used for water supply.
Smoke detection is required throughout all haunted houses.
The actuation of any smoke detection device in a mobile or temporary haunted house must sound an alarm at a constantly attended location on the premises.
A fire alarm system is required in all permanently installed haunted houses.
The fire alarm system in all permanently installed haunted houses must be initiated by required smoke detection, the required automatic sprinkler system, and manual means at a constantly attended location under continuous supervision by competent persons when the haunted house is open to patrons.
Actuation of sprinklers, or any suppression systems, as well as smoke detection systems (having cross-zoning capability) must provide an increase in illumination of the means of egress and termination of other confusing visuals or sounds. The one exception is for haunted houses that are in permanently installed special amusement buildings that use a ride (or similar device) that occupants are contained in and unable to evacuate themselves without the help of a ride operator and that meet specific criteria.
Exit marking and floor proximity exit signs are required. Where designs are such that the egress path is not apparent, additional directional exit marking is required.
Interior wall and ceiling finish materials must be Class A throughout.
Per Section 10.8.1, emergency action plans are required.
Other requirements, not specific just to haunted houses or special amusement buildings, may also apply, such as:
Permits (see Section 1.12)
Seasonal buildings (see Section 10.12)
Special outdoor events, fairs, and carnivals (see Section 10.14)
As we move into the Halloween and haunted house season, it’s easy to get caught up in the fun and overlook the safety issues that may arise. Through the provisions in NFPA 1, which can assist code officials and fire departments in enforcing safe haunted houses, and NFPA’s Halloween resources for consumers, everyone can stay safe this season.