Inside Events: Panic in the Dark
4 Oct, 2017By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Fred Smith, Event Creator and Owner
Panic In The Dark is a Halloween-themed running event, staged annually in Lowell, Massachusetts. It has two parts: the Family Fear 5K, and the Panic in the Dark obstacle run for ages 18 and up. Both events are held at night and include an indoor/outdoor course that travels through woods, past cemeteries and even through a local school. Race personnel include zombies as well as plenty of other scary figures. Costumes are encouraged, and there is a costume contest held along with the race. The obstacle race concludes with a Halloween party at a local bar/restaurant.
Sports Destination Management: We keep hearing that Halloween sports events are growing in popularity. How did you come to create this one?
Fred Smith: Halloween has really taken off as a market. What I was seeing in the industry – my company does other events as well – was that there were some Halloween or zombie runs, but they all seemed to be held during the day. I didn’t really think it did Halloween justice, so I wanted to create an event that would take place in the dark. Lowell is actually only about 30 minutes from Salem, which everyone knows about; it’s considered the most haunted city in the country. Our event takes place in Shedd Park, Fort Hill and along the fences of the old Lowell Cemetery, all of which are known to be haunted, and we go through a school as well. It makes for a creepy setting. It kind of competes with the haunted houses – it’s something fun for people to do that weekend and it’s an athletic event.
SDM: Is it the same course you’re using for both events?
Smith: Yes, but the Family Fear 5K starts first, before it gets really dark. It also doesn’t include the obstacles from in Panic in the Dark.
SDM: What kind of obstacles?
Smith: These are actually on the medium to low level. It’s not a high difficulty race. We don’t time it either and there are reasons for that. The most important is the safety concerns. It’s at night, first of all, so of course it’s totally dark. You’re going up and down trails, you’re crawling and climbing over a few things. We wanted to keep it safe, the way a haunted house you’d go through this time of year would be safe, but we still wanted it to be fun. Everyone who runs gets a head lamp so they can see where they’re going.
SDM: What kind of numbers do you get, attendance-wise?
Smith: Depending upon the weather and the year, we’ll get between 500 and 1,000 from both events.
SDM: More people for the Family Fear 5K or more people for the Panic in the Dark Obstacle Run?
Smith: Mainly people do the obstacle run.
SDM: You said there were zombies throughout the course. Is it the kind of run where you would outrun the zombies?
Smith: No, not at all. They might chase you some, but there’s no physical contact. It’s not the kind of race where you’re trying to get away from them.
SDM: What other special effects do you have?
Smith: We have a car accident; I bring in cars from a local junkyard. We have ambulances with zombies as doctors and EMTs.
SDM: How long has the event been around?
Smith: Panic in the Dark has been around for six years. We added the Family Fear 5K about two years ago. We realized there wasn’t much out there for kids with an athletic base. This way, instead of going to a commercial haunted house or something like that, they can come out in costume with their family and do a run, or just a walk, and it’s fun for everyone.
SDM: And the event has become quite a success.
Smith: Yes, Runner’s World named us one of the top scariest runs in the country for Halloween.
SDM: Do lots of people come in costume?
Smith: Oh, they do. We have a costume contest, a zombie contest and one for team spirit – that’s for a group of people who all get dressed up together.
SDM: How do you market it? With print ads, online, social media or some other way?
Smith: There’s really a balance of publicity. We are marketing and flyering, plus we do social media ads and we set up booths and tables. We have other events, so we can do publicity throughout the year.
SDM: What’s your participation demographic like?
Smith: For the obstacle race, it’s mostly in the 25-40 range and about 68 percent is female. The Family Fear 5K is all ages.
SDM: Do people travel to participate?
Smith: Yes – the obstacle racing community is kind of spread-out so we do draw people in. In addition to coming from Massachusetts, they’re coming from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and so on. We’re in a convenient location – right near the border with New Hampshire but only 35 minutes from the city center of Boston.
SDM: Do you use volunteers?
Smith: Yes – we’ll have 40 to 50 regular volunteers and 70 to 100 zombie volunteers.
SDM: And then you have a post-event party.
Smith: There’s an absolutely huge Halloween party afterwards. The race is done on a Saturday and everyone just gets dressed up and treats it as their Halloween party.