“I've never seen anything like this. It was insane. I wasn't thinking logically because I was totally out of it. I was really scared — I was genuinely scared for my life.”
As eerie music played, flame projectors shot bursts of fire into the black sky. They illuminated giant inflated jack-o-lanterns while a carousel cast twinkling lights onto a pool.
It was a couple days prior to Halloween in 2019 and Chloe Sullivan (then 16) and her boyfriend, George (then 17), had just entered California’s Great America’s Halloween Haunt after 3 hours of standing in line. They hoped to be scared, yet they didn’t anticipate the pure, uncontrolled terror that would soon overtake the amusement park.
“I like horror movies so I was really excited,” Chloe said, “but I was also nervous because I get scared super easily.”
She had heard friends praise the Halloween Haunt, so she couldn’t wait to explore its themed haunted mazes, live shows, scare zones, rollercoasters and elaborate decorations.
Hand-in-hand, Chloe and George shuffled through crowds of people as shrieks and laughs echoed through the artificial fog. Near the center of the park, they began standing in line for their first haunted house, which was located in a graveyard surrounded by tombstones.
Suddenly, at about 10:30 p.m., after the two had been waiting for 15 minutes, a mob of people began running maddenly from the side of the attraction, pushing and screaming and tripping over on another.
Initially, Chloe thought that the people were running from an actor, perhaps a clown, and that it was all fun and games. She couldn't comprehend what they were yelling or what was going on.
“It was such a blur - it all happened so quickly,” Chloe said. “I wasn’t really processing it. It was crazy; it didn't make any sense.”
As the people began running past her, she froze in place — she finally realized that they were screaming that there was a shooting happening, yet she couldn’t move. Although she thought she had heard gunshots, she didn’t fully grasp the danger until she glimpsed her boyfriend’s face.
“He doesn't get scared very easily but that's the first time I've seen him genuinely scared,” Chloe said. “You hear stories about shootings but you don't expect to be in an experience like that.”
Chloe jolted out of her daze when George grabbed her hand and began running, pulling her behind him. They ducked underneath the ropes and began sprinting to the exit.
“George and I were definitely in flight mode, so we sprinted and didn’t care how tired we were,” Chloe said. “I've never run so fast in my life.”
All around them, people shoved and yelled. About a dozen people crouched behind the fake tombstones near the haunted house. Kids cried. Trash scattered the ground. The park was in a state of mass, senseless panic.
“I've never seen anything like this,” Chloe said. “Everyone was running; everyone was screaming. It was insane. I wasn't thinking logically because I was totally out of it. I was really scared — I was genuinely scared for my life.”
Some people jumped over chairs, darted across tables and climbed fences. A few stood petrified in the middle of paths, wearing expressions of shock as George screamed at them to run. George later told Chloe that he had seen a little kid trying to find his parents while getting pushed by the swarm of strangers shoving past him.
She said that it felt like “everyone was ‘one man for himself.’” She had never been as scared as she was in that instance.
“The whole thing felt fake,” Chloe said. “It was so surreal. We were so scared of what was going on that we were sweating and shaking so much.”
Chloe and George ran through the exit of the park as the sound of sirens magnified. The line they had been standing in was near the front of the park, so they were able to flee quickly— in about 5 to 10 minutes. Weaving through other people rushing around the parking lot, they found George’s car.
Chloe, tears streaming down her cheeks, called her mom and then George’s, stumbling over her words as she tried to explain what was happening. She remembers thinking that their mothers must have been terrified.
At about 1 a.m., they reached Chloe’s house, shaken up and still in shock. George’s mom and sister were already there. For the next hour, they sat with their families in the kitchen, trying to calm down and figure out what had happened.
Reports released later that night attributed the panic to a mistaken belief of an active shooting following armed robberies and fights. The Santa Clara Police Department later stated that about 100 teens (some who had tasers) had attacked visitors to steal valuables like wallets and phones. Chloe said she felt enraged when the park re-opened at 11:10 p.m the same night and remained open until the initial closing time of 1 a.m.
Although the Santa Clara Police Department stated that no guns were fired, many on social media sites like Twitter were skeptical, according to Chloe. In the comments, people claimed that they had heard shots.
Chloe said that night made her realize how grateful she was for George and her family, as she could tell how terrified they were for her. She hopes that the scare prepared her to act more quickly in future unsafe situations.
“I need to learn how to take action immediately rather than wait,” Chloe said. “If George wasn't there, I would have taken a longer time to get out. I would want to grow from what happened and learn how to handle dangerous situations better and listen to my instincts more.”