THE BEAST STIRS…
Believe it or not, the life of a horror magazine editor can sometimes get tedious. After all, there are only so many hours one can sit watching psychotronic films; reading, editing, and writing articles; and maintaining a web presence, before getting totally burnt out.
One fine day, I looked down to see that the puddle of drool beneath my computer desk had reached the high-water mark that I had established as an indicator for “break time.” So, I schlepped into the kitchen for a lemonade and noticed on my calendar that it was currently October. “Whoa,” I thought to myself, “time’s a-wastin’!”
Unless you go to Wisconsin Dells, or, now, Las Vegas, there are only so many days a year during which horror hounds can travel to one of our favorite meccas: a haunted house. Luckily, my brain hadn’t yet curdled to such a degree that I was without the capacity for creative thought. Thus, I realized that one of my standard obstacles for attending haunted houses – money – might not be an issue this year. And why was this year different from all other years? This year, I had press credentials! Ha ha ha! <cue thunder and lightening>
TAXIING TOWARD TERROR
Suffice it to say, haunted houses have provided a form of entertainment and self-induced shock therapy for generations. (For a nice background on their storied tradition, see Brandon Kosters’s feature article in Diabolique #12, currently available online and on local newsstands). On a primal level, they are safe places to exorcise our own fears, and exploit the fears of others. Beyond that, enthusiasts rate their haunts for a variety of characteristics: degrees of fright, set design, lighting, themes, storylines – the list goes on.
I don’t claim expertise in this realm. I am simply a child who cannot grow up. There are a few sources, however, that you may consult for bonafide ratings. Hauntworld.com, for one, is the site of the haunted attraction trade journal (they’re your experts), Hauntworld. Hauntedhouseratings.com offers consensus-based ratings. I visit these sites every October with the hope that one of the scariest haunts in the nation will be within driving distance for me. Alas, it’s never been that easy. The top haunts are usually scattered throughout the southern regions of the US, and I continually pledge to myself that I will one day have the means to visit haunts that regularly receive top honors from the various ratings boards. For now, I’ll take what I can get. And my experiences this year, so far, have not been too shabby…
HAUNT DESTINATION #1: QUEEN MARY’S DARK HARBOR
Dark Harbor is a collection of six haunted attractions, 250 performers, and a fairground, which has been set up on and around the retired luxury liner, The Queen Mary. Built in 1930, The Queen Mary was the world’s largest ocean liner for three years before she was transformed into a troopship for carrying soldiers during World War II. After the war, she was returned to her status as a cruise ship, and continued to provide transatlantic travel before being permanently docked in Long Beach, CA in 1967.
The Queen Mary is a floating tourist attraction, a hotel, a site for events and weddings, and, around haunting season, a floating host of recreational terror. Beyond the Halloween haunts, the ship also possesses a history of “genuine” ghost stories and sightings. Since I don’t pay heed to such things, my focus shall remain on in-genuine ghosts.
Regrettably, I cannot comment on value for dollar because I neither paid, nor did I wait in any lines (ah, the blessings of media credentials). Short of that, for horror hounds, the environment is generally intoxicating. Spooky soundtracks and screams echo throughout the large fairground setting; actors in make-up and costumes do their best to catch wandering guests off guard; fire erupts from one of many ornate facades; musicians play rock-and-roll music on a sizable stage; and various carnival-type stands, where guests can buy $10 funnel cakes, t-shirts, beer, and Hawaiian BBQ, flesh out the area.
All of the mazes have a distinct theme; how well each maze revealed those themes varied. The criteria for my ratings are based on art direction (interior design for haunted houses) and scare techniques (how well they unnerved me). SPOILERS AHEAD!
CONTAINMENT: The first of the mazes was a little disappointing. There was a lot of empty space and generic (albeit probably expensive) animatronics. Therewere long stretches of hallway with the walls covered in sheets. Actors would periodically spring from behind the sheets to surprise passersby.
HELLFIRE: This next one was probably my favorite of the evening. One of the things I liked best about it was a not-so-obvious scare; there was a long hallway which was increasingly poorly lit as I proceeded through it. The psychological effect was subtle but very effective in evoking a feeling of vulnerability. It was quite refreshing! All frights considered, there’s really only so much terror a guest can experience from an actor screaming: “Boo,” unless, of course, that guest happened to be one of the 13 year old girls who walked behind me and continually screamed, “Oh my gawd!!!”
There was another noteworthy scare in this maze. Guests cross over a bridge, which overlooks a vacant area 25 feet below, and when they are about halfway across, their path is blocked by an angry character who then additionally surprises his victims by activating the bridge’s hydraulics. Good stuff!
SUBMERGED: This one was on the weaker side. Nice surprises included being sprinkled by water upon entering – an unnerving but, ultimately, safe form of molestation. Then, an initial experience of misdirection – a decaying man warns us not to look up, which of course we do – only to be blindsided from below. This maze also featured a musty, moldy smell which may or may not have been part of its design. Since the theme is a sinking ship, the smell is an appropriate compliment. The overall effect, however, is a turn-off, and made me think that we were just in a moldy part of the ship, where we might be inhaling spores from toxic mold. While much of this maze was comprised of decent vignettes, the rest seemed to be genuinely moldy ship parts. It may have been my age that made this maze more of an assault on my appreciation of the attraction than on my fear of (actors dressed as) ghosts.
DEADRISE: The remaining three mazes were located on the fairground, as opposed to the actual ship. Deadrise featured some nice set design and many zombie-looking sailors – though I think they were supposed to be ghosts. The maze looked like an abandoned shipyard, and the highlights were actors banging on the wall and yelling the proverbial “Boo!”
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED: The main appeal of this one was its length. There were several moments when I thought it was going to end, but it didn’t. Again, nice set design throughout. An “airbag” hallway (basically a situation where the walls are puffed-up, heavy duty, pressurized air bags which require guests to force their way between them) was a highlight. This is a decent scare because it creates a situation where your environment is acutely distorted – leaving you disoriented and vulnerable. There is room to exploit guests further during this sequence (say, by surprising you with an unexpected confrontation while sandwiched in between those airy cushions). And on that subject, there was one more situation in this maze that had the potential to be more than an eerie set design; visitors walk through an area where dummy corpses are wrapped in mesh and “webbed” to the walls. I feared that every odd corpse would be an actor, and this created a pleasant sense of anxiety. Alas, it was an anxiety that went unexploited.
THE CAGE: This final maze was also one of the more satisfying, in that it preyed upon the guests’ disorientation. At the beginning of the maze, there was a tunnel where guests slipped on shifting floor panels as flashing patterns danced upon the walls. All the while, loud, distorted music and sound effects enveloped our eardrums. Of all the “mazes,” this one actually came the closest to the definition of a maze; some sequences were devoid of any light, so we had to feel our way through numerous thick curtains to venture onward. As in the other mazes, there were plenty of actors sneaking up on us throughout, and an additional moment in which I thought there was potential for a great scare that did not happen – the walls of one hallway were bedecked with rubber hands on springs. The effect was odd, but not frightening. Had several of those hands sprung to life and reached out in a feigned attempt at grabbing the guests, I imagine the psychic effect would have been devastating.
IN THE END…
My visit to Dark Harbor was very enjoyable. An outstanding fairground setting, a very large cast, and well-decorated mazes helped me feel right at home. Overall, the scare level was adequate for the average denizen, but, in turn, it inspired me to think of what could have made it even scarier. Perhaps such a thing is typical of someone who makes it his business to scare…
Check back with Scott for Part Two, when he ventures down to San Diego to visit Haunted Hotel and Scream Zone….