2014 Halloween Haunt Award Nominees: Best Scare Zone

Scare zones can make or break a Halloween theme park. Yes, ultimately the mazes must give customers their money's worth, but the first impression upon entering is what sets the tone for the rest of the evening, which is then reinforced by subsequent encounters while wandering through the park. On a crowded night, with lines lasting hours, eager haunt-goers can fill the time between rides and walk-throughs with excursions into scare zones.

We found this year somewhat lacking. We certainly encountered our share of free-roaming ghouls while wandering through this year's attractions, but seldom did the themes or settings make an indelible impression. Do we need another year of The Purge in the New York Street scene at Halloween Horror Nights? Is it really that different from any of the previous "city in chaos" scenarios used in that area for the past eight years? Fortunately, a few scare zones do linger in our memories enough to warrant mention.

And the nominees are...

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Campground victims of the Walking Dead on the Terror Tram tour at Halloween Horror Nights 2012

Back Lot at Halloween Horror Nights

When you stop and think about it, once visitors get off the Terror Tram and begin walking, the Back Lot of Universal Studios Hollywood functions as an enormous scare zone, filled with monsters of all shapes and sizes, haunting woodsy terrain and a suburban neighborhood suffering the devastation of a jetliner crash. The sheer scope of destruction is far beyond anything one will encounter at any other Halloween attraction in Los Angeles, making the Back Lot a perennial highlight - always worth another visit.

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Carnevil at Knotts Scary Farm

A Clown in the Carnevil Scare Zone on the Boardwalk

At least on media night, the scare zones at Knotts Berry Farm were scarcely populated: the Gypsy Camp seemed virtually dead, and even the old western Ghost Town - a perennial favorite - delivered more atmosphere than actual scares. Ironically, considering our antipathy for clowns, Carnevil near the Boardwalk featured the most visible and hardest working scare-actors, who were clearly going the extra mile to inflict terror under less than ideal circumstances. It's easy to spook someone in shadows and fog, but amid the bright lights and excitement of an amusement park, surrounded by whirling rides and carnival barkers? That takes dedication.

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Halloween Horror Nights 2014 - Bad Santa from Dark Christmas

Dark Christmas at Halloween Horror Nights

First off, we think it's a bit absurd to feature a Christmas theme at a Halloween attraction, but presumably no one would come if Universal Studios Hollywood offered this scare zone in December. Anyway, the twisted take on yuletide imagery was imaginative and different, with some impressive creatures and (as one would expect from a movie studio) wonderful makeup.
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Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014 clown with mallet

Purgatory Haunted Village at The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride

Though the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is not really a theme park, it does include a scare zone. Unlike most of its competitors, the Purgatory Haunted Village has a unique flavor, like a carnival but more Cirque du Soleil than killer klowns. Yes, there are all sorts of deadly, demented things ready to attack once you purchase one purchases a ticket and enters the grounds, but there is a certain graceful artistry apparent that is seldom seen elsewhere. And this year, there were actual ghosts physically floating in the air!

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Nightmares at Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest

Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest Nightmares Scare ZoneTen years ago, Six Flags Magic Mountain's annual Fright Fest was short on scare zones, so much so that one could wander around almost without realizing that there was a Halloween overlay. What a difference a decade makes. For Halloween 2014, monsters were apparent from the moment one entered. By far our favorite was located halfway up the hill, in a darkened area enclosed by over-hanging trees that created a sense of being cut off from the rest of the park and, indeed, the rest of the world. In this isolated area, illuminated with black light, strange and colorful creatures lurked, some aggressive, some more subtle - engaging visitors in conversations on dreadful subjects, such as dead rats. Despite our hurry to reach Willloughby's Resurrected and other haunts, we lingered long, and even doubled back later in the evening for another visit down the proverbial rabbit hole.