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Delusion: Valley of Hollows (Review & Interview)

Christopher Stafford explains 13th Floor Entertainment Group’s strategy to turn Delusion Interactive Theatre into an industry instead of a hobby.

Though it has maintained an excellent level of quality throughout its many productions, Delusion Interactive Theatre has been somewhat erratic about getting its work in front of the public. Since its Halloween 2011 debut, Delusion had to cancel performances in 2013 due to permit problems; it went dark in 2015 and 2017 due to difficulty finding a location; and in 2019 it was reduced to a mini-production called Alt Delete.

At the time, Delusion’s mastermind, Jon Braver, expressed doubts about the franchise’s long-term viability, telling us, “The format that people love so much doesn’t work in any sustainable fashion.” He added, “In order to make this an industry instead of a hobby, I may need to allow many more people into my productions or raise ticket prices significantly….or spend far less on build and labor.”

After sitting out Halloween during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Braver joined forces with 13th Floor Entertainment Group, a company that had previously added the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride to its country-wide roster of Halloween attractions. Although the thought of an independent haunt being absorbed into a corporate entity might seem worrisome, the results so far have been encouraging. Delusion’s 2021 offering, Reaper’s Remorse, ranked among the franchise’s best work, and this Halloween Delusion is back with a sequel, Valley of Hollows, about a 1970s cult who believe that death is far from final – a belief that turns out to be far from delusional (pardon the pun). Hopefully, this indicates that 13th Floor Entertainment Group has addressed the event’s practical, logistical, and financial concerns, ensuring that Delusion will be an annual perennial for many years to come.

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Delusion: Valley of Hollows Q&A with Christopher Stafford

To learn more about 13th Floor’s contribution to Delusion, Hollywood Gothique chatted with company CO Christopher Stafford, who is also working on Los Angeles Haunted Hayride and the new Shaqtoberfest at the Queen Mary. We will be posting articles about both of those attractions in the near future, and when time permits, we will return to augment this post with video of Delusion: Valley of Hollows.

Hollywood Gothique: When I interviewed John braver in 2019, he was a little burnt out about what he was doing. I mean, obviously very proud of it, but he wasn’t sure it was long-term viable because with timed entry there’s only so many people you can get in, whereas a traditional haunted house can pump through a thousand people in a night or whatever. So I am wondering what 13th Floor Entertainment Group could do to solve this problem of how to make this thing sustainable without either changing it to pump more people through or raising prices to a ridiculous level?

Christopher Stafford: I was a huge Delusion fan from the get-go. I’d heard about Delusion and wanted to come out to LA and see it, and I couldn’t get a ticket. It didn’t matter where I went, one wasn’t possible. I reached out to Braver – he didn’t know who I was, but I was giving it a shot and I couldn’t get in. So the next year I said, “I’m not going to miss this thing.” Put it on my calendar, followed it, watched for tickets to go on sale; tickets went on sale, and I went through, and I was blown away. To me it was the best form of Halloween horror entertainment that I had experienced, and I fell in love with it. Over the years John and I became friends, and so I’m familiar with what you’re saying about where he was with Delusion. I think what we were able to do for him is to come in and give him the backbone and support on the business side: the finance and accounting and marketing and things that allowed him to focus on the creative parts of Delusion.

But the bigger picture was John came on board at 13th floor Entertainment Group as director of immersive entertainment, and so we definitely have bigger plans for more attractions and different things in that world that John is going to be involved in. Because I was such a huge fan of Delusion, we’re just proud to be producing it with John. It’s such a creative and fantastic product that we didn’t want to come in and change it. We wanted to come in and support it and offer enhancements on the behind-the-scenes stuff.

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Hollywood Gothique: One thing that was added – maybe you could say it was expanded from previous years – was this open-world aspect. Obviously, you’d always been able, after going through the maze, to hang out and have a drink in a bar somewhere, but now you had an entire mansion you could go through, and also there was a little extra mini walk through. How did that develop? It was a very nice addition; it made it more of a destination place. You stay rather than do the play and then leave.

Christopher Stafford: When I first attended Delusion, I told John this. The first one that I went to, there was a little cafe area. I’m not sure that they had alcoholic beverages, but after the second show I went to, there was a bar there. It was in the garage of one of the old mansions over in West Adams area, and I actually had to seek it out to find it. We were able to have a drink before we went in, and so when I started talking to John about my perception of the event as a a customer, I said the first thing people want to do when they come out of Delusion is talk about what they just experienced, and giving them a fun, creative environment to do that in was something that could go a long way. I thought people would really like that, and that was just completely self-reference criteria for me, being a fan of the product and going to the shows. So now Delusion has become something where if you want to come early and explore, there are definitely Easter eggs and tidbits that you’re gonna discover. If you want to just come at your showtime and then hang out afterwards and have some food and drink and talk about what you just experienced, I think the goal really was to provide a cool atmosphere to do that.

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Hollywood Gothique: In the last few years, 13th Floor Entertainment has acquired Delusion and Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. Do you have your eyes on other Los Angeles Halloween attractions?

Christopher Stafford: We do have another product that’s on the proverbial drawing board for the LA Market. It’s definitely not close enough that I would be ready to announce anything about it. It could be 2023 or a 2024 product, but I think it’s something that folks out here would definitely enjoy, and it’s very different than what we’re already doing here.

Hollywood Gothique: That raises another question. There aren’t too many indie haunts left in Los Angeles, so what would you say to someone who’s thinking, “My God, this corporate monster is coming in here and gobbling up everything in Los Angeles”?

Christopher Stafford: People might find it a little scary – and not in a Halloween way! People are always afraid of what they don’t know, and in in Southern California, they don’t know us all that well yet. I think once people get to know us [they will realize] that we’re fans of the industry, fans of the genre, fans of Halloween and horror entertainment – we’re passionate about it. I’m asked all the time, “Why do you think your business is successful?” I say, “Because we blend equal parts business and operational acumen with passion and enthusiasm for the industry and the product.”

It’s funny because when I started coming out to LA to go to Hayride, Delusion, and Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, it’s not like I was doing market research. I was just coming out to have fun. You know, “I gotta go see this hayride thing that happens in the middle of Los Angeles. I’ve got to see Delusion because everything from it was just amazing looking.” Coming out here and experiencing those products led me to start exploring the market and acquiring [Los Angeles Haunted Hayride], and then John braver and I became friends.

And so to answer your question, I think perception is reality, so being perceived as the big bad guy is people’s reality, but I don’t think it could be further from the truth. One of the biggest misperceptions about our company is that we were a bunch of business guys that got into Halloween, and that’s just not the case. I’ve been doing Halloween haunted houses since I was 15 years old. I met one of my business partners working at a haunted house when we were teenagers, and we’re still in the business today. I think we’re fortunate to bring a few different types of personalities together to create a good strong backbone, but at the end of the day it’s the product; it’s the story; it’s the creative that is always going to drive the business.

Hollywood Gothique's Review of Delusion: Valley of Hollows
  • Interactive Play
  • VIP Experience

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Some redeeming qualities
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

Delusion is such a unique experience that it can be measured only by its own yardstick. By that impressive standard, this Halloween’s interactive play, Valley of Hollows, measures up, providing all the thrills, stunts, interactivity, and special effects we have come to expect – including a couple of fabulous monsters we would love to have seen more clearly had we not been too busy hiding/running away from them.

The premise – which casts the audience as deprogrammers called to help a former patient escape a dangerous cult – strikes a note of historical realism a bit at odds with the franchise’s usual emphasis on fantastical horrors; fortunately, the story manages to squeeze in several supernatural elements. Cult-leader Esther Phillips (who seems curiously unaged since the events of Reaper’s Remorse) has indoctrinated her followers to believe that death is not the end, and we see ample evidence to prove her right – although her resurrected followers turn into tormented semi-zombies who regret their undead existence. Along the way, there are objects to find and puzzles to solve, and the story moves along quickly over some rough terrain (open graves, rickety stairs), leading to suspenseful rescue and escape attempt that should keep pulses pounding.

Unfortunately, the Open World element, a highlight of last year, has been eliminated. For those who have not paid for the VIP Experience, there is one room open on the ground floor, where guests encounter cult members while waiting to enter the play. The scene is loaded with flashing lights, period music, and clever performances by actors as spaced-out characters eager to welcome you into the fold – it’s a great preamble, setting the stage for what follows. However, it also wears out its welcome fairly quickly, leaving one eager to move on to the main event.

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However, when summoned to start the play, guests are left in another room, searching scattered objects for clues, which loses interest long before a door opens to yet a third waiting room. Here, someone explains the rules of how to participate in Delusion, screens a short film repeating those rules, and then departs, leaving the audience to cool their heels a while longer before the play actually starts. The experience is roughly akin to sitting in a hospital waiting room, finally being called into the doctor’s office, and then sitting in a new waiting room before the doctor finally arrives.

Those who paid for the VIP Experience can explore the upstairs, where there is a creepy room showing sleazy horror movies (e.g. Manos: The Hands of Fate), a lively bar with themed cocktails and a talented magician, and a mini-walkthrough experience, which is actually a crawl-through. Completely dark, with recorded whispering voices leading the way, this is mildly interesting, but it falls short of last year’s bonus walk-through, which featured lengthy interaction with an important character who revealed a secret related to events of the play.

Those barred from heading upstairs can find merchandise and plenty of seating outside the Phillips Mansion, along with fine cocktails and excellent food at Last Stand Delights (initials: LSD – get it?). It’s a good opportunity to decompress after the suspense of escaping the cult compound, and a great opportunity to exchange stories with participants who split off onto side quests.

To make sense of our rating, we should state that Valley of Hollows should rank among the top attractions this Halloween. If it falls short in any way, it is only in comparison to its predecessor, which granted greater flexibility to explore the world surrounding the play’s events. The play itself is highly recommended. The upstairs VIP Experience is an entertaining supplement, but we are not convinced it is worth the extra $35.

Delusion: Valley of Hollows continues at Phillips Mansion on select nights through November 20 (no show Halloween Night). Tickets start at $89.99 for general admission, and $124.99 for the VIP experience, with higher prices on peak nights. The address is 2640 Pomona Boulevard in Pomona. For more information, visit: www.enterdelusion.com.

Note: This review has been corrected to clarify that there is no open-world aspect to Delusion: Valley of Hollows. We misused the term, conflating it with VIP Experience in the upstairs area, but that is something different.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.