Aggressive actors offers lots of scares at the fair.
Fearplex is a relatively new Halloween haunt - produced by the people behind the long-running Spooky House - that replaced the defunct Scareplex that inhabited the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in 2004 and 2005. We missed Fearplex's 2007 debut, but we compensated by visiting on opening weekend this year. Los Angeles Halloween fans are no doubt eager to know whether this attraction is worth the trip to Pomona, so read on for our reactions to the shocks, the scares, and the screams.
The initial thrill of fear is evoked by concern that you have wasted a trip: the fairgrounds are huge, with approximately 20 different exits, and aboslutely none of them offer any indication that Fearplex is, in fact, open for business. Most of those entrances are marked "No public access" or "No public parking," but even Gate 17 - which specifically is designated for "Public Parking" - is closed during the off season.
Only through a process of elimination and perseverance did we eventually find our way to the parking lot for the Green Gate entrance on McKinnley Avenue, just west of the Sheraton Hotel. The exterior signage indicates that this entrance is for Administrative use, but once we pulled into the driveway, we saw a temporary sign indicating "Fearplex Parking."
When we mentioned our travails to the woman in the parking booth (while paying our $9), she indicated this was SOP for the fair ("Around here, we say nothing works until it's the day it's over"). Fearplex parking is off to the right, toward the hotel; you need to walk back to the Green Gate to enter the fairgrounds; after that, signs will point you toward the haunt, which is nestled outside the Grandstand.
So much for the difficulties of finding the place. Is it worth the effort?
The sound of chainsaws and screams wafted through the air as we approached, raising expectations high - especially when we encountered a handful teenage girls fleeing in terror. Pulsing-pounding music blared over the loud speakers, drawing us in the direction of the haunt, where a crowd of eager patrons waited outside the entrance. (Miraculously, we were not the only ones who had succeeded in finding Fearplex - an accomplishment that seemed roughly equivalent to encountering Shangri-la.)
The exterior was not particularly auspicious. At a glance, Fearplex suggests a moderately ambitious sideshow fun-house attraction. There were some air-brushed flats (some of which we recognized from the old Scare at the Fair maze), and the the ticket booth was adorned with a hanging skeleton.
Pretty standard stuff, but the Fairplex offers two mazes, Mangler's Haunted Asylum and the Lanterman Manor, and the proprietors told us that their combined space runs to 30,000 squre feet. (Think the size of a football field and you'll be in the ballpark.) That's a big enough abyss to hold a multitude of damned souls - more than enough to deliver a worthwhile chill of fear.
Our terror tour began with the Lanterman Manor. We gathered that, in order to maximize the monsters per square foot, Fearplex was just about to finish up with this maze and move the cast over to the Asylum, where the crowd was waiting in breathless anticipation; we were among the last to go through before the change-over. (Consumer alert: Fearplex knew we were coming, so it is possible they were putting on a special effort for our benefit. If so, they did a very good job.)
Lanterman Manor, of the two mazes, comes closest to a traditional "haunted house," although it also contains sections that suggest a psycho circus, medical mayhem, and aquatic ambiance. At first, it resembles the kind of Halloween haunt that used to frequent mall parking lots during October: a series of painted flats creating long corridors, separated by burlap curtains. Delving deeper reveals a series of decorated rooms and settings, loaded with props and actors, including one with an Egyptian sarcophagus. (Despite the advertising tagline "all new," we recognized some leftover flats from Seaside Haunt; the Spooky House management swaps these from haunt to haunt each year, so that customers at the different attractions do not see the same thing every Halloween.)
The decor is no match for the high-end haunts like Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, but the cast makes the most of it. The long, undecorated corridors serve as accelerator ramps for the knee-sliders, who race at you from a distance and come barreling down the passageways threatening to knock over the customers like human bowling pins.
Also effective was the use of "miniature" clowns. At this point, the Killer Klown motif is as dried up as an old blood stain, but casting small actors (are they children, midgets, or what are they?) adds an uncanny layer of creepiness that revives the concept like a warm transfusion of plasma. There was a a nice moment when one of them "helpfully" led us down a dead end, which can be disturbing and disorienting when enveloped in darkness or strobe lights.
Overall, the monsters were out in force, lurking around every corner and hiding behind every curtain. By the time we emerged, our initial misgivings about the haunt's atmosphere had been obliterated by the enthusiasm of the performers within.
Up next was Mangler's Haunted Asylum. Although we normally prefer Halloween attractions that suggest a traditional "haunted house," the Haunted Asylum turned out to be our Fearplex favorite of the two. Like Lanterman, the settings are relatively simply, but the Asylum compensates by incorporating the actually structure of the Grandstand into the haunt. The blank, drab walls of the old building perfectly capture the ambiance of an old, unkempt asylum overrun by the inmates.
This maze also features a few novel touches that distinguish it from its horrific Halloween competitors.
- At a couple of points, a guide leads you through the rooms that branch off from the main course. This serves a practical purpose (keeping the crowds from log-jamming when they reach a dead end and have to head back to the main route), but it also briefly gives the maze the feel of a guided tour, breaking the monotony of a simple scream around every corner. These tiny tightly packed rooms with their grimy interiors (part of the Grandstands) instill a claustrophobic dread instead of obvious shocks
- During one of these detours, a "guard" closes the door and douses the lights, plunging you into total darkness while surrounded by raving maniacs. This leads to a frantic few moments that seem to last forever, while the guard and a nurse cry out to the customers, asking them to help open the "locked" door. Nobody took the bait during our visit, afraid they were being set up for some kind of shock.
- There is a low-level "crawl-through" walkway that offers almost total darkness - certainly not enough light to see more than vague shapes surrounding you in the confined space. These inmates go into spastic convulsions, accompanied by high-amplification screaming, that assaults the senses like clawed fingernails scratching on bloody, broken glass. We have navigated through other crawlspaces (including one at Old Town Haunt earlier that same night), but this one offered the extra adrenaline-spiking ingredient that turned the experience into something new and memorable. (Technically, this walkway is not a "crawlspace" - it is just high enough for you to keep off your hands and knees if you hunch over and lean way down.) One should note that the usual haunted maze rule ("Don't touch the monsters and they won't touch you") is not practically operable down here. They don't grab you, but while crawling and/or stumbling in the dark around their contorting bodies, some inadvertent contact is hard to avoid.
We emerged from the Haunted Asylum even more impressed than with Lanterman Manor. Fearplex's resources may be limited compared to some haunts, but they use what they have to secure maximum scares. In the past we were great fans of Fright Fair because, although their settings were more serviceable than spectacular, they offered a combination of aggressive actors, strobe lights, darkness, clangorous sound effects, shouts and screams that created an unnerving experience - one that broke through the usual detachment that accompanies a journey into make-believe fear. Fearplex - especially the Haunted Asylum - captures a similar kind of startling effect that should appeal to hard-core horror hounds.
Bottom Line: If you're looking for old-fashioned atmosphere or subtle spooky ambiance, visit Old Town Haunt or Skull Kingdom. If you want to be assaulted by a more high-octane style of horror, head out to Fearplex. We suspect its appeal skews toward the younger crowd (even by Halloween Haunt standards) - those who prefer their horror hard-hitting rather than suggestive will not be disappointed.
NOTE: We attended on opening weekend, when not everything was operational. (For example, Lanterman Manor features a movie screen above the entrance, which was blank on Saturday night; it should be working by next weekend.) The cast and crew with whom we spoke promise that the upcoming weeks will provide time to further finesse the fearful frights.