For a time, the debut of the new Forbidden Haunt in Sherman Oaks seemed to have been cursed, with continuing delays to secure necessary permits from the city. On Friday night, the walk-through maze in the big-top circus tent was finally thrown open to the public, but a planned carnival has yet to materialize (expect to see it the final two weekends of October). Under the circumstances, one would hardly be surprised if the opening night were darkened by the pall of ill-omened portents casting their shadow over the colorful "Haunted Carnevil" (this year's theme), but all things considered the cast put on a frightfully entertaining show.
Forbidden Haunt is located in a large dirt lot on Sepulveda Boulevard, just north of the Sherman Oaks Galleria. It is an appropriate setting for a circus-themed haunt, and the large tent is certainly ominously large, with room for many terrors therein. The premise is that a young girl, whose father died, was lured into the "Haunted Carnevil" with the promise of spells that would restore her lost parent to life. After a few sets representing Ivy's home, the maze shifts to the circus-clown motif; eventually other settings intrude upon the theme.
At first glance, Forbidden Haunt does not offer particularly impressive settings. The initial rooms are nice, but as you move into the Haunted Carnevil, many of the corridors are simple wooden flats, sometimes painted, sometimes with simple decorations. Basically, the maze resembles the sort of "haunt in a box" that you used to see at attractions set up in store parking lots.
Fortunately, there is more to the haunt - much more. It seems to go on forever, eventually providing a variety of different environments, including some interesting sets. There are several clever startling moments, with characters appearing from clever hiding places to provide unexpected jump-scares.
More important, Forbidden Haunt's twisted maze is haunted by many malevolent and twisted characters (in one case literally so - a female contortionist, recreating something like the spider-walk from THE EXORCIST). We particularly like the gypsy fortunate teller and the demon who seemed to have no more time to spare on Michael Jackson. These demented denizens work overtime to keep the tension level high throughout - and that's always more important that lavish decor.
One pleasant surprise is that several of the sets and monsters have been resurrected from Spooky House, the long-running Halloween haunt that went to the great graveyard in the sky after the death of owner Bob Koritzke last year. Fans of Seaside Haunt, also no longer in operation, may recognize a setting or two, as well.
There were a few of a lingering curse hanging over the opening night festivities: Our introduction to the haunt's back story came from a man who apologized for not being in costume. There was neither music nor sound effects inside the maze. On a couple of occasions we encountered actors who were not quite prepared for our arrival (one even tried to blame us for coming through the wrong way, even though we were on the correct path). Still, all things considered, these were minor distractions.
After the maze, courageous visitors can enduring the claustrophobic - and surprisingly comical - horror of the Last Ride. At first, this looks like a photo booth: a double wide open coffin, sitting inside a makeshift funeral room. It turns out to be a motion-simulator: you climb inside; the lid is lowered; and you are off on to your final destination in the cemetery. An amusing stereo soundtrack, complete with Cockney gravediggers, provides the audio clues for the bumps and jolts you feel (being hefted into the hearse or lowered into the grave, and simulated smells (roses, exhaust, earth) complete the illusion, which ends with what must be a torrent of maggots eating their way in toward you.
Don't be deceived by The Last Ride's appearance: it is not much to look at from the outside (the motion-simulation looks like random bumps), but the experience of riding within its darkened interior is an absolute must for this Halloween season, and the double wide length makes it perfect for couples.
A couple other notes:
1. Like many Halloween attractions in Los Angeles, Forbidden Haunt offers kid-safe matinees; however, they take it a step further by offering a "Chicken Light" at night. If you want to go through at night, when the monsters are present, but you are too intimidated by the thought of creatures creeping up on you in the dark and catching you by surprise, carry one of the lights with you, and the monsters will keep their distance.
2. Forbidden Haunt's Haunted Carnevil circus tent is clearly visible on Sepulveda Boulevard, but you need to pull around the corner onto a side street to park, and the actual entrance is off of a dead-end cul-de-sac; in effect, it looks as if you are entering the back way, but the quiet little street is more conducive to pedestrian traffic than Sepulveda.
Forbidden Haunt's Haunted Carnevil will be open the evenings of October 15-17, 22-31. The lights-on tours run from 10am to 4pm on Saturdays and from noon to 4pm on Sundays. The carnival attractions should be open on the weekends of October 15-17 and 29-31.