Fright Fair 2005 Review

Well, the long wait is finally over: last night, Fright Fair opened its "Factory of Nightmares" haunted house at the Hallloween Harvest Festival it has been conducting all month near Pierce College.

Despite being situated next to a college, the location for this year's festival is basically a dirt parking lot, with wooden structures, bales of hay, and pumpkins, suggesting a farm. There is also a scary "Creatures of the Corn" attraction, in addition to a milder corn maze and several other un-scary attractions for youngsters: a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo, a rock climbing wall, bungee jumping, and one or two other kiddie rides.

The old Fright Fair (discussed here) was always a bit more than just a haunted house: there were usually trampolines, bungees or the like, in addition to an intense, scary maze. So, this year's Halloween festival seems like just an expansion of what they used to be doing; however, we fear that they may have expanded too far, spreading themselves a bit thin in the process

Fright Fair's main attraction used to be called the "4 Dimensions of Fear" (described in their advertising as "four haunts slammed into one"). Long after other Halloween theme parks had started offering multiple mazes (along with multiple admission prices), Fright Fair was still offering a single, lengthy maze crammed full of horror. You paid for a single ticket, and that was all there was to see, but what you got for your money was incredible.

For 2005, Fright Fair has joined the trend of offering multiple attractions. ("Maze" has come to be the term used for these haunts that require you to walk through a series of twisting corridors; strictly speaking, "labyrinth" would be a more accurate term. This distinction is especially appropriate at Fright Fair, which does feature one literal maze, so we'll adopt that usage for the rest of this review.) There is the Factory of Nightmares haunted house, the Creatures of the Corn haunted trail, and a separate corn maze (a literal maze, without haunters, that requires you to find several destinations inside and then find your way out).

The Factory of Nightmares comes closest to recreating the old 4 Dimensions of Fear. Basically, this is a temporary structure, underneath a tent. The outside facade now looks literally like an old scary mansion; after going through the entrance, you travel through a series of "rooms" -- some inside, some outside. Fright Fair never had the best decor, and that's true this year as well, but it does offer a handful of good mechanical effects: a floor that threatens to collapse from underneath you, a tubular tunnel whose spinning wall makes you dizzy as you walk through, and an electrical Tesla coil whose sparking arcs crackle like something in Frankenstein's library.

What really made Fright Fair work in the old days was the aggressiveness of the actors, coupled with an aural and audio assault on the senses. There were rooms with flashing strobelights that were literally blinding -- you couldn't see a foot in front of your face -- and what sounded like dozens of people banging on trashcan lids -- so that you couldn't even think straight. The experience was disorienting -- you never knew when or where something might jump out and grab you because you couldn't get your bearings.

The Factory of Nightmares is a much milder experience. There are still some strobe lights, but they never disorient you; the aggressive audio assault is also missing. On the plus side, the cast still seems completely into their roles. Like many Halloween haunts, Fright Fair allows its customers through in groups of ten or twelve. Unlike other haunts, if you're the last in line, you don't have to worry that all the frights will be focused on those ahead of you. These ghouls like to go after everybody: they lie in wait till the group passes; then they jump out. Or they pursue you after you have left a room, making sure that the timid ones have no choice but to proceed: no matter how frightened they may be of what's ahead, they know something's behind them, usually yelling, "Keep Moving!"

The Creatures of the Corn, as the name implies, takes place in a cornfield, right next to the corn maze. As you know from our reviews of other Halloween attractions, we're always looking for something new and different, and this one certainly fits the bill (at least in Southern California; we understand that corn mazes may be old news in other parts of the country). The exterior location, the tall corn, and the sense of isolation -- of being lost outside in the dark -- combine to make this lengthy haunted trail worth experiencing for every goosebump it provides.

There is little if any illumination except for residual light from the nearby harvest festival. There's enough to see the trail in front of you, but the corn rows on either side are murky with shadows, and who knows what might be hiding there? On the Friday night we attended (a very busy evening), the trail seemed to rely a lot on this sense of anticipation to generate fear -- perhaps too much. For the first third or so, we counted only five or six monsters who actually made an appearance. Things picked up later on, fortunately, with one enthusiastic ghoul playing a sort of demented version of "tag-you're-it," springing out of nowhere, racing ahead, and then doubling back on our group to illicit multiple scares.

There are a handful of simple sets, mostly looking like rundown shacks, where ghouls are lurking; plus, there's a scarecrow standing on a wagon, so perfectly still you think it's a mannequin -- until it makes a grab for you. There is also what looks like a very unstable bridge over a small gulch -- it's mechanical and threatens to drop out from under your feet. Distracted by this, you don't see the vampire lurking as you step off -- until she pounces.

Typically, we were at the front of our group: no one else had the nerve to go first, and being hardened Halloween enthusiasts, we try to put on a courageous front to boost the morale of our fellow travellers. This strategy backfired on the cowardly lot, as most of the ghouls pinpointed the stragglers in line for the brunt of their frightening attention. It also caused continual discomfort for us, as we were ever in danger of being stampeded from behind, as each new scare turned our those behind us into a panicked herd rushing for imagined safety, with no concern for us who had been elected to lead them through the terror.

This was especially true toward the end. The last stretch features a chainsaw-wielding maniac chasing you out of the corn; the sound of the revving motor sends some kind of galvanic stimulus-response coursing through the crowd, who explode into fear and race toward the exit, trampling anyone in their way -- a great ending perfectly appropriate for the setting.

Overall, after our two year wait for the return of Fright Fair (which did not put on a haunt in Los Angeles last year), we have to admit to being a bit disappointed, although no doubt much of that has to do with high expectations based on anticipation. The old Fright Fair was on our list of must-see Halloween events; the new version is good but not absolutely necessarily essential, if you are only interested in the scares.

On the positive side, it is probably the best place to go if you are an adult with children, because the Halloween festival offers lots of family-friendly fun. You do have to endure country music piping in over the loud speakers, intended to lend an atmosphere appropriate for a country-looking festival where you can buy roasted corn and pumpkins. (Perhaps our most horrifying experience that night was waiting in line and listening to a cover version of the Moody Blues' 1980 hit "The Voice" performed on banjo and fiddle.) But that's a small price to pay for a visit to this long-running haunt. The Factory of Nightmares may not have lived up to our perhaps excessive expectations, but the new Creatures of the Corn haunted trail made up for any disappointment by offering us a new Halloween experience. We will definitely be back next year.

VIDEO: Click here to see screaming victims running out the exit of the Creatures of the Corn haunted trail. The video will open a new window, but the file is a bit large, so it might take a while to start, unless you have high-speed Internet access.