Hollywood Gothique is sensing a disturbing trend in 2013's Halloween Haunted Houses and Hayrides: a move toward themes that have little if anything to do with Halloween. We hate to sound as if we are taking a reactionary stance against new approaches, so we want to be clear that our objections have less to do with the strategies employed than with the content - which may be valid in its own right but is not really suited to the season. In fact, we rather appreciate the innovative scare techniques, but in a weird way, we feel as if we have called down a curse upon ourselves; it's a case of the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for" (more on which later).
We are talking about the more interactive, personal sort of scares, with performers who break the traditional barriers. This approach has actually been around for several years, thanks to the Theatre 68 Haunted House in Hollywood, and a more overt form was born two Halloweens ago in Delusion: Presented by Haunted Play. Both of those rank among our favorite Halloween Haunts in Los Angeles, because they paired their more aggressive scare strategy with themes appropriate to the season: supernatural powers, the living dead, demonic apparitions, etc.
For Halloween 2013, however, we see no less than three attractions whose only real connection to the season is timing: The Purge: Fear the Night; Blackout: Elements; and Alone: An Existential Haunting. We thoroughly enjoyed Blumhouse Productions' The Purge: Fear the Night, and would recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting theatrical thrill ride that makes the audience part of the story, but the type of fear it engenders had nothing to do with the iconography of Halloween (unlike last year's Blumhouse of Horrors, which offered a haunted theatre packed with ghosts and apparitions).
We haven't had a chance to experience either Blackout: Elements or Alone: An Existential Haunting (the latter has yet to open), but at the ScareLA Halloween convention in August, during a panel on "extreme haunts," the proprietor of Blackout openly acknowledged that the attraction was conceived as an avante garde theatrical piece in New York, and the term "haunted house" was added as an afterthought, gaining the event unofficial entry into the community of Halloween haunters. Perhaps tellingly, when Blackout made its Los Angeles debut in Halloween 2012, the title was Blackout Haunted House, which has since been changed to Blackout: Elements, as if to acknowledge that this is emphatically not a haunted house experience.
The strategy employed in Blackout is that you walk through alone, with only a flashlight, after you have signed a release acknowledging that you will be subjected to some unpleasant situations. Inside, the performs abuse you psychologically (specifics change from year to year). If you get to frightened, you can yell "Safety" and be escorted out; you will also be escorted out if you refuse to comply with any of the orders you are given. In either case, you do not get a refund.
It sounds marvelously intense, but it has more to do with Abu Ghraib than All Hallow's Eve, when it was traditionally believed that the veil between this world and the next was rent asunder, and the living would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves and thus avoid being recognized by any wandering souls. The same seems to apply to Alone: An Existential Haunting, which also requires a waiver and warns that "you will be given verbal instructions on where to walk, stand, sit, and specific actions to perform." In other words, you will not be so much "haunted" as "dominated." Which might be great but would make as much sense in July as it does in October.
Of course, Halloween theme park attractions and other seasonal events have been drifting away from traditional Halloween imagery for decades. With the proliferation of Psycho-Circuses and Killer Klownz, your average walk-through maze probably feels as much like a carnival fun house as a "haunted house" (a fact on display in The Haunted World of El Superbeasto in 3D at Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare.) Slaughterhouses, Asylums, and Torture Chambers are certainly horrific enough to qualify as seasonal attractions, but they're not really Halloween-oriented, nor are the more out-of-this-world alien invasion scenarios. But hey, if you're the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, and you have to come up with a dozen attractions, we'll cut you some slack in the name of variety.
Nevertheless, we are disappointed whenever we see events breaking so far from the Halloween tradition. It's not as if Los Angeles is overrun with professional haunted houses events featuring ghosts, witches, and vampires; for that sort of thing, you almost have to go to amateur Halloween yard haunts: Rotten Apple 907's Wilsley Manor, The Haunted Shack, Hanover Hall, the House at Haunted Hill, the House of Restless Spirits, etc.
Be Careful What You Wish For...
So why do we, however irrationally, feel somehow responsible for furthering this trend toward more extreme haunts disassociated from the Halloween season? We blame it all on Brian DePalma's early cult comedy, Hi, Mom!
For decades, the oft-heard admonition as you entered any Halloween Haunt in Los Angeles was "Don't touch the monsters, and they won't touch you." This often reduced the experience to one of repetitious jump-scares, in which costumed actors would spring at you from some hiding place, yell "Boo!," and then retreat back into the shadows. We wanted something more, and that "more" was always associated in our minds with the "Be Black, Baby" sequence from the DePalma film. For those who haven't seen Hi, Mom!, the highlight is a performance of a play that is supposed to show upscale Whites what it is like to be Black in America. The sly joke is that the "play" consists not of sitting the audience down to watch a performance on stage but of dragging them from room to room and abusing them.
The complete shattering of the fourth wall, coupled with the resulting participation by the audience, always struck us as a good model to use for a haunted attraction. We're glad to see that more Halloween events in Los Angeles are adopting this strategy. We just wish that, like Delusion and Theatre 68, they would combine the aggressive theatricality with the spirit of the Halloween season, instead of simply utilizing the approach during the month of October.