Halloween 2015: The End of the Multi-Haunt Era?

Spooky House - L.A.'s first multi-maze Halloween haunt
Spooky House – L.A.’s first multi-maze Halloween haunt

Well, perhaps not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it definitely looks like the end of the beginning. For over a decade, Los Angeles Halloween fans could reliably expect to find multi-maze events in and around the city. These haunts occupied a sort of limbo-land between single-maze attractions and high-end Halloween theme parks. Instead of driving from one indie haunted house to the next, and the next, and the next, in a desperate quest for an evening’s worth of fright, you could enjoy several haunts in a single location, without the exorbitant cash outlay for parking and tickets that would be required for something like the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt. Multi-maze  attractions were convenient and economical alternatives, especially late in the season, or even on Halloween night itself, when the major events were often sold out.

This Halloween, however, there are virtually no multi-maze attractions accessible to Los Angeles haunt-seekers – depending on how one defines the term and how far one is willing to drive. Within the city limits, there is the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, which strictly speaking has only one “maze” but offers multiple attractions. Outside Los Angeles, there is the Field of Screams in Lake Elsinor, and that’s about it. Everything else is either on hiatus or gone to the Graveyard of Lost Halloween Haunts.

This is not exactly surprising, but it is a little sad – a disturbing omen that the middle is dropping out of the Los Angeles Halloween haunt business, leaving room only for amateur efforts (yard haunts and charity events) on the low end and for major theme parks on the high end.

We say this is not surprising, because the number of multi-maze attractions has been dwindling for a few years, though up until now it has been hard to identify whether this represented a trend or simply random fluctuation. Multi-maze haunts have come and gone, like other Halloween attractions, so it’s still possible that this is merely an ebb in a tide that will turn, but it’s starting to seem as if the high-water mark was several years back.

We cannot pinpoint the exact date of  the first multi-maze Halloween haunt in Los Angeles – it was before we began chronicling these events for Hollywood Gothique, so we have only our feeble memory as guide – but we believe that the Spooky House Halloween Haunt was the innovator, sometime around the turn of century. Spooky House had been a single-maze attraction at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet for a few years in the 1990s, but after moving to the parking lot of the Topanga Canyon Mall in Northridge in 1999, they added a second maze a year or two later, eventually expanding to three permanent structures for three separate haunted houses, each with its own theme and style – and its own separate line, clearly designating each as a discrete attraction.

Fright Fair added Creatures of the Corn in 2005.
Fright Fair added Creatures of the Corn in 2005.

In 2004, Shipwreck Productions (the company behind what was then known as the Queen Mary Terrorfest) opened the four-maze Scareplex at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. The following year, the Thousand Oaks Haunt opened in the Janns Marketplace, with two scary mazes for adults, and a less scary attraction for kids. Also in 2005, Fright Fair Screampark – which had previously described its single maze as “four haunts slammed into one” – added a scary Creatures of the Corn trail and a non-scary corn maze; later years would see the addition of Insane Reaction, a literal maze with glass walls. Haunts USA made its debut in 2006, offering three mazes in a mall not far from Spooky House and Fright Fair – indicating that the market was strong enough to sustain three competing multi-maze attractions in close proximity.

There was a high mortality rate among these events, but new ones popped up to take their place. The Thousand Oaks Haunt lasted only a single Halloween; Seaside Haunt, which expanded from one maze to two in 2008, closed a year later. Haunts USA and Scareplex lasted two Halloweens each; however, the L.A. County Fairplex continued to offer multi-maze attractions for many years: Fearplex (2007-2008), Nightmare at Scareview Farms (2009-2012), and Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare (2013).

Meanwhile, Paranoia Haunted Attraction opened three mazes in the Santa Monica Mall, for Halloween 2012. Starting in 2013, Haunted Hollywood Sports offered several mazes and air soft courses. That same year, Fears Gate in Oxnard augmented its Deadtime Stories haunted house with a Krazed Klowns maze and with a Mutant Militia paintball shooting gallery. The following Halloween, the L.A. Haunted Hayride added two walk-through haunts, the Seven Sins Sideshow and House of the Horsemen, raising its total to four (including the titular ride and In Between: A Dark Maze).

In retrospect, Halloween 2007 represented the peak of the multi-maze phenomenon, with four such haunts operating in Los Angeles: Spooky House, Fright Fair, Haunts USA, and Fearplex. Since then, rapid turnaround has masked the mortality rate, so it has not necessarily been clear whether these attractions were dinosaurs doomed to extinction or simply casualties of unfortunate circumstances: Spooky House and Seaside Haunt closed because their owner died, not because they were losing money; Fright Fair went on hiatus after losing its location, and may return. Nevertheless, with only the Haunted Hayride currently in business, a downward trend seems apparent.

In at least one sense, we are not heart-broken by the withering away of multi-maze Halloween haunts: too often they were cash-grabs that promised more but only took more of your money. Instead of one maze for $10, it was three mazes for $25, and since waiting in three lines would be three times as long, that $35 fast-pass ticket started to look like a necessity.

In some cases, the scares were divided rather than multiplied: new mazes would be added but no new actors hired, so the cast would be spread thin: five or six actors per haunt instead of fifteen to twenty. On more than on occasion, we saw two-maze attractions operating only one at a time, so that the cast could finish scaring victims in the first maze and then move to the second. Doesn’t it defeat the whole purpose of having two mazes with distinct themes – say a haunted house and an asylum – if the exact same characters haunt in both?

Even high-quality haunts could overextend themselves. After transforming into a harvest festival with kiddie activities in addition to its scary mazes, Fright Fair had a couple of disappointing years, marred by late openings and diluted scares, before they eventually regained their former glory.  As elaborate as Spooky House was, its corridors often seemed understaffed, with hiding places and blind corners conspicuously devoid of monsters, especially on off-nights. As for upstarts and newcomers, launching a single haunt is difficult enough; launching a multi-haunt multiplies the challenges and expenses. (Paranoia Haunted Attraction had enough props and sets for one good maze, but that didn’t stop them from offering two more, both of them virtually devoid of decor.)

Meanwhile, the multi-maze trend has been supplanted by the next big thing: longer, more interactive haunted house experiences that send visitors on terrifying journeys through a single, multi-faceted walk-through. The Reign of Terror Haunted House offers not only an old Victorian Mansion but also a Bloody Bayou, an Asylum, a Fun House, and many more sections – and you only have to wait in line once. Evil Twin Studios offers a twenty-minute tour through an asylum with Ward 13, with plenty of personal attention from the characters. Delusion: A Haunted Play turned the haunted house experience into something new: a fully-realized drama with the customers cast as supporter players; forty minutes long and full of amazing effects, Delusion provided more than most thinly populated multi-mazes could ever hope to achieve.

The opening scene of the new House of Shadows. Photo copyright 2015 by Yuki Tanaka.
House of Shadows at L.A. Haunted Hayride

If L.A. Haunted Hayride is bucking the trend, it is not hard to see why: the haunt literally made its name on the basis of its signature ride, which is more than enough to sustain a  reputation as one of the top Halloween events in Los Angeles. Everything beyond the star attraction is a bonus feature, and Los Angeles Haunted Hayride has been careful to expand slowly, making additions that do not stretch its resources, yielding a good cost-benefit ratio. In Between: A Dark Maze is mostly black plywood corridors with a few actors and props, but stumbling around its pitch-black interior can be a memorable experience. 2015’s Trick or Treat walk-through is not a maze but a circuit of doors, each with a single character who performs an amusing bit. Likewise, the House of Shadows is a series of rooms, each with a gag and/or a puzzle. All of them rely on clever concepts, so they can be effective without huge casts and exorbitant production values. They’re like opening acts on a bill with a star performer: they succeed by doing a short set of good material that leaves you wanting more from the main act.

One other important factor: as with Fright Fair’s Factory of Nightmares Haunted House and Creatures of the Corn Trail, it is impossible to imagine L.A. Haunted Hayride’s separate attractions combined into one. Multiple mazes are great when they offer a multiplicity of experiences instead of haphazardly splitting one attraction into two or three.

Are we at the end of the multi-haunt era? We imagine the L.A. Haunted Hayride will continue with its multiple attractions, and we hope that Fright Fair will return. In cities and counties with more available space and cheaper rent, these haunts are still viable (after its Los Angeles debut, Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare moved to Villa Park, Illinois; the long-running Pirates of Emerson is going strong in the Bay Area). Nevertheless, we do not expect many newcomers to enter the field in Los Angeles. The wise move would be to do one haunted house well; if it becomes a success, then add a second one after a few years – but only if you’re going to truly double the paranormal activity, not simply divide it between two mazes while charging customers twice as much. Ectoplasm is effective only in concentrated form; there’s no reason to partake of diluted spirits, when there are single-maze haunts offering witch’s brew that is 100-proof.

 

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.