The last time we visited Fright Fair ScreamPark, back in 2006, we were so profoundly disappointed that we took it off our list of must-see haunts; however, in 2008 we heard that their presentation was much improved. Unfortunately, the news came too late for us to check it out last year, but we moved the Harvest Fest to the top of our priority list for 2009. We are glad we did. Back when they were known as Fright Fair, this was one of our favorite Halloween events in Los Angeles - a truly tense haunted house experience guaranteed to evoke screams from beginning to end. The current Halloween Harvest Fest has not fully regained the glory of those halcyon days, but what they offer now is still one of the best - and most unique - haunt experiences in town.
Unlike Fright Fair, which presented a single haunted house, the Halloween Harvest Festival is a mini-amusement park, with a corn maze, a merry-go-round, rock climbing, bungie jumping, pumpkin carving, and other family-friendly activities during the daytime. After the sun sets, two additional attractions open: the Factory of Nightmares haunted house and the Creatures of the Corn haunted trail.
The Factory of Nightmares is essentially the old Fright Fair haunted house, with some additions and revisions. Unfortunately, the old Tesla coil - which sent shivering sparks of electricity through the air in the good old days - was not in operation on the night we visited (apparently due to objections from the local fire marshall, in spite of the fact that the device has worked for decades without incident). Other than that, we found little reason to be disappointed.
Fright Fair's old presentation was never as elaborate as Spooky House in terms of creating believable settings, but they always knew how to fill the space with so many scares that you didn't care about anything else. The current Factory of Nightmares is somewhat similar, but some new and clever twists and turns have been added, including an actual maze.
Most walk-through Halloween attractions are called "mazes," which is technically erroneous; the Factory of Nightmares has an outdood section that lives up to the term, complete with false turns and dead ends. It is actually a fairly simply maze, but in the dark, with ghouls harassing you, the extra attention it takes to concentrate on finding a way out leaves you vulnerable to being suddenly started by the unexpected appearance of cloaked monsters around the corners.
Our favorite new gag is a variation on an old stand-by: the shaky elevator. The motion-simulation is supposed to create the feeling of a free-fall to doom, after which you exist and continue the tour. To create the illusion that you have descended to a different floor, these elevator gags usually have you enter a door on one side and then exit a second door on the opposite side. The Factory of Nightmares improves upon this by using only one door. When it opens, you see a completely different environment, creating the convincing impression that you have indeed been in motion while inside the elevator.
Really our only problem with the Factory of Nightmares is one we have noted before: since expanding from Fright Fair into the Halloween Harvest Festival, the haunted house occasionally feels underpopulated, as half its haunters have been sectioned off and moved into the Creatures of the Corn trail.
Creatures of the Corn is the highlight of the Harvest Festival's night-time haunt, with an atmosphere unlike any other Halloween attraction in Los Angeles. Even the excellent Cornstalkers maze at Knotts Scary Farm is no match for Creatures of the Corn: the Knotts walk-through is loaded with scary imagery, but the fact that you are in the middle of a loud and brightly lit theme park robs some of the atmosphere.
Creatures of the Corn, on the other hand, feels more spooky and authentic, thanks to the isolated setting - quiet, dark, and dreadful. After entering the path by walking beneath a large winged demon (a relatively new feature of the haunt, named with apparent affection "Jeremiah"), you walk for long stretches through rows and rows of corn, and even if nothing is happening, you suspect that something might - around the next corner, perhaps. The suspenseful sense of anticipation is enhanced by the cornstalks, which rustle ominously in the breeze, as if alive with the power of some unseen evil force.
The ghouls infesting the trail are eager to scare - and aggressive about doing it. This was always a strong feature back in the Fright Fair days - one that set the haunt at the top of our list - and it is good to see it still in evidence. Not content to simply stare threateningly or jump out and say "Boo!" once and be done with it, these monsters pursue you through the corn, appearing at unexpected junctures and then re-appearing, putting you on edge so that even when there is a lull, you cannot relax.
They also evince a certain sense of humor. On our excusion through the darkness, my wife was holding the hand of a frightened friend; when she tried to change hands, she unexpectedly found herself holding the hand of a monster that had snuck up from behind - a fact she did not realize for several paces.
We left the Halloween Harvest Festival glad to see that the old ghouls were up to their scary tricks. With Spooky House gone, the Factory of Nightmares and the Creatures of the Corn fill a huge void, providing the best scares in the San Fernando Valley. For $20, you get admission to both, and the cost-per-scream ratio makes this a ghostly bargain not to be missed. (For an additional $5, you can also enjoy the corn maze - a literal maze, with no monsters haunting you.)
Now, of only they could get that Tesla coil going again...
Halloween Harvest Festival
20800 Victory Blvd
Woodland Hills, California
Information line: 818-999-4565
Websites: Halloween Harvest Festival