This Halloween, per our usual custom, we skipped the professional haunts and went on a long odyssey, searching out amateur attractions put on by people who simply love putting on a show for the sheer fun of it. In a big city like Los Angeles, so much is expensive We hit several old favorites and discovered some new ones. A splendid time was had by everyone, and it was all free!
This is an element not to be underestimated. In our culture, we've come to think of entertainment as something you go out and purchase, and in a big city like Los Angeles, so much of that entertainment is exorbitantly expensive. And yet on Halloween, a holiday that seems imbued with dark and sinister overtones, ordinary people (sometimes your well-known neighbors, sometimes complete strangers) welcome you on their doorstep, give you a treat just because you ask for it, and sometimes -- if you're lucky -- stage elaborate displays that take days if not weeks to set up. All of us who love the season owe them a hearty round of applause in appreciation.
Our Halloween Haunt Odyssey this year began at Nightmare Junction, 2220 Chandler Blvd, in Burbank. This corner house is made up to look like a torture chamber, complete with dismembered bodies strung up above the fence that surrounds the property. The grounds are patrolled by a hooded executioner (who gets his jollies by pulling the cord in a guillotine, swinging his ax at those waiting in line to get inside, and sometimes threatening to leap over the fence). Going through the entrance leads you to a short maze-like structure set up just for the occasion. A couple of gory scenes await you inside (including a bloody bathtub), and one or two ghouls jump out at you. All in all, an impressive show that draws a large crowd of neighborhood kids and adults. Unfortunately, the haunt does not have a website where I can send you for more information; you'll just have to keep your eyes and ears open next year.
Next we passed by the Hallowed Haunting Grounds in Studio City (pictured at top), but the line was too long so we kept on moving. Instead, we ended up at the Witch's Castle a few blocks away at 4218 Shadyglade Avenue. This is an elaborately decorated front yard, filled with tombstones that look strangely beautiful -- illuminated, as they are, by a black light. A short walk up the driveway brings you past a talking grim reaper figure; then you reach the witch herself and her mechanical pet dragon. She has a few nice tricks up her sleeve (lightening flashes as she holds her hand over her cauldron; a flashing, invisible black light illuminates hidden makeup that briefly transfigures her face right before your eyes), but she's not too scary for kids. On you way back down the driveway, you go through a black tent with fluorescent colors painted on a black background; a ghoul in matching camoflage will sneak up on you. This is a highly recommended haunt; you can read more at their website.
After that, it was on to the wonderful Grimmstone Cemetery, located at 6707 Blewett Avenue in Van Nuys. Situated in a front yard with a ciruclar driveway, this haunt lives up its name, resembling a crumbling graveyard with jokey sayings carved into the tombstones. There are flashing lights, great sound effects (especialy the ghostly voice wailing "Have you seen my babyyyyyy????"), and a talking skeleton amidst the fog-shrouded surroundings. Looking down the side of the house, you see what appears to be a floating ghost in front of a brick tomb that periodically glows. This is a long running amateur haunt put on by a former professional in the Hollywood special effects industry. Click here to view their website.
Within minutes of Grimmstone is Frightmare, at 6819 Hesperia Street in Reseda. This is essentially a haunted maze set up inside a house in a residential area. Considering the limited space available, and the fact that this is entirely an amateur effort, the result is truly amazing. As is almost always the case, enthusiasm trumps expensive effects. The first good sign occurred when we reached the intersection that took us from the main street to Hesperia, which is a small side street: two ghouls were waving us on toward the haunt; as we turned the corner, they continued in pursuit, like a scene out of a zombie horror film. The proprietors allowed visitors only in small groups of two or three. Inside were seven decorated rooms containing numerous actors in makeup: vampires, ghouls, and a zombie reaching in through the kitchen window; plus, there were a couple neat effects, like a simple prop ghost that seems to float in the air and then fly out at you as you pass. For just being a small neighborhood effort, this haunt truly delivered. It was probably the most entertaining we saw that night; it was definitely our favorite new discovery. Here's hoping they continue next year. The haunt has a simple webpage here.
Finally, we wound up the evening by returning to the Hallowed Haunting Grounds (4343 Babcock Blvd in Studio City). The line hadn't gotten any shorter, and with the witching hour approaching some in our party (those with children who had to get up and go to school the next day) were seriously considering giving up and going home. However, a glance at what awaited convinced everyone to wait in line, and everyone was glad they did. I briefly previewed the Haunting Grounds as it appeared on Thursday night. On Halloween, all the special effects were going, and the result was wonderful. My personal favorite is the transparent ghostly images that appear to rise up from beneath the ground and float away, but there were some new effects this year that were almost as good, including a statue that blinks at you and slowly ages away to an emaciated looking face. Incredibly elaborate, the Haunting Grounds is pretty much a neighborhood institution at this point; to learn more, go to their website. If you've never visited the Grounds on Halloween, put it on your list of things to do next year. You'll be glad you did.