NOTE: Hollywood Gothique's annual Halloween Haunt Odyssey is a sort of unofficial tour of yard haunts in Los Angeles, many of which are open only on October 31st. Each year, we hit a few old favorites and search for some new discoveries.
Yesterday, in Part 1, we laid to rest our impression of the local yard haunts that had materialized earlier in the week. Now we're back to cast our ghost light on those that either manifest only on Halloween night or are situated in eldritch climes too distant for us to have invaded their territory any earlier.
We began with a peak at the new Boney Island(14333 Califa Street in Van Nuys), which is, unfortunately, only a shadow of the old Boney Island we knew and loved. The new version is not bad; it is simply scaled down. Instead of a skeleton carnival, one might call it a skeleton party. Featuring a fraction of the old props, set up in a small front yard, it is worth a walk-by if you live in the neighborhood but not worth making a special trip. Still, it is nice to know that a small portion of the legacy lives on.
Next we sailed by the Pirate Cave (7919 Lasaine Avenue Northridge). This was much the same as the first time we encountered it, a couple of years ago, but there were some subtle improvements, and the haunt is clearly developing a following: the crowds were thicker than we remembered, and all the children seemed delighted. You can check out our video of the 2006 version on our Pirate Cave page.
From there we moved on to an unnamed ghostly graveyard that we have designanted the Hanzlik Haunt Hart Street Haunt (19521 Hart St. Reseda). This is situated in a neighborhood overflowing with Halloween spirit; many houses were decorated, and the sidewalks were overflowing with trick-or-treaters. The yard itself was loaded with mannequins of all shapes and sizes, many of them showing mechanical motions. There is no walk-through maze, but you do have to maneuver along a walkway between some fences to get to the front door for candy; the escape route takes you past a upright coffin that - surprise! - turns out to be occupied. As if that were not horror enough, a handful of monsters - a werewolf, Michael Myers, and others - lurk around the sidewalk, inflicting fear on unwary travellers.
After that, it was but a short sojourn to the Haunt with No Name...Yet, another old favorite. This low-key display - which features a bevy of hand-carved Jack-O'Lanterns - evinced the same subtle atmosphere that we recalled. There is not a lot of animation; the decor consists mostly of statues, but there are some nice touches: a floating candle, a moving spectre within a tomb, and another ghost floating in a window. You can see a video of the past haunt on our Haunt with No Name Yet page. Unfortunately, this haunt will not be open tonight.
Breaking with tradition, we stopped by a professional haunt, Skull Kingdom (23210 Ventura Blvd. at Woodlake), because during our earlier visit on opening night, the proprietors insisted that they would be uprgrading and improving as the season progressed. Our walk-through on Halloween night turned out to be quite a bit amped up, and we were glad to have made the return trip. Learn more about Skull Kingdom here. This one is open tonight and perhaps sunday.
Woodland Hills had taken us halfway to the L.A. County line, so we decided to continue west, into Thousand Oaks, for Reign of Terror-which was without doubt our great discovery of the evening. Formerly a yard haunt, it has outgrown its old cul-de-sac and moved into the Conejo Recreation Center (403 West Hillcrest Drive Thousand Oaks). It's now what we call a "Community Haunt" (raising money to benefit the community center), but the quality ranks along with the best professional haunts out there, and this one definitely deserves the chance to compete with the big boys. Hopefully next year. This one is open again tonight - and well worth the long trip.
Only a few miles away was Whitecliff Manor (1077 Whitecliff Road Thousand Oaks). This used to be known as the Van Noord Street Haunted House, back when it was located in Los Angeles not far from Hollywood Gothique headquarters. We had long lamented their move to Ventura, which had deprived us of the opportunity of visiting them every year, but the trip to Reign of Terror provided the perfect opportunity to reconnect. Several improvements had been made since last we saw them, including a much extended walk-through maze. It does not look like much from outside, but the twists and turns within result in a much longer walk than expected. The decorations are mostly store-bought, and there are few jump-scares except for some air blasts, but this remains a fun neighborhood yard haunt, worth a visit if you live in the area.
Again betraying our tradition of restricting ourselves to amateur efforts on Halloween night, we concluded this year's odyssey by continuing our trek out west to the ghostly shores of Ventura County Faigrounds, wherein once was situated situated Seaside Haunt, one of our favorites Halloween attractions. Under new management, the haunt has been rechristened Seaside Haunted Theme Park for 2008, and it is but a pale ghost of its former self. To be fair, we arrived late, just before closing time, so the ectoplasmic energy was no doubt running low.
Instead of one maze, Seaside Haunted Theme Park offers two: Mutinty to Purgatory and Blood Beach Haunted Mansion. Each begins well, with large rooms that impress with their sense of scale. Most haunts tend to be small and cramped, to save money on building large sets, so this was a definitely advantage over the competition. The Blood Beach Manion maze even included a convincingly realized attic set, dimly lit and ominous, that had us expecting great things.
Unfortunately, the rest of the maze descending into undecorated black wooden walls, and the cast (no doubt exhausted at the end of a long day) found it hard to resurrect their ghostly enthusiasm. The same held true for the Mutiny maze, which started strong and then wound down. We do have to credit the two ghouls haunting the beginning of that realm, however, for going the extra step beyond the grave to make our haunt a horrifying one. One - a ghost pirate - cut a very striking figure; he was one of the few elements that captured the "seaside" feeling that gave the old Seaside Haunt a unique vibe.
Seaside Haunted Theme Park is part of the Spooky House family of Haunts (which also includes Fearplex and Old Town Haunt). We noted some familiar sets and decorations that used to be part of the three separate mazes that Spooky House ran back when they were located in a mall parking lot on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. These items no longer fit in the new, smaller location, so it was nice to see them hauled out of the mothballs and put back to good use, but along with them came an unfortunate handicap that the Spooky House haunts had overcome in recent years: a tendency to feature lengthy elaborate sets with few actual scares. The result is a bit like walking through a spooky museum - fun but not always as frightening as it should be.
Our overall impression was of a bunch of hard-working people trying very hard but stretched too thin. The proprietor even described to us the strategy he used to mitigate the inabiltiy (due to cost and time) to fully decorate the interior: starting each maze off as strong as possible to instill fear and anticipation, so that the customers would be on edge throughout the rest of the maze. It is a good strategy, and both mazes had their moments. Nevertheless, we came away feeling that the best bones from each of them could have been better combined to create one great big skeleton that would have been twice as effective as splitting them into two separate bags of bones.
One final word: as many of the Spooky House haunts do, Mutiny to Purgatory features a pitch-black section that forces you to feel your way in the dark. In this case, they cheat: instead of an open path out, there is a narrow space with a half-closed door, and the floor is blocked with some kind of obstacle. This is just not kosher. Many haunts feature chicken exits and hidden doors for the ghouls to pounce upon unwary visitors, and in the dark there is no way to be sure that you have not accidentally stumbled upon one of these. (Why else would it be blocked?) But that's not the worst part.
The door, which scarpes on the floor, has to be forced open to allow you to get around the blockade. As my hand searched along the edge of the door to get a firm grip, I felt something metal. At first it felt like a latch or lock of some kind, but then I felt the thread of a screw, which came to a sharp point. That's right: the haunt had us stumbling around in the dark, pushing our way past something with the potential to puncture the skin and cause injury. Perhaps I was simply mistaken, but I don't think so.
Seaside Haunted Theme Park is open again tonight, but I would not recommend the long journey to Ventura. The true spirit of the old Seaside Haunt now resides in Skull Kingdom, which featues much of the old cast and crew.
You can find all these attractions listed on our Halloween Haunts page.