Halloween is rapidly bearing down on us with all the inevitability of the gigantic jaugernat relentlessly pursuing Karswell at the end of NIGHT OF THE DEMON, and Hollywood Gothic is racing to keep ahead. Last night, we began our perusal of this year's amateur Halloween attractions with back-to-back trips to The Backwoods Maze in Burbank and Big Worm's Sherwood Scare in Northridge.
Why these two geographically separated yard haunts? Because they are the two scariest amateur Halloween events in Los Angeles. In fact, in Halloween 2012, a haunt-goer known by the pseudonym "Death Bomb" proclaimed that Sherwood Scare was the "most frightening DIY [Do It Yourself] haunt" he had ever seen - a rather bold proclamation, considering the multitude of horrors within the Backwoods Maze.
Which is truly the greatest? We decided to find out for ourselves, sampling both in one night, with fresh memories to make the comparison clearer. Read on to peruse our conclusions...if you dare!
The Backwoods Maze
We began our Halloween Haunt Odyssey in Burbank with this incredibly dense haunt. After several years of cannibal crazies, Backwoods Maze shifted to a post-apocalyptic theme in 2012, entitled Test Zone. This year's theme is Death Race Rumble, but the Test Zone sign remains above the entrance gate, suggesting a certain continuity of overall effect, if not specific details. This is our fourth year visiting the maze, and just as we were starting to get the layout memorized, they changed it on us. The intricate labyrinth (which still seems impossibly long) has been rerouted slightly, with additional rooms and props, including a futuristic armored vehicle that would not be out of place in The Road Warrior.
Some familiar bits and pieces remain (we would miss the giant pig, were he to retire), but the experience of walking through Backwoods Maze is so overwhelming that you can see the same details two or three years running before they start to fall into place, and the new additions are fairly noticeable, such as an ice cream truck with a maniacal man behind the counter who is really giving the hard-sell for his product.
The biggest improvement, we felt, was the attack strategies of the monsters. Not only are they overhead; they have progressed from mere pop-scares to something approaching acrobatics. You expect monsters to jump out at you; you don't expect them to leap out of nowhere and land inches before your face. The effect is beyond startling; it's truly impressive that the actors aren't breaking their necks.
We went through twice, the second time following a gaggle of junior high school girls, who did an admirable job of maintaining group formation while running at a headlong pace to escape the menacing monsters (who always seem a bit more enthusiastic when their victims are so satisfyingly vocal about their fears). It was a real adrenalin rush - some of the most fun we've had this Halloween.
Backwoods Maze is located at 1912 North Pepper Street, Burbank, CA 91505. Remaining dates are October 20, 25, 26, 27 and 31 from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. More info at their Facebook page.
Big Worm's Camp Sherwood
Next, we took the longish drive out to Northridge for Sherwood Scare, which has been rechristened Camp Sherwood for Halloween 2013 (the "Big Worm" moniker is the nickname of a cystic fibrosis victim, in whose honor the yard haunt collects donations for research). As the new name implies, the haunted house theme of 2012 has been changed to a haunted summer camp. Amazingly, the yard haunt manages to pull off the illusion in the middle of a sleepy residential neighborhood, thanks to a house with an impressive yard and many trees.
The construction is very impressive, starting with the entrance, which suggests a mini-cabin in the woods. The door leads to an outdoor area with a tent pitched beneath a tree, near a smoldering fire, with silhouettes of two girls whispering out the local legend of a boy who drowned in a lake. The set-up is pure Friday the 13th, but Camp Sherwood has not descended into slasher territory; it presents the live-action equivalent of a spooky campfire tale, with amazing credibility.
You have to wait through the cycle of dialogue within the tent a few times before you turn to enter the actual walk-through occurs. First, an over-enthusiastic camp counselor takes you inside to see a promotional video, which is hijacked by tape images of two girls trying to tell us the truth about the camp, which includes not only the drowned boy but also a curse that has resulted in numerous missing children. A brief blackout follows, and we knew a scare was coming - we even thought we had pinpointed its direction - but we were totally and completely fooled by what actually happened - which was one of the best scares we've seen this season.
From this point on you wander through the camp. Not all of it is supposed to be outside in the woods - there are some shabby, run-down facilities, too - but we were most impressed with the exterior settings, such as a short bridge over a pond or perhaps the edge of a wider lake, most of it unseen in the shadows.
The scares come from different directions - sometimes in front, sometimes behind - and there are just enough lulls in between to build tension, which allows the walk-through to reach an amazing conclusion.
The short video at the beginning of the maze features a strange, tall, thin angular creature, which you assume is a video effect that cannot be recreated live. Au contraire! The monster is lurking in the shadows, ready to emerge, as big as life - bigger even! - just when you least expect it. Perhaps the illusion is aided by the shadowing substance, but this thing is absolutely incredible - so awesome that we almost forgot to be scared because we were too busy being impressed.
We just had to get another glimpse, so we hung out by the exit, patiently awaiting the next group of victims and eagerly anticipating their reactions. We almost began to identify with the lonely monster in its lair, watching and waiting, its only reason for existence to be seen and to scare. Our patience was most satisfactorily rewarded when the beast lurched once more into view, wrenching frightened screams from the unhappy campers who had wandered too near its grasp.
If for no other reason than this, you need to visit Camp Sherwood this Halloween.
Camp Sherwood is located at 8856 Encino Avenue, Northridge, CA 91325. Remaining dates are October 20, 25-27 & 31, 7-10pm, except for Halloween Night, which runs until midnight. Entrance fee is a $3-donation to Big Worm's Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Their website is here.
So, which is the most horrifying Halloween yard haunt in Los Angeles: Backwoods Maze or Camp Sherwood? Although we personally prefer the spooky themes of Camp Sherwood to the more visceral frights of Backwoods Maze, we still have to award the crown to Backwoods Maze, simply because they pack so much into their walk-through: there's almost never a moment when you're just waiting for something to happen, and you can never, ever relax. We certainly appreciate the subtle shivers and the lingering sense of anticipation in Camp Sherwood, and the effort to convey a narrative progression is fairly coherent - it really does build to a climax instead of simply coming to an end.
In the end, this is the archetypal apples-or-oranges comparison - or should that be pumpkins-to-corn stalks? Both Backwoods Maze and Camp Sherwood are must-see Halloween haunts.