With so much happening this October, it's been necessary to prioritize our efforts in favor of those Halloween attractions that we did not highlight last year: Old Town Haunt, Seaside Haunt, Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest, Thousand Oaks Haunt. The result has been that only yesterday did we find time to return to our favorite discovery from last year, the Haunted Vineyard. Such are the burdens of trying to catalogue and report on the abundance of haunted mazes in Southern California.
As you may recall from last year's review, what impressed us so much about the Haunted Vineyard (3099 Guasti Road, Ontario, CA) is that it is set in an actual winery; the permanent location affords an opportunity for an elaborately detailed and extremely authentic-feeling haunt. This is not a black tent in a parking lot; this really feels like wandering through an old haunted house. Stone walls and darkened rooms alternate with exterior scenes of a cemetery and a cornfield, and you never know just where the next ghoul may be lurking.
What set Haunted Vineyard apart was that it was clearly different from all the other So Cal Halloween mazes. After seeing the same themes pop up over and over again (killer clowns, 3D house of horrors, inmates running the asylum, etc), it was a genuine thrill to find something so unique. The question then becomes: Can the haunt still chill when the shock of the new has worn off? Or, once the novelty has worn off, will a second trip reveal that the haunt is not as good as remembered?
We're pleased to report another excellent haunting experience this year, but one quite distinct from our 2004 experience. Some of this is due to updates to the Haunted Vineyard; some of it is just because of the quirks of fate and the subjective nature of experience.
We arrived with nephews Nick and Tyler in tow (their Mom and Dad chickened out, leaving us to protect them during their experience in terror). Because it was later in the season than when we attended in 2004, the crowds were thicker. It took us over and hour waiting in lines, first to get in the front gate and buy tickets, then to get into the actual haunt.
The wait was mitigated by the presence of two ghouls haunting the customers in line. Even better, this year we saw a short silent film (with subtitles and music) projected on a screen, filling visitors in on the back story of the haunted vineyards. Done somewhat in the style of an old silent movie, the film shows glimpses of a train wreck that killed the workers at the winery, who were buried in a memorial cemetery that was later abandoned, allowing the vines to take over, wrapping around decayed bodies and skeletons. This somehow tainted the vintage produced from the grapes, turning those who tasted it into monsters...
The movie may not be a masterpiece, but it does effectively set the scene for what follows, and it does provide something to do during the long wait.
The wait itself is forgivable, because it results from the Vineyard's refusal to hustle people quickly through the haunt. Even on a night as crowded as this, people were allowed through only in small groups of two or four, and the man giving instructions before the entrance not only gave the usual spiel about "don't touch the monsters and they won't touch you;" he also encouraged us to take our time to look around and observe the many sights in the haunt.
The roaming ghouls, the music, the isolated location -- and the sounds of unseen screaming from within the winery -- had combined to create a high level of tension before we even got to the entrance. It was surprising to see our two teenage nephews reduced to such dreadful anticipation of what awaited them inside. As we entered the first scene (a cemetery overrun with grape vines), it became necessary to establish a leader (yours truly) who would go first and risk the dangers ahead. This would have been easy enough, but as Tyler pointed out, the last guy is always the one who dies in the horror films, so nobody wanted to be at the tail end either. It took quite a bit of organizing to get our little group of four into a tight-nit formation that would theoretically be impenetrable to monsters lurking in the shadows.
Most of the scenes that followed were familiar from last year, but the vibe was totally different. What impressed us in 2004 was the eerie, almost silent moodiness of the place, which allowed for a building sense of anticipation as you listened for little creaking sounds in the hope of figuring out where the next attack would come from. On a busy night, with numerous screaming visitors in other areas of the winery, accompanied by the grunts and banging of the ghouls scaring them, this element of quiet dread was almost totally obliterated.
In its place was a more aggressive kind of haunting, with a higher percentage of scares of the "jump-out-and-scream" variety. This method works, but it feels a bit more like the sort of performance you find at other haunts -- enjoyably scary but not quite as unique. Still, it's this kind of fright that worked best for our nephews, who seemed to scream like frightened little girls the entire time. It was almost sad to see otherwise normal teenagers reduced to a gibbering pile of jitters so utterly.
To give them credit, they did gather their courage and get into the spirit of the season as we continued, and their fear turned to a sort of eager enjoyment of each new scare; they definitely seemed to prefer the shock effects and sudden appearances, rather than just the gloomy ambiance.
And they were much less terrified than the young woman ahead of us, a Brittney Spears wanna-be who brought herself and her boyfriend almost to a dead stop, for fear of proceeding. Although the groups are carefully spaced out to avoid the feeling of safety in numbers, we could not help overtaking the couple, who then bore the brunt of the monstrous attacks for the rest of the tour, taking some of the heat off of us -- especially the final frightening run, when a monster appears from nowhere just when you think you've safely reached the exit.
We noticed only a few innovations that we did not remember from last year, and all of them added their own extra flavor of fear to the experience.
- One extremely dark room has small holes drilled in the floor, through which shafts of light beam up into the smoky atmosphere. The effect is unnerving because the bright shafts makes it hard for your eyes to adjust to the darkness of the rest of the room, and the floor seem flimsy, as if it might give way beneath your feet.
- The very next room has a metallic grate for a floor, which increases the feeling from the previous room that you are not walking on something solid enough to support you. There is also a monster lurking down there, banging and scratching away with some metallic tool guaranteed to jangle your nerves.
- Near the end, there is a ghastly child's playroom with a large mirror on one wall. We heard a gasp from the couple ahead of us, who glimpsed a flash of something we missed. A brief pause revealed the source of the horror: a shift of lighting reveals a gnarled ancient crone behind the glass, pounding angrily on the surface. Her sudden, unexpected appearance is a wonderful shock.
Afterwards, young nephews Nick and Tyler tried to pretend that they were not extremely scared, but their behavior while inside the winery suggests otherwise. Both said they would tell their friends that the Vineyard was a fun and scary haunt.
For ourselves, we still think the Haunted Vineyard is the best single maze in the Southland, although this year it does have pretty stiff competition from the Seaside Haunt and from the Turbidite Manor maze in Spooky House. As we said above, our experience this year felt quite a bit different, even though the setting was mostly the same; it seemed more overtly frightening and perhaps a little less subtle. Partly that's a matter of perception and partly it's a matter of crowds; either way, it's probably a good thing, because it felt as if the customers that night (including our nephews) were looking for a strong fright you get from masked and made-up actors aggressively attacking you, not a mild one from sinister sounds lurking in the shadows (although there was some of this, too).
As we said last year (or words to this effect), if you've been to dozens of mazes at Knotts Scary Farm, the Queen Mary Shipwreck, etc, and you think you've seen everything you can possibly see in a haunted house attraction, think again. The Haunted Vineyard is worth seeking out -- it's great for both the neophyte and the seasoned haunt-goer.
And remember, at the Haunted Vineyard, not only the wine is red!
Photographs copyright 2004 and 2005 by Alisa C. Twombly
Posted by Gen: Great article and pictures. Hope your nephews agree with you. Tuesday, October 25th 2005 @ 3:37 PM
Posted by Janette: Great review! Persuasive enough to convert a couple of "chickens" to pay a visit! If anything I can get some good parental tips on how to turn teenagers into "gibbering piles of jitters"....I'd pay to see that! Happy Halloween! Wednesday, October 26th 2005 @ 9:29 AM
Posted by Tom: The waiting in line didn't sound bad. Elvira could have spiced it up:) That's if anyone out there remembers the Mistress of the Dark? Wednesday, October 26th 2005 @ 11:37 AM