As I mentioned in a previous post, Haunts USA had its press night preview on Sunday. This is pretty much a new haunt; technically, the company began professional haunting back in 2002, but they sat out the last couple years while searching for a good location. This is their debut at the Northridge Fashion Mall, and the owners are eager to drum up some publicity so that they can compete with established haunts like Spooky House.
This haunt is set up like a circus tent in the north side of the mall parking lot. You won't have any trouble finding it - there's a painted facade the size of a house with a blazing skull topped by the word 'HAUNT" in huge letters. There are three separate mazes along with a booth out front where you can have your palm read by a professional psychic.
The festivities began with a brief presentation by Laura Freedman, the vice-president of HauntsUSA, who introduced representatives from the three charities that are partnered with the haunt this year: Kiwanis International, Project Grad Los Angeles, and the Special Olympics of Southern California. After that, Laura's husband Harlan Freedman, the HauntsUSA president, emerged in spooky makeup and hooded robe, calling himself the "Freekman" and urging the assembled press to enter the haunt. He was accompanied by the HauntsUSA operations manager, Angel Frost, who struck a truly towering figure of terror, at well over seven feet in height (no doubt augmented by stilts in his boots, but he moved so gracefully that the effect seemed totally natural).
The sounds of screams and chainsaws echoed through the night as we awaited our chance to experience the haunt's three mazes; the tonalities of terror quickened the collective heartbeat of the lambs eager to enter the slaughterhouse. In the best tradition of Halloween theme parks, there were several ghouls terrorizing the crowd even before we got inside, making the wait in line part of the fun. Finally, after watching several other lucky fright fans emerge from the exit of the first maze, it was our turn to enter...
Nightmare Factory is perhaps the most overtly intense experience - a fairly traditional haunted house, with dark corridors, several rooms with settings and scenes, and lots of blind corners, all of them haunted by some angry monster. This is the all-out scare zone, filled with dangerous ghouls eager to terrify you at every turn, but the effect is slightly anti-climactic after the wait outside: there are so many ominous sounds emanating from the haunt, that the anticipation of entering almost exceeded the actual experience of traversing the interior. For example, the roar of a chainsaw was clearly audible as each group of previous victims made their frightened exit, leading us to anticipate a last-minute rush out the door, pursued by Leatherface or some similar madman - an anticipation that was not fulfilled by the actual trek through the maze.
Extreme Madness was less of a let-down, perhaps because we had been lulled into a false sense of security. This is a carnivalesque maze, with colorful black-light designs painted on the walls and insane clowns haunting the corridors. The decor was no match for similar haunts you find at the Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, but the performance level was top-notch, with each and every crazy clown going full-tilt-boogie in an effort to freak-out their cringing victims.
ZombieVille is the only "outdoor" maze of the three. The layout and decor is simple (basically you walk a straight line to the end, make a U-turn, and walk a parallel path back), but it has an innovative idea that was unfamiliar to us. The first half is fairly standard, with zombies jumping out of hiding places set in a dark wall, but the walk back takes you through a maze of chain-link fences. We've seen something similar before (at Fright Fair); what's unique here that is that the fences have gates, which the zombies close to block your path, trapping you so that you cannot get away as they surround and harass you.
The result is quite different from your standard haunted maze. Instead of a dark corridor where you cannot see what's coming, you are outside and you can see the zombies quite clearly through the fence - but you can't get away from them! The effect is further enhanced by placing some of the living dead in unusual positions (on a platform atop the fence, crawling on the ground, lurking beneath an 18-wheeler truck) - positions from which you don't usually expect an attack.
After the third maze, we chatted briefly with proprietors Laura and Harlan Freedman, who seemed thoroughly pumped up on adrenalin from the big event (they were long time amateur home haunters before turning professional, so this really is a labor of love for them).
They said that, based on the initial responses, the first two mazes, Nightmare Factory and Extreme Madness, seemed to be running in a dead heat for audience favorite. Harlan called ZombieVille a "work in progress," expressing concern that the bright lights from the mall parking lot were mitigating some of the scare factor, preventing it from reaching the critical mass that would produce full-blown terror (as opposed to enjoyably creepy thrills); fortunately, there were indications that the mall would allow some lights to be doused when the haunt opens for business this week.
Afterwards, we took advantage of the haunt's proximity to the mall, enjoying dinner at a tasty Mexican restaurant. There are several other dining options available; also, a multi-plex theatre, a book-and-record store, and all the usual shops you would expect in mall the size of a city block.
So, how would we sum up our press night experience? Here's the rundown:
- THE GOOD: The ratio of haunters to territory is impressive, and this was true of all three mazes. This is not a haunt (like, say, the disappointing Scare at the Fair), where you walk down empty corridors wondering where the ghouls are hiding - and why they are taking so long to scare you. Here, there's a menace around every corner, and they mean business! Their attack strategies are effectively thrilling, and the haunt is careful about spacing victims out, sending them through in small groups at regular intervals, making them easier targets and giving the haunters ample opportunity to give each one their individual attention. This is a welcome change-of-pace from crowded theme park attractions like the Queen Mary Shipwreck or Six Flags Fright Fest, where the audience is often pushed through like cattle.
- THE BAD: This is a haunt set up in a tent in a mall parking lot (like last year's Thousand Oaks Haunt). There are some good settings and colorful decorations, but the look and feel cannot possibly compete with more elaborate attractions like the Seaside Haunt or the late, lamented Haunted Vineyard.
- THE UGLY: In some ways, the most horrifying experience of the night was the overwhelming stench emanating from the portable restrooms stationed just outside the entrance of ZombieVille (which brought back unpleasant memories of Vincent Prices narration to the Michael Jackson song "Thriller" about the "funk of 40,000 years...").
One other thing worth mentioning: thanks to the nearby mall, a trip to HauntsUSA can suffice for an entire evening's entertainment. Unlike other Halloween attractions, which tend toward isolated locations, you don't have to just walk through the maze and then leave for lack of anything else to do. You really can stick around, shop, get a bite to eat, or watch a movie. So keep that in mind while planning your October schedule.
Haunts USA opens to the public on Thursday, October 12 at 7:00pm. You can get more information at our HauntsUSA listing on our Professional Haunts page, including schedule and ticket prices.
Also, you can read our interview with Laura and Harlan Freedman here.