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HHA 2016: Best Professional Halloween Haunted House Walk-Through

Nominees: Aftermath 2, The Exorcist, Lullaby, Motel 6 Feet Under, Paranormal Inc, Shadowlands, Sinister Pointe, The Walking Dead

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This category brings the us to the Halloween Haunt Awards’ equivalent of the major leagues – the best professional haunted houses in Los Angeles. Generally, the nominees are culled from major Halloween theme parks, but there are a couple of independent haunts as well. All of them offer high-quality sets, effects, and illusions, but which one has the special magic needed to take home the gold?

Aftermath 2 at Fright Fest. Anarchy on a massive scale was the appeal of this maze, set in some kind of post-apocalyptic hell apparently unleashed by a glowing green box. The monsters lurking in the darkness, occasionally illuminated by belching blasts of fire (from the demolished police department, no less), might have been zombies or mutants; either way, they were out for blood – ours. We usually prefer low-key horror in our mazes, but Aftermath 2 at the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest proved the value of going the opposite route – it was loud, overwhelming, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Exorcist at Halloween Horror Nights. The greatest horror film ever made becomes one of the greatest mazes on the lot of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Taking inspiration from the film, The Exorcist maze used contrasting bursts of light and darkness to dazzle and blind audiences, with the spectral appearance of the demonic Captain Howdy flashing on the retinas like a subliminal image. There were also some great physical effects to recreate memorable scenes from the exorcism, including full-body levitation. This one had audiences screaming all the way through.

Lullaby at Dark Harbor. The Lullaby maze at the Queen Mary Dark Harbor made its official debut in 2015, but there were some notable additions this year, include some early imagery to provide a ghoulish glimpse at the death of its star character, Scary Mary. Using the interior of the Queen Mary to great effect, Lullaby offered an extended journey through the ship – through passageways, up and down stairs – with the little ghost girl always one step ahead, even after being left behind. It’s a great setting, but Scary Mary is what really makes it work, badgering and harassing helpless victims almost from start to finish. We had visited this maze several times in the past, but we went through it twice this year, and it was great both times.

Motel 6 Feet Under. This haunted motel doesn’t have the bankroll of the theme park mazes, but it uses its resources wisely, offering a literal maze of hallways, punctuated with a handful of memorable physical effects and set pieces. The atmosphere is supernatural and spooky; the result proves that a maze doesn’t need to be spectacular in order to be satisfying.

Paranormal Inc. at Knotts Scary Farm. When this maze made its debut last year at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, it was one of our favorites, marred only by the sense that its splashy opening (a paranormal investigation unleashing an angry spirit that flew overhead) overshadowed what followed, creating a slight letdown. Either the layout was slightly rearranged for Halloween 2016, or our expectations were tempered by experience; either way, the maze seemed to sustain itself from beginning to end this year, and we ended up liking it as much as – if not more so – than before.

Shadowlands at Knotts Scary Farm. A Japanese-themed maze? Count us in! Not only did Shadowlands offer the expected nods to the recent J-horror genre; it also seemed inspired by an earlier generation of Japanese supernatural cinema – it was almost like stepping into one of those lengthy costume-period flashbacks in a Nobuo Nakagawa film from the 1960s (Ghost Cat Mansion, The Vampire Woman). Perhaps no one except us cares, but we love it when a haunted attraction reaches beyond obvious trends and uses material that can create an imaginative scare experience whether or not it’s recognized by the target audience. Shadowlands mixed supernatural scares (long-haired Japanese ghost girls) with visceral horror (at least three decapitations, by our count), along with bungee-jumping ninja soaring through the air like dark avengers from hell.

Sinister Pointe. The clever innovation in this Orange County haunt was that it offered a maze with multiple paths, creating a quartet of different realms, each ruled over by a different demonic presence, representing a different archetype (The Trickster, etc). The forking paths converged at various hubs, so that the major highlights were visible regardless of the realm to which one was assigned (e.g., the marvelous mirror effect in which a monster seems to slide down from the ceiling on nothing but air).  With different challenges in each Realm, Sinister Pointe truly rewarded those who returned for multiple visits. We went four times, one for each realm, and never got tired of finding our way out.

The Walking Dead at Halloween Horror Nights. By any reasonable standard, we should be sick to death of Walking Dead mazes at Halloween Horror Nights, but we loved this one more than any in the past. Now a permanent installation, The Walking Dead recycles some set pieces from previous mazes, but that’s no cause to complain when the new location offers room for so many imaginative horrors. We also deeply appreciated that the waiting line was largely inside the establishment, with sets, props, and even mechanical effects (a door opening as if pressed by a horde of zombies on the other side) setting the scene long before we actually began the official walk-through. If you did not see this during Halloween, you should try to catch it some other time; though we suspect its population of live zombies (i.e., actors in makeup) will be much smaller, the animatronic variety will still make it worth seeing.

The Winner: Shadowlands
Like a J-Horror film come to life.
Shadowlands – like a J-Horror film come to life.

It almost seems a shame to pick a single winner from among such worth nominees, but Shadowlands worked for us in every way: the theme was imaginative; the sets and costumes were great; there were plenty of live actors portraying malevolent samurai, ninja, and (we think) kappa. There were a couple of those over-sized monsters that Knotts Scary Farm does so well (basically giant puppets with the puppeteer inside), and there were some very well orchestrated scares, such as the long corridor with the ghost girl spasmodically rushing forward while flashing lights created a stroboscopic effect, akin to the unnerving staccato movements seen in some J-horror films. We went through this one twice, and we hope Knotts brings it back so that we can enjoy it again next Halloween.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.