HHA 2016: Best Amateur Halloween Haunted House Walk-Through

Nominees: Beware the Dark Realm, Burbank Haunted Adventure, The Braeburn Haunt, Gothic Hills Cemetery, Higgins Manor, Pumkin Jack’s Haunted House, Restless Souls Manor, Rotten Apple 907, Spooky Hollows

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What could be more admirable than people who decorate their homes for Halloween? People who create walk-through haunted houses, filled with special effects, makeup, costumes, and live actors! Over the course of the past decade, this phenomenon has seen exponential growth in Los Angeles, with many of these amateur haunts rivaling the quality of professional efforts. In fact, the standards among Los Angeles home haunts is so high that the Halloween Haunt Awards have an incredible nine contenders in this category.

  • Notes: (1) Although it is a community haunt rather than a home haunt, we are including Burbank Haunted Adventure in this category, because it is a non-professional effort. We did not see enough community haunts this year to hand out a Halloween Haunt Award in that category. (2) Previous winner The Backwoods Maze (2013) is not eligible this year.

Beware the Dark Realm. This Santa Clarita effort - a castle under a dark spell - took top honor in this category two years ago, but it has expanded so much since then that it warrants another nomination this year. A few characters and set pieces remain, but this was almost a new haunt - even bigger and better than before. The wonderful settings were filled with ghosts and demons appropriate to the period setting - even a dragon, sticking its head through a hole in the wall - and the dank stone corridors sometimes widened out, giving the spectral inhabitants room to “play” with their victims. An altogether amazing upgrade on a haunt that was already great.

The Braeburn Haunt. A long-standing Altadena tradition, this popular neighborhood favorite presented what may be its final haunt this Halloween. Fashioned mostly from store-bought props and decorations, the Braeburn Haunt overwhelmed the senses with its sheer immensity. Situated on the corner yard of a mansion in a well-to-do area, the haunt was loud and proud, with monsters dangling over the streets and balanced atop the roof. The path was formed with simple tarp, but journey went through several distinct sections, each with its own flavor of horror; there was so much that every trick-or-treater was bound to find something to his or her taste. Sometimes, size does matter.

Burbank Haunted Adventure: The Uncanny. Put on by the City of Burbank in Stough Canyon Park, the Burbank Haunted Adventure offered a trek in and around the Starlight Bowl; the location was very nicely exploited to give this amateur effort a professional sheen. The walk-through's two standout merits were length and enthusiasm: it went on forever, and the amateur actors inside fill the space with an abundance of scares (calibrated for the target audience, of course, which includes some older children).

Gothic Hills Cemetery. It's a yard display; it's a walk-through; it's two haunts in one! Gothic Hills did indeed have an impressive collection of gravestones and other decor in its yard and along its driveway, but the feature attraction was a short tour through some catacombs, led by a greedy ghoul in search of lost treasure. Rather than jump scares, this one offered a few discreet scenes where visitors stopped to experience some effect, whether it was a witch performing an incantation or a monster guarding the treasure. This may seem an odd compliment for a home haunt with such slick effects, but Gothic Hills provided good old-fashioned Halloween fun - in spirit if not technique.

Higgins Manor.  With set decor rivaling The Backwoods Maze and Rotten Apple 907, Higgins Manor distinguished itself with an interactive approach that cast visitors as henchmen swept up in an old west range war. The level of immersion rivaled that of professional theatrical haunts, providing not only jump scares but also hilarious comedic improvisation. Definitely worth the drive to Mission Viejo. (Read a review by Hollywood Gothique correspondent Blackmouth here.)

Pumkin Jack’s Haunted House. Not far from Beware the Dark Realm, this home haunt featured a contemporary alternative to the haunted castle. Consisting of a half-dozen or so rooms built inside a garage, this haunted house was perhaps a bit sturdier than most amateur efforts - no surprise, since the owner is in the construction business. Though there was a slight fun-house feel to some of walk-through, other areas, such as a bloody kitchen scene, were completely convincing - it was like being inside the real thing, which made the scares more effective. And the monsters within made the most of their horrifying home.

Restless Souls Manor. Like Higgins Manor, this Palmdale haunt featured interactive improvisation from the cast in a six-room setting with decor as impressive as that seen in theme park haunts. The experience was enhanced by sending victims through in small groups, allowing them to take their time, enjoying the scares and the convincing environment. (Read a review by Hollywood Gothique correspondent Marie DeLoups here.)

Rotten Apple 907’s Not So Enchanted Forest. Burbank's long-running home haunt presented a fractured fairy tale for Halloween 2016, crafting magical land of make-believe populated with twisted versions of familiar characters (Ginger Bread Man, Big Bad Wolf, Malificent) along with some less expected ones (a tree that comes to life). The production values were incredible, and the cast brought the macabre fantasy to life - as always, with tongue slightly in cheek, but not enough to blunt the scares.

Spooky Hollows. Tucked away in Van Nuys, this impressive home haunt began with a short tour through the decorated front yard before taking visitors around the house for a good dose of Halloween horror. Did we say around the house? That may have been the reality, but the sensory experience was more akin to descending into a subterranean world, where strange things creep and crawl in forgotten sewer tunnels - and that was only part of the fun, which also included pond with a hungry alligator and some previously uncategorized breed of tree monster. Spooky Hollows was an excellent example of manipulating expectations: the front yard display suggested a friendly neighborhood haunt; we didn't realize quite what was in store for us in back - sinister surprises galore!

The Winner: Rotten Apple 907
Rotten Apple 907
Characters from the Not So Enchanted Forest

With so much strong competition, this category is a tough call. What we seek from our favorite haunts is not only ghosts and monsters but an environment where these creatures of the night seem believable. In one way or another, most of these haunts strove to achieve this, and all of them deserve a place on any self-respecting haunt-seeker's must-see list. What set' Rotten Apple 907's Not So Enchanted Forest at the top of this august assembly? Even more than the others, it pushed the boundary of what seems possible in an amateur haunt; it was almost easier to believe we were in a real enchanted forest than that it was built in someone's front yard. But what made this forest truly enchanting was the blend of setting and characters, with clearly demarcated areas (forest, ginger bread house, castle) turning each twist of the path into a revelation of some new thing, instead of just more of the same. Many of the other contenders in this category achieved a similar effect (especially Pumkin Jack's Haunted House), but Rotten Apple pulled it off a little more vividly, with a richness of detail that etched itself into memory and made repeat visits almost as much fun as the first.

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.

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