Drum roll, please - or should that be a funeral dirge? Whatever soundtrack you choose to play in your mind or on your computer while reading this, it is time to bestow our annual accolades for the Best Los Angeles Halloween Events. As with last year, I will dispense with rigid categories in favor of noting outstanding achievement, whatever form it may take. In essence, these are the 2011 Halloween Haunts that stand out in memory, eclipsing their ectoplasmic competitors with technical trickery, imaginative iconography, or sometimes just a simple super-abundance of Halloween spirit. It may be too late for these citations to affect the fate's of this year's Halloween Events in Los Angeles, but you should take note and mark your calendars for 2012, when many of these haunts will reopen their cemetery gates, offering you another opportunity to enjoy their sinister thrills and chills.
DELUSION: A HAUNTED PLAY (review) gets our top scream for doing what other Los Angeles Halloween Haunted Houses & Hayrides should be doing: moving past the "jump out and yell boo" strategy toward something more dramatic and interactive, making you feel you are actually part of a supernatural experience, not merely a customer walking through a cool fun house attraction.
THE THING MAZE within Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood stands out for its novel Antarctic setting and for its amazingly detailed creatures (crafted from the same molds that provided the monsters seen in the recent movie). Universal Studios Hollywood always provides sets, makeup and special effects that outshine other Theme Park Halloween Attractions, and this was their best effort in 2011.
THE TERROR OF LONDON at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt has been around for a few years, but we find that the air of Victorian horror - the elusive sense that you are following in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper, walking down cobblestone streets and through fog-bound alleys - continues to thrill.
THE BUCKLING BRIDGE IN THE HELLFIRE MAZE at the Queen Mary Dark Harbor threw us for a loop - not literally, thank god, but for a second we did feel one step away from a precipitous drop over the railing. The sense of vertigo was enhanced by the hellish glimpse of red sparks in the distance suggesting a drop not merely to mortal death but into the damnable infernal regions.
THE CLEVER MIX OF MANNEQUINS AND ACTORS in the Reign of Terror Haunted House elevated the scream factor several times over, because you never knew whether the next monster before you was a static dummy or something that might surge to life and attack you. This walk-through Halloween attraction in Thousand Oaks was always fun and atmospheric; for the last two years, it has been noticeably intensifying the scares.
THE TRIO OF MECHANICAL SINGERS at the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride freaked us out (review). We expect our share of scares on the ride through the woods at the Griffith Park Old Zoo, but this particular vignette was new and different, beginning as a comedy and turning into something very creepy. This memorable addition to an already excellent haunt will hopefully return next year.
THE INCREDIBLE OPTICAL ILLUSION at Sinister Pointe in Brea deserves special mention. We avoided revealing this one in our review of the haunt, not wanting to spoil the surprise for others, but now we feel it safe to let the cat out of the bag. As you walk down one corridor, the hallways seems to extend at length into a room at a far distance before you. This room turns out to be an illusion, however, a reflection upon a mirror, placed at an angle so that a monster can slide down from the ceiling above, landing practically at your feet! There were several scares and novel ideas at this haunt in Brea, but this one gag was unlike anything seen in any other Halloween haunted house attraction.
THE AFTERMATH at the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest offered a post-apocalyptic horror show of belching flame and shattered debris that went far beyond other Halloween events in terms of production value and pyrotechnics, ranking favorably alongside the mazes and monsters at Universal Studios. Now if only their jack-booted security goons would get out of the way and let people actually enjoy the mazes without feeling as if they had stepped into some kind of authoritarian police state.
MAESTRO MAXILLA THE GREAT'S SHOW at the Boney Island Yard Haunt offered spectacular magical-musical fun, with lighted pumpkins and fountains of water timed to some of your favorite seasonal pieces, ranging from "The Monster Mash" to "Toccata and Fuge in D Minor."
THE NEW LAYOUT at the Theatre 68 Haunted House gave expanded scope to one of our favorite Halloween events in Los Angeles. And the new severed head gag was quite startling - not gory, just an amazing magical illusion.
THE INCREDIBLE LENGTH of the Backwoods Maze in Burbank deserves mention. It's as if this home haunt's back yard were a TARDIS: once you step inside the maze, it seems bigger than the yard could possibly be. And it's filled with professional-looking sets and monsters, providing a free horror show that upstages many professional efforts.
THE SPACE ODDESSY THEME of this year's Rotten Apple 907 yard haunt seemed almost ridiculously ambitious, so they deserve special kudos for pulling it off. As with the Backwood Maze, you wonder when this crew is going to go pro; they certainly do a fine enough job to warrant a shot at the big leagues.
THE GHOSTLY CRACKED FACADE on the House at Haunted Hill (review) added a new layer of creepiness to an already impressive yard haunt, whose technical sophistication outclasses all other Amateur Halloween Events in Los Angeles. The dilapidated facade is achieved with some kind of projection, which lends a spectral appearance to the house that could not be achieved with simple set dressing; a bat flits past a window, and the projection also allows the look of the house to change as the narrated story progresses. This amazing illusion conveys a magical sense of wonder lacking from more overtly shocking Halloween attractions.
THE SUBTLE SHADINGS OF SPECTRAL SHADOWS AND ECTOPLASMIC ILLUSIONS at the House of Restless Spirits. This yard haunt is consistently great from year to year. Changes and additions are subtle, so you have to wait and look closely to see them. But if you watch carefully, you will see that this house's spirits do indeed grow more restless every Halloween.
Finally, this year's award for THE BEST USE OF A REAL LOCATION goes to Wicked Lit's classic literary adaptations, performed live in the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery. This award is a bit of a close call, because Delusion made fine use of a real house in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, and Theatre 68 squeezes quite a few sets and effects into its available space. But you just can't beat the feel of being inside an actual mausoleum, or walking the grounds of an actual cemetery, while watching actors engaged in stories set in corresponding locations. This immersive dramatic experience offers few shocks, but subtler, shivering terror is provided in abundance.
We like and even love almost all of the haunts that we visit every Halloween, all of them for different reasons. We hope this list of citations conveys some sense of the wide variety of effects, surprises, shocks, and scares on view for your enjoyment every October. Los Angeles truly is a mecca of Halloween events of all shapes and sizes, and we hope to continue exploring its open crypts and catafalques for many years to come.