L.A. Haunted Hayride: Halloween 2014 review

This year's Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is bigger and better than ever. Read on to learn the details - if you dare!

The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride - has there ever been a better example of being the victim of one's own success? When it exploded onto the scene in 2009, the Haunted Hayride instantly blew to the top of Hollywood Gothique's favorite Halloween events in Los Angeles. Since then, the trick has been to keep the ride feeling fresh and surprising after the novelty has worn off.

A demon haunting this year's L.A. Haunted Hayride
A demon haunting this year's L.A. Haunted Hayride

This is easier said than done when hauling visitors through the woods of Griffith Park on a cold October evening; subtle distinctions of costuming and makeup can be lost in the shadows, leaving the audience feeling as if they have seen nothing new. Yes, there were different characters in the Wicked Wonderland section, but it still felt like - well, a Wicked Wonderland, three years running. Although the clowns may have changed their stripes, there was still a circus tent finale for five years straight, and as much fun as it had been, it was getting old.

Fortunately, Halloween 2014 sees the most conspicuous changes to the L.A. Haunted Hayride since it moved from King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas to Griffith Park in Los Angeles for its sophomore year. The additions are grand in scale and immediately identifiable, creating an experience that feels almost totally new. This year's theme, "Echoes from the Rift," offers a horde of new characters and spectacular situations simulating the infernal regions encroaching upon mortal terrain, with a myriad of demonic figures haunting the hayride and its sideshows: the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, winged bird-people, a giant Jack O'Lantern, and even a dragon. These dark denizens of the underworld and their demented revelries combine to generate our favorite Haunted Hayride yet.

ENTER PURGATORY

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014 floating ghostThe infernal theme of this Halloween's L.A. Haunted Hayride extends to the familiar Purgatory scare zone and permeates two new attractions, The House of the Horseman and the Seven Sins Sideshow. Purgatory is a broadly defined area one enters after purchasing tickets. We were assaulted by an impressive assortment of ghouls - including a skeletal bride and a clown with a tear-away face (inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas?) - but by far the most notable innovation was free-floating ghostly torsos, wafting in the wind and dropping out of the skies. (No, they are not suspended from giant fishing poles, but once you see how the effect is achieved you will marvel at the ingenuity.)

The In-Between Dark Maze is still scaring mortal foolish enough to enter its dark portal, and the merry-go-round still features skeletal horses. The old mirror maze (a simple sideshow attraction rolled in on a trailer) is gone, to make room for this year's additions, but the stage is still in place, offering an amusing diversion or two. (This year's entertainment consisted of having volunteers from the audience recreate moments from famous horror films, such as Samara's exit from the well and crawl through the television set.)

VISIT THE FOUR HORSEMEN

A scene representing the first of the Four Horsement, commonly known as Pestilence (though more accurately translated as Conquest).
A scene representing the first of the Four Horsemen, commonly known as Pestilence (though more accurately translated as Conquest).

The first of the Haunted Hayride's new attractions takes its inspiration from the Book of Revelation, referring to a prophecy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. The House of the Horsemen is a stab at creating an interactive maze, but the interactive element is somewhat small (at least on the night we attended): At one point a visitor has to take some meds from a crazed inmate before the loony will open a caged door and allow the group to proceed. Later, a half-naked female character accosted two victims and ordered them to scream; when their efforts failed to please her, she declared that they and the rest of their group would die as a result.

The Four Horsement are distinctive characters, and there is some good makeup and costuming. Nevertheless, the scares are mostly mild in this maze. By far the best gag occurs at the end, when Death herds his victims into what is supposed to be a furnace or crematorium, and then a sudden, unexpected blast of "heat" sends everyone leaping out of his skin.

VIEW THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

Haunted Hayride Seven Sins Sideshow logoNext is the Seven Sins Sideshow, which embodies the titular temptations in a series of characters. As with House of the Horsemen, there is an interactive element, but here it turns out to be counterproductive. Upon entering each room, members of the group must perform some action  to activate the scene; the lights go on, revealing the character; then the lights go off, prompting the group to move on to the next room. Unfortunately, if the group ahead of yours were to take its time starting a scene, your group would be forced to wait, and after awhile it becomes apparent that, in order to maintain the pace, each scene will start regardless of whether or not you clap your hands, pull a lever, push or button, or whatever else is required.

Interactivity aside, the scenes themselves are not particularly compelling, usually lasting just long enough for visitors to figure out which sin is supposedly being represented. A man with his back to the audience laughs about all the money on the gambling tables around him, then turns to reveal his hideous face - he's obviously Greed, and though his makeup is impressive, it's not much of a climax for the scene. Next, an old coot in a chair barely does anything for a couple minutes, presumably because he is too lazy to move, so he must be Sloth. Then a man gazes into a mirror from which a female reflection stares back at him while he applies makeup, before turning around to reveal that he is a man - which we knew all along. Envy, perhaps? Later, a nun moans ecstatically behind the window of a confessional for what seems lke several minutes - long past the moment when you realize she represents Lust.

Too brief to qualify even as vignettes, these blackouts fall far short of similar scenes on stage at the Urban Death: Tour of Terror in North Hollywood; they  fail to build to a climax, either individually or cumulatively, and the maze ends with a whimper rather than a bang, as visitors follow a written instruction to punch a balloon clown - which activates nothing at all. (Our best guess: the joke is on us, as we express our own Wrath.)

The one indelible splotch in this sideshow is Gluttony, personified as something in between a human slug and a giant turd, ravenously chewing and devouring anything within reach, not matter how sticky, gooey, and disgusting. You will want to vomit, but you will be too fascinated to turn away, lingering far longer than with any of the other Seven Deadly Sins.

TAKE A TRIP TO HELL ON THE HAUNTED HAYRIDE

The highlight of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is of course the hayride itself; everything is secondary - the flip-side to a hit single. Hollywood Gothique has always enjoyed this night-time terror tour, but for the past year or two we have found ourselves growing a bit weary of the overly familiar clown-climax and yearning for some extravagant upgrades. This year, we got our wish.

The old template has been radically revised. Yes, terrain is familiar, and old structures are reused; however, the creatures filling these dark spaces are clearly original - and frequently too enormous to overlook. The 2014 Haunted Hayride offers some of the most amazing sights you will experience at any Halloween attraction in Los Angeles.

A lizard man presides of the souls of the damned
A lizard man presides of the souls of the damned

Early in your journey, you pass between two cylindrical, translucent tunnels apparently caging the souls of the damned, whose silhouettes writhe and twist from within, while outside strange lizard men in monk's cowls patrols the pathway. After that, you reach what used to be the orphanage building, which is now haunted by painted-faced figures who might almost pass for clowns, but their red outfits and demonic aspects mark them as denizens of Hell. The abandoned church is also in place, but now some strange sacrificial rite occurs there, with black-attired maternal figures tossing what could be children (babies?) onto a funeral pyre, while the presiding demon looks on with approval.

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014 human-bird

Advancing into the cornfield, you see impaled bodies suspended in the air atop giant stakes. Oh hum - been there, done that. But wait! The bodies move and come to life. They are not corpse at all but winged creatures with human bodies and bird-like beaks. In an amazing display of aerial grace they flap overhead and descend upon you, then spring away back into the night sky, only to return, like demonic dive-bombers. At this point, you really have received your money's worth from the ride, and everything else is blood-red icing on the cake.

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014 insect

Farther along, a row of cages house lethal monstrosities of every imaginable variety - horned, insectoid semi-human things. A sardonic Master of Ceremonies selects a rider to spin a wheel to select one cage to be opened. Not satisfied with the result, the M.C. laughingly opens all the cages, unleashing the damnable horde that swarms around the trailer.

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014: Cerberus 3 heads by Storm Santos

Along the way, there is one hell of an enormous dragon - so scaly and detailed that you wish the ride would pause to afford more than a brief glimpse in the dark. Later, an incredibly over-sized Jack O'Lantern descends unexpectedly from overhead rafters, as if to crush you. As if these beasts were not massive enough, there is another even larger one: the three-headed Cerberus, guardian of the underworld, growls at those foolish enough to descend further into the depths of damnation.

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2014 demon composite

Ignoring this portent of doom, you will find yourself within the infernal region itself, a cavernous space of rock and magma, with Hellfire literally bursting through the surface, revealing the giant clawed hands and horned head of the Evil One himself, while his minions cavort amidst the smoke and brimstone, celebrating the appearance of their master. This is no circus sideshow; this is Hell on Earth, visualized with a verve and aplomb that deserve screams of admiration.

Absent chainsaws and showers of blood, this year's L.A. Haunted Hayride may not match the gruesome levels of previous Halloweens, but this is by far the most visually stunning incarnation of the ride to date. Though lacking the vast scope of the more lavishly budgeted back lot tram tour of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride is ultimately far more impressive in its impact.

CONCLUSION

The new "Echoes from the Rift" theme reinvigorates the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, which is better than ever. Though the new Seven Sins Sideshow and House of the Horsemen are not strong enough to stand on their own, they do offer value-added entertainment for those who want more than a nightmarish ride through Griffith park. The Haunted Hayride remains the feature attraction, worthy of the price of admission all on its own.

A dragon awaits you at this year's Haunted Hayride.
A dragon awaits you at this year's Haunted Hayride.

Despite the added attractions, the L.A. Haunted Hayride has not quite reached its goal of being an all-night destination. There are few if any good food options, mostly just snacks and junk food. The on-stage entertainment is worth catching if you need a breather between the mazes, but we would not set time aside for it. With a VIP fast ticket, you can hit the ride and walk-throughs within a couple hours and then move on to dinner or some other Halloween event (the sideshows were not busy on the night we attended, but a fast pass helps with the Hayride and the In Between Dark Maze). Personally, we would recommend driving down the hill to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Ghost Train, also in Griffith Park, and then perhaps heading over to Glendale for the Hollywood Haunter's Night in a Haunted House home haunt.

Of course, you could simply go on the Haunted Hayride a second or a third time. Although a360-degree experience, there are certain aspects that are easier to see from one side or the other of the trailer, and you really want to be on the right to get a look at that dragon.

The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride runs through October 31 on weekends and some week nights; hours are 7pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays; 7pm to 10:30pm on other days. The address is Griffith Park Old Zoo, 4730 Crystal Springs Avenue, Los Angeles. Click here for the official website.