If you are a fan of Halloween in Los Angeles, no doubt you have walked your way through many a haunted maze, but your travels through realms of horror have probably not involved nearly as many haunted rides. Yes, there are some funhouse-type attractions that convey you in a cart, but the actual Halloween rides tend to be more whimsical than frightening (e.g., the L.A. Live Steamers Ghost Train or Disneyland Halloween Time's Haunted Mansion, decked out a la THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS); even the Terror Tram Tour on the back lot of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios reserves its scares for when you are on foot, not while riding the bus. If there ever was a truly terrifying Halloween ride in Hollywood or the surrounding environs, we had never encountered it, until our trek out to Calabasas to savor the surfeit of scares offered on the thrilling new Los Angeles Haunted Hayride.
This is a real Halloween treat for fright fans who want to enjoy their scares in the open air. Climb aboard a tractor-pulled trailer that winds its way through woods haunted by monsters of every size and shape, some ten feet tall. Travel past cemeteries, corn rows, and old dark house; even go inside a dark carnival filled with crazy clowns. See demented maniacs, mad doctors, zombies cannibals, werewolves, and living scarecrows. Is that Sadako climbing out of the well, looking for victims? And is that Jason Voorhees atop the hill, ready to attack? What other strange, unseen things lurk in the shadows, unseen but omnipresent, awaiting their next victims?
Rather like the late, lamented Seaside Haunt, the ominous undertones begin to make your flesh creep event before you arrive, thanks to the long night drive that suggests you are leaving civilization and safety behind. The isolated area in the hills north of the 101 Freeway is the perfect setting for terror. The tiny oasis of light and sound offers few comforts as you park - the sound of chainsaws and demented music float on the cool night air, wafting the first scent of fear.
As you approach the compound you see carnival booths and a giant carnivorous clown (Klownzilla from KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE?), who is fortunately just a prop; otherwise, you might have found your journey cut short before it had barely started. After you purchase your tickets and begin walking toward the entrance to the hayride, you move through the carnival area, where booths offer Halloween variations on familiar fun and games: instead of knocking over bottles with a baseball you know over skulls; for the Ring Toss, your target is the tail of a black cat, etc.
The carnival is billed as safe for "young kids who may not be ready for the high octane scare of the hayride," but along the way you will encounter deranged street performers, including a maniac on stilts, bloody pick ax in hand, who wanders the pathway, menacing young and old. You also pass a house of mirrors, a short (in terms of height) “Hey Maze” for kids, pumpkin carving, and booths selling coffee, coco, and ice cream.
Leaving the carnival behind, you approach the entrance to Haunted Hayride. Severed heads suspended on spikes lip-synch to "The Monster Mash" while you wait in line. Eventually, a tractor pulls up and your group loads into a trailer. The engine revs, and you ease through a gate surmounted by a giant spider, entering a fearful night-time world of dark and creepy things lurking in the woods.
At first, the tractor-trailer combo offers the illusion of safety. You are being conveyed by a mechanical device that keeps your feet from touching the ground, which could presumably plow through any threat; you sit in a wide trailer with ample space to shy away from anything reaching for you.
The illusions is soon shattered. The pace of the tractor is slow, allowing the ghouls to pursue you at their leisure, circling the trailer again and again; your forward momentum only takes you from one sinister scare to the next. Even the apparent safety of the conveyance is ruptured by the appearance of a massive figure of the Grim Reaper, ten feet tall, stiding the woods like an unstoppable juggernaut, arms reaching out toward shrieking riders who tumble over each other while trying to evade the monster's grasp.
Other monsters will also approach: some dashing in for a quick shock, others trailing along to taunt and tease. There is no telling from which direction the next terror will unexpectedly appear; they come too fast, too sudden, often simultaneously. While one distracts your attention to the left, another approachrd from the right; just when you think one has been left behind in the dust, it reappears.
Another over-sized fiend - a pumpkin-headed scarecrow - haunts the cornfields; apparently lifeless, it suddenly galvanizes into motion, an unnerving but spectacular sight. Next you enter a circus tent where clown harass you without mercy, and...the lights go out, plunging you into darkness.
Eventually, you emerge to complete your journey back toward the point of departure, but even here the terror is not over. A masked maniac awaits upon a hill overlooking your path, ready to heave a barrell down upon your vulnerable head....
On our journey, the night air was punctuated by frequent screams, of both terror and delight, and we walked away with that rarest of all feelings: that we had experienced something strikingly different from what other Halloween events in Los Angeles have to offer. The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride emerges as a sort of adult equivalent to the Live Steamers Ghost Train - a night-time ride through a series of haunted settings.
The Haunted Hayride makes excellent use of its outdoor location, proving that the elaborate sets of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood are not necessary to create a sinister atmosphere of suspense; with relatively modest set-pieces, they hayride offers a variety of environments (cemetery, scientist lab, creepy house, cornfield, circus), but most important it uses the darkness of the woods to stir the atavistic fear that exists in all of us.
Equally important - perhaps even more so - the cast of characters perform with an energy level that thrills almost from beginning to end of the 15-minute tour. Again, the makeup and masks may be no match for what you would see at HHN or Knotts Scary Farm, but shrouded in shadow, these monsters are eager to terrorize you and unwilling to be satisfied with a single "Boo!" - stretching your encounter with their otherwordly presence to maximum effect. And the towering figure of the Grim Reaper - and his distant cousin, the giant scarecrow - are immensely impressive, offering unexected thrills unlike what you see at almost any other Halloween attraction.
Our only problem with the Haunted Hayride is the price: $25 for the hayride, or $35 for the hayride and a reading of ghost stories by a celebrity (Amy Smart of SEVENTH MOON read on Friday, but we did not sit in). By way of comparison, the Halloween Harvest Festival at Pierce College offers a haunted house, a creatures of the corn trail, and a corn maze for $25, and you could spend the entire night at the Haunted Queen Mary for only $29. To be fair, there are some discount options available for the Haunted Hayride, including $5-off coupons at Gelson's markets.
In any case, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride may not be the best bargain in town, but as much as you may gripe while paying the tickets, when you get off you will feel that it was money well spent. With so many of our favorite haunts having retired to the eternal rest of the cemetery, we are pleased to announce that there is a new Halloween attraction in Los Angeles that will supply more than enough scares to fill the void.
The Haunted Hayride is open from 6:30pm till midnight on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in October, and on weeknights (till 10:30pm) for the last week of the month. Dates are subject to change, so check before driving out. For an additional $10,on certain nights you can also enjoy Scary Ghost Stories read by celebrity guests. Check the haunt's website for information.
Los Angeles Haunted Hayride
King Gillette Ranch
26800 West Mulholland Highway
Calabasas, CA 91302
Phone: (818) 871-9486