If have taken the ride or read the reviews, you know that in a mere two years the L.A. Haunted Hayride has driven to the front of the pack, becoming one of the premiere Halloween events in Los Angeles. To laud the haunt with praises once again would be to risk indulging in a predictable annual ritual. Instead, the dedicated fright fan would probably like to have a few questions answered before heading out to Griffith Park for a terrifying trek through the abandoned - and now haunted - Old Zoo. So let's try to anticipate and answer these hypothetical questions...
Has familiarity bred contempt?
In a word: no. Many of the same props and set pieces are on display, but there are new cast members, new scenes, and new effects and bits of business added to old scenes. In short, there is enough continuity to please but more than enough novelty to prevent screams of terror from turning into yawns of familiarity.
What is different?
The carnival rides from last year are gone, along with the booths where you could roll a toy skull to knock over bowling pins. Consequently, there are fewer kid-friendly activities; parents might want to think twice before taking the little ones (who will be well and truly frightened - and perhaps scarred for life - if you force them onto the haunted hayride itself).
Also missing, unfortunately, is the food truck from Cantor's Deli, which made last year's Los Angeles Haunted Hayride one of the few Halloween events that served food worth eating. If your dietary demands extend far beyond hot dogs and soda, you are out of luck this year.
Is there anything to do besides the Haunted Hayride?
Yes, there is still something of a carnival atmosphere, thanks to the "Human Sideshow Area," where amazingly graceful stilt-walkers flit through the crowds. A merry-go-round with skeleton horses spins backwards. A psychic tells fortunes. And the stage offers entertainment at regular intervals, including appearances by magician Andrew Goldenhersh, who impressed us so much last year.
There is also "The In-Between," which bills itself as a "dark maze." Literally you walk through a series of tight corridors in almost complete blackness, unable to spot whatever creature may be creeping up on you. In this case, darkness may be a blessing that allows for blissful ignorance. Brave souls may take a "bait" lamp; the theory is that the light, rather than protecting you from the shadowy inhabitants of the maze, will act as bait, luring them toward you. The set-up and execution are fairly simple but effective, creating a more than adequate "co-feature" for the main Halloween attraction.
So yes, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride remains more than just a hayride; it is a destination spot, where you can hang out and enjoy a few hours of Halloween fun.
Is the Haunted Hayride still scary?
Can you still scream in delightful fright? Of course!
The hayride still carries you through a several different environments that offer a variety of monsters. If anything these monsters are more aggressive than ever. They pursue the ride, scrape shovels and other dangerous-looking implements against the metallic sides of the cart, then leap on and lean inside to get up close and personal with their screeching victims. Sitting away from the edges is absolutely no protection!
Many of the characters were new - or at least new to us (it's possible that the event swaps out the actors from day to day, to add variety). We had never seen the defigured pregnant woman, whose water breaks as the ride goes by, nor had we ever noticed impaled men with their intestines hanging out. The familiar Halloween haunt admonition (don't touch the monsters, and the monsters won't touch you) apparently does not extend to preventing the exchange of bodily fluids: both the pregnant woman and the impaled man sprayed they hayride. We're not sure which is more disgusting: blood or amniotic fluid.
The cornfield is still there, with the giant Jack O'Lantern that lurches to life. Also on view is the Jason look-alike who hurls a giant canister at the ride. In the circus tent, manic clowns once again cavort and convulse to throbbing music while strobe lights blind our view.
In between these familiar sights are new mechanical effects: a werewolf munching on a victim, some kind of monster that rears up as the hayride goes by. The giant winged demon is still presides over dark ceremonies, but this year we also saw a human-sized demon spring up from beneath the earth to drag a sacrificial victim down to hell, leaving her arms still handcuffed above the alter - a sick and ghastly shock we do not remember from last year.
There is also a demented Christmas section, containing decorated trees topped with severed heads. The visual and aural irony (carolers sing "Silent Night" while maniacs attack with chainsaws) is amusing, but this vignette could use a little more punch. We know the sweet voices floating on the air will be undercut by horror, so the surprise is minimal, and the carolers never full morph into menacing figures; the simply follow along, staring slightly ominously. It would probably be more disturbing if they remained happy and cheerful amid the chaos; either that, or join in fully - the halfway measure doesn't quite cut it.
For us, the highlight is a trio of mechanical men singing a pleasant little jingle. At least, the jingle appears to be pleasant, and the men appear to be mechanical. At first, they simply dance with robotic movements in time with the tune, then slump as the music winds down - only to wind back up again. And this time, the dancing men not only move in place; they step off their stage - toward the hayride! The joke repeats two or three times, the fade-out of the music continually arresting the advance of the menacing mechanical trio - only until the music starts up again. The pauses create a wonderfully dreadful sense of anticipation that is also blackly comical. The effect is enhanced by the demented lyrics that accompany the child-like tune ("We're gonna make you barbecue!") Just when it seems as if the song will finally end for good, the musical automatons break free of their musical bonds and launch into an all-out attack - a perfect climax to the greatest ghoulish scene we encountered on a ride filled with a surfeit of Halloween horrors.
So, what is the bottom line?
We missed one or two things from the previous versions of the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, but not enough to cause major disappointment. As we have noted in other reviews, we are a bit tired of the killer-klown-carnival theme; although the circus tent madness here works pretty well, we don't think it's climactic enough to justify being the last scene on the hayride.
We also didn't get much sense of an overall theme at work. In fact, if we hadn't read it on the official website, we would not have realized that this year's theme is "Through the Eyes of a Child." But as we noted in our review of the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, few if any Halloween events ever fully exploit their alleged back stories.
Our final assessment is pretty predictable at this point: If you haven't been to the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, don't wait any longer. It's a unique Halloween attraction that is light years away from outstaying its welcome. And those singing automatons are worth the ticket price all on their own!
The Los Angeles Haunted Hayride continues at the Griffith Park Old Zoo (4730 Crystal Springs Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90027 ) on October 13-16, 20-23, 27-31. Box office hours are 7pm to 10:30pm on Thursdays, Sundays, and Monday, October31; 7pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The ride runs for one hour after the box office closes.