It's October, and all of us are rushing to as many haunts as we can: the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Queen Mary Halloween Terrorfest, and the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest. As much fun as these old favorites are, the hard-core Halloween addict cannot help yearning for something new - something different. So we seek out less well-known haunted attractions, smaller ones tucked away in shopping malls instead of major theme parks. The problem is that smaller haunts have a hard time being different; with approximately thirty haunted mazes spread throughout the major attractions listed above, the obvious variations on the theme are already taken, and it can be nearly impossible for the mom-and-pop operation to stake out its own territory.
Consequently, haunt-goers seeking out new attractions can easily feel as if they are retreading the same territory over and over again. The haunted house or maze may be good, but you ask yourself whether it was really worth the effort after everything else you've already seen. Well, I'm here to tell you I found one worth seeking out, even if you've been to all the others.
The Molar Manor Haunted Attraction (which you can find on our Halloween Haunts page) is not, technically, new - it's been around for several years, but it changed location in 2006, and it's fairly different from what it used to be. Molar Manor was established in Santa Clarita in 2001 as a "haunted collection" that was open two days per year around Halloween, to benefit local charities. Since proprietor Dr. Ronald Singer sold the enterpirse to Denise Larson Kivett and Ralph Esacoff, the new owners have been working to expand the attraction to a year-round calendar that will allow for fund-raising, film production, and tours during the Halloween season.
This year, Molar Manor bills itself as the "House of the Dancing Dead." We made the drive north to its Canyon Country location on Thursday night. The haunt had opened the night before - nearly a week after its scheduled opening; a message on the official website explained that the proprietors wanted everything to be perfect before they opened their doors to the public, and we figured that by the day after the debut, all bugs would be worked out.
The first sign of something different is the sign: no temporary banner fluttering in the wind here, but rather a full-blown lighted electric sign along with all the other businesses in a shopping mall. Molar Manor is housed in a permanent location, comfortably nestled next door to antiques store (same owners).
As we approached from the (free) parking lot, the Manor did not look particularly frightening from outside. Two or three ghouls lurked outside, mostly teens in makeup, waiting eagerly for victims - or rather customers.
There was a slight hold-up before we could enter. Apparently, smoke effects had set off the fire alarm, and there was an effort underway to reset the alarm before tours could continue. The friendly folks who run the Manor - it truly does feel like a mom-and-pop business - were quite apologetic, offering to give us free passes if we preferred to return another day.
We decided to wait. Although the drive out to Canyon Country is nowhere near as far as venturing to Seaside Haunt in Ventura, it's takes nearly a half-hour during light traffic hours - so a ten or fifteen minute delay was not enough to justify a return visit. In exchange for our patience, we were rewarded with a 50% discount (a better deal than the $3-off coupons we had printed out from the official website). The staff also apologized for being on a skeleton crew that night. Finally, with tickets in hand we proceeded to the haunt.
Not to keep you in suspense, we have to say that, discount or no, the Manor was definitely worth the drive and the wait. It begins with a guide leading you to the entrance, which is called the "Claustrophobia Room." This consists of large padded rolls - about the consistency of a tighlty wrapped sleeping bag - pushed tightly together. The only way to get inside is to push your way through the practically non-existant slit, the material pressing close against you and sealing you into darkness. For a brief moment you really do feel lost and cut off from the rest of the world, almost dizzy from the pressure and the lack of freedom - you pretty much have to walk in a straight line, with no idea when you will come out.
To be sure, the actual distance is very short; it only seems long. Emerging within the Manor, you find yourself inside a large building the size of supermarket, filled with fascinating props and settings, many of them recognizable from Hollywood movies (we saw giant candlesticks from VAN HELSING and the monster from PUMPKINHEAD, to cite two examples).
A second guide appeared and gave us the standard rap about not touching the monsters in exchange for not being touched by them. Moving past a hearse with a coffin lid the sprung open to reveal a corpse within, and past a moving, emaciated black horse mounted by the Headless Horseman, we were taken to an elevator that would supposedly lower us into the heart of the haunt.
This is a familiar gag. The doors close (the room shakes, making you feel as if you are falling down the elevator shaft), but it always works. It was a bit more effective in this case, because the set design suggests an old building where technical malfunctions are more believable.
From this point, we were on our own, the rest of the tour self-guided. Having been advised not to linger, we threaded our way from room to room, each set as fascinating as the last. The Manor retains some feeling of a museum. It is a bit like walking through a series of historical tableau, and despite the adomintion to keep moving, you will find yourself tempted to stop and stare from time to time.
The scare factor was relatively mild but still effective. There were few living ghouls jumping out to say boo, but their absence was hardly felt; the majority of the thrills were mechanical in nature. Hidden panels slide up, with creatures behind them; lights flash on in darkened corners, revealing hidden terrors; a savage dog pushes his head out of a dog house; mechanized monsters - which look like static dummies - suddenly come to life, leaning over and/or reaching out for you. At one point, what must be a ghost leaps off the stairs, shooting straight at you.
The occasional actor in mask or makeup blends imperceptably in with his inanimate counterparts, until a sudden movement reveals life beneath the costume. There are a couple of harder thrills, including blasts of hidden air and the traditional maniac with chainsaw, just to ensure that this is more than mildly spooky museum tour.
Nonetheless, the real appeal of Molar Manor is the settings. What sets the haunt apart is the permanent location, which allows for detailed sets that feel like authentic environements. You're not walking through unadorned black corridors assembled from flats; you're inside real rooms with convincing props and furniture, completely engulfed in the haunted ambience. You used to get somewhat of a similar feeling at the old pre-2006 Spooky House location, but this is even better - closer in feel to the late, lamented HAUNTED VINEYARD. The only place where you might find more convincing settings is Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, but even those can feel more like a movie set that the real thing. The museum ambience of Molar Manor may be even more convincing; it feels less like a simulation than like the real thing preserved (or embalmed).
Our only real problem with Molar Manor is that the motions of the mechanical props seem to be set on a timer, rather than triggered by your approach; therefore, it is possible to walk by too fast and miss them. Despite the no-stopping rule, we found ourselves not only stoppnig but back-pedaling into a room when something emerged just as we were heading out the door. We wanted to enjoy every scare to the max, and we did.
Based on this experience, we are sure that Molar Manor will rank as our big Halloween discovery of 2007. At $13 a ticket, it is worth every penny. So far, the haunt season seems not to have heated up in Canyon Country, so there is little waiting in line. We recommend you take advantage of this as soon as possible.
One other thing, outside of some clever artwork in the lobby, we saw little evidence to indicate why the haunt is called "House of the Dancing Dead." Perhaps on weekends, when there is a full crew of ghouls, some of the dead do dance. Might be worth a trip back to find out for sure...