Old Town Haunt 2005 review

Presented by the people behind the long-running Spooky House, the Old Town Haunt in Pasadena is a new Halloween attraction for 2005. Its gimmick (a very nice one) is that it is located in the basement of a professional building, which is made up to look like ancient catacombs beneath a bank, where some robbers were mysteriously killed decades ago.

To avoid the crowds, we went on a Sunday night and got in with no waiting. The Old Town area of Pasadena is filled with night life, so we were surprised that more hipsters patronizing the restaurants on Colorado Blvd had not bothered to walk a half-block north on Raymond and take advantage of this haunt.

The place is not very auspicious from outside -- just an old building with an orange banner over the entrance. There is also a small black tent set up in an alley next to the door, where you can have psychic readings.

The ghoul outside (made up to look as if he had a bullet hole in his head) was fairly aggressive in his attempts to frighten us, even before we purchased our tickets (which are reasonably priced at $12.50 -- and we took advantage of a two-for-one coupon available at some local merchants).

Tickets in hand, we were directed down a flight of stairs, very convincingly made up to look like ancient grey stone. At the bottom, a door stood closed -- until the ghoul from upstairs suddenly slammed it open from inside and took us through. Introducing us to the haunt, he gave the usual spiel ("don't touch the monsters and they won't touch you"), then sent us on our way.

The first "manifestation" is a video image of an old, vaguely western-looking ghost warning you to go back. You then take a series of twists and turns through more gray stone walls, past several tableaus, doors, gates, and windows. The underground atmosphere is quite excellent, with a good sense of claustrophobia, and if you weren't running away from the scares, you would be tempted to pause and take a closer, appreciative look at much of it.

As mentioned above, Sunday was a slow night, and this seemed to be reflected in the number of ghouls on fright duty. Our initial impression was that our "host" from upstairs was the only one there, pursuing us down a hidden parallel corridor to activate the mechanics, bang on walls, and alternately yell and whisper warnings to us -- all of which he did with great enthusiasm and an effectively maniacal laugh.

As we went further into the maze, we encountered more ghouls, in very good masks and makeup. There were also a few good mechanical scares, such as a blast of air when you're passing what looks like a stone coffin, and also a giant monstrous animal hanging upside down (a cross between an alien and a wingless bat embryo, I guess), which raises up and roars with another burst of pressurized air.

We got the impression that most of the moving props were not mechanical but were cleverly situated so that the actors could rattle their chains from unseen positions, making them seem to come alive. A simple technique, this gave the catacombs a number of different scares even with a minimal cast on hand during a slow night.

Perhaps the highlight involves one room where you're forced to brush past some skeletons in hanging cages (before reaching the aforementioned upside down monster) -- the corridor seems to be a blind end, forcing you to walk around in circles two or three times looking for a way out. (The actor activating one of the moving skeletons kept crying out, "Welcome back!" as we passed each time.) Finally, a rotating wall shifts to block your return path and re-directs you on to the rest of the maze.

Overall, our impression of the Old Town Haunt was a favorable one. Like Spooky House, it is strong on atmospheric decor. This is not just some dark corridors with store-bought props; you can tell some real work went into making this place look authentic and menacing.

Unfortunately, the Old Town Haunt also shares one of Spooky House's weaknesses: the tendancy to be understaffed, especially on slow nights. All the actors we saw on Sunday were doing their best, but there were too few of them to reach the critical mass that could have made this a truly excellent Halloween experience. As is often the case with Spooky House, there were numerous holes and hollows and windows designed for ghouls to hide in before springing out at the unsuspecting customer -- but too many of them lay empty and unused.

No doubt, if you attend on a busy Friday or Saturday evening -- especially later in the month -- these vacancies will be filled. In the meantime, we feel that the Old Town Haunt (and Spooky House, for that matter) should offer discount prices for early in the season and/or for "off" nights when fewer ghouls are employed. We would also recommend a discounted "return admission" price that lets you through a second time on the same night for a reduced price. (Had such a discount been in place, or if we'd had another two-for-one coupon, we certainly would have taken advantage of the short lines and gone through again, just to enjoy the decor.)

For ourselves, we felt that our two-for-one discount made the haunt more than worth the money we paid, in spite of any nit-picking complaints mentioned in this review. We might even consider returning for another walk-through later in the season, when the actors have had more of a chance to get some more experience under their belt.

If you're a haunt fan deciding whether or not to make the trek out to Pasadena, keep in mind that the Old Town Haunt does have the advantage of a look and feel quite different from most of the other Halloween mazes in the Southland. There are no strobe light rooms, no black light rooms, no killer klowns in 3D -- none of the stuff you will see at a million other places this Halloween. Instead, Old Town has a good theme that it uses to create a distinctive haunt quite different from the rest. It performed reasonably well on its opening weekend; we hope it only gets better throughout the rest of the season.