On Saturday, we made our annual trek to Pasadena for Old Town Haunt. We have reviewed this attraction twice before, once for its 2005 debut and once again a year later. The first time out we enjoyed its unique atmospheric setting (suggesting underground catacombs and caverns), but there was a dearth of active ghouls haunting the premises. 2006 was a considerable improvement, with many more aggressive monsters lurking in the depths, and 2007 continued the tradition. At the invitation of proprietor Ron Rogge, who promised he had reorganized the scares to keep them fresh, we opted to revisit the haunt and see what, if anything, is new this year. What we saw was like a variation on a theme: an established tune with a new arrangement that added a few surprises, resulting in something both fresh and familiar.
The old gags are still there: a floating apparition, air cannons, a mechanical beast that rears up and growls, a movable wall that forces you to retrace your steps, a pitch-black crawlspace that forces you onto your knees (while spooky voices whisper and shout into your ear), and a fur-covered monster (like something off the old STAR TREK show) near the end. Perhaps the most remarkable returning gag is the cleverly placed mirror that makes it appear as if a ghoul, lurking through a whole in the wall, is in front of you, allowing him to sneak up unexpectedly from the side. You can't blame Old Town Haunt for holding onto any of these golden oldies, because they always work, and it would be a disappointment not to see them again.
So what's new? Mostly it's a matter of rearranging the elements so that the old familiar scare occur in unexpected places. Even if you have attended in the past, you will not be able to anticpate what is waiting for your around each corner.
Then there's the cast of characters. Whether it's new actors or simply news masks and costumes, the noxious sewers below the streets of Pasadena seem overflowing with new phantoms. Of course in the darkness it is hard to keep count, and we're pretty sure that the labyrinthine path allows the same spectres to appear and reappear at several junctions, but the impact is the same as if there dozens of monsters entombed in the dank depths of the underground lair. It really feels as if there is a scare lurking around every corner.
By this time, we probably sound like an Earth-bound soul doomed to repeat the same speech year after year unto the end of all eternity, but we cannot emphasize this last point enough: We love atmospheric haunts with unique, convincing settings, but what really makes a Halloween attraction into a worthy scare-factory is the ghosts and ghouls inhabiting it. If they simply rattle a few chains, then even the most elaborate haunted house is little more than a museum; if, on the other hand, the haunters go for the jugular (metaphorically speaking, of course), they can compensate for second rate settings.
We used to criticize the various Spooky House attractions (which include the original Spooky House, plus Old Town Haunt, Seaside Haunt, and, more recently, Fearplex and Skull Kingdom) for defaulting in this area, but they have improved considerably over the last few years. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Old Town Haunt, which achieves a perfect balance of jump-scares and eerie atmosphere.
NOTE: We shot some new video during our visit, including an interview, which will be posted sometime later this week.
UPDATE: Forgot to include the highest accolade the haunt earned during our visit. After emerging from the subteranean den of horrors, Mrs. Hollywood Gothique proclaimed that the Old Town Haunt "was the best one yet." High praise indeed when you consider that we have been to between Knott's Scary Farm, Halloween Horror Nights, and a few others, we have been through at least sixteen haunted mazes or rides this year.