Note: Our review of Dark Harbor 2016 is here.
Is it time for another dive into the depths of the Dark Harbor? Read on to find out...if you dare!
For the past few years, the Queen Mary Dark Harbor has not exactly swamped us in a tidal wave of new and exciting horrors: with only two attractions added this Halloween, the venerable haunt may seem to be delivering mostly the same old tour of familiar destinations; however, that impression is misleading. Though most of the mazes are holdovers, several have been visibly improved, making them worthy of a return trip.
There also seems to be an effort to navigate the treacherous shoals with a smaller contingent of passengers: more than one maze begins with an introductory scene that can be viewed only by a limited number of people before they proceed into the dank corridors of the ship. Allowing discrete groups in at regular intervals may slow down the lines, but it prevents the continuous flow-through effect of crowded theme park mazes, and helps insure that the scares are better timed and more clearly focused. Think of it as being in a lifeboat menaced by a sea monster: the smaller the boat, and the fewer the passengers, the more likely it is that the Kraken's tentacle will encircle you.
The Queen Mary has added two attractions for Halloween 2015: the Lullaby maze and the Curse of Anubis Paintball Adventure. One is very scary (thank you, Mary); the other succumbs to its own curse.
Lullaby (with Scary Mary)
Replacing the old Submerged maze, Lullaby did not sound particularly auspicious to us. The character of Scary Mary (a ghostly blond child, who drowned in the Queen Mary's swimming pool) has haunted this section of the ship the past few years, and we suspected that the new name was more a matter of re-branding than renovation.Fortunately, our suspicion turned out to be wrong. Lullaby is new, different, and very good.
Lullaby begins with a prelude: a mock funeral in which a ghoulish funeral director delivers a eulogy filling us in on Scary Mary's back story, which reveals that the little girl was far from innocent - perhaps even a bad seed, deliberately drowned by her mother to put a stop to her evil.
After this scene, the rest of Lullaby is closer to a traditional maze experience as you move through the Queen Mary's familiar dark, metallic hallways. However, the experience is completely different from Submerged (which Scary Mary used to haunt).
Most notably, Mary is almost everywhere, appearing in room after room: either a single actress is moving very fast, or multiple, identical-looking actresses have been cast; however the illusion is achieved, passengers are left with the disturbing sense that they cannot escape Mary, because no matter how many times they leave her behind, she is ever and always waiting around the next corner - like a ghost who can defy the physical limitations of time and space.
Scary Mary also demonstrates a demented personality, her childish demands of "Will you play with me?" shifting from plaintive to vindictive to psychotic. At least on the night we went through, she was able and eager to devote special attention to us, engaging like a character in an interactive haunt, fully aware of our continued presence and happy to extend the confrontation as long as possible.
This approach is rather rare in a major theme park-style Halloween haunt, with less emphasis on a brief jump-scare than on the extended discomfort of interacting with a supernatural menace. Dark Harbor has always benefited from the atmosphere inherent in the Queen Mary's authentic environment; in this case, the drama inside the maze equals or surpasses the setting.
The Curse of Anubis Paintball Adventure
Hollywood Gothique always appreciates a chance to turn the tables on the monsters, so we were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to gun down a few mummies. Unfortunately, the Curse of Anubis Paintball Adventure - set on land near the main entrance to Dark Harbor - turns out not to be a run-and-gun experience (a la Special Ops Infected at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt); rather, it is a shooting gallery, with mechanical targets and only two or three live "mummies," who remain mostly in the background.
We loved the glowing black-light look of the Egyptian decor, and there was a certain level of excitement generated by the simultaneous firing of 11 would-be sharpshooters, picking off targets that reset again and again, giving everyone a chance to hit something. But with the mummies mostly running back and forth in the background, only occasionally creeping forward, and always keeping a discreet distance, there was never an imminent sense of being overrun by the dusty denizens of the tomb.
The Anubis Paintball Adventure requires an extra fee; the $5 tickets can be purchased on sight. If you want to test your marksmanship, go for it, but we doubt it's worth the combination of the price and the wait in line.
As mentioned at the top of this article, we were dreading a tired display of embalmed horrors from Dark Harbor's five returning mazes. To our demented delight, we enjoyed all of them more than we had during Halloween 2014.
One point worth making is that, unlike other major Halloween attractions, which take advantage of darkness in order to get away with using rubber masked monsters in their mazes, the ghouls we encountered aboard the Queen Mary were always characters with visible faces - horribly disfigured with makeup, of course, but always expressive, able to make eye-to-eye contact and project a little personality.
For the longest time, the Queen Mary was seen as a low-budget alternative to Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, relying on the ambiance of the ship itself, rather than a top-notch production, to sell the scares.
Soulmate (with Graceful Gale)
When this maze made its debut in 2014, we were disappointed that it did not exploit the Queen Mary's environment as well as it should have; frequently resorting to black draperies to create corridors, it felt like a cheap maze that anyone could set up in a mall parking lot, and the attempt to craft horror with a 1920s-30s art deco vibe, though admirable, yielded only mild scares.
Halloween 2015 sees Soulmate enhanced with an introductory scene (via video clip shot in the style of an old news reel) that relates the tale of Graceful Gale, the platinum blonde passenger who could not find the perfect man; now she haunts the Queen Mary, seeking to create her ideal lover, piece by piece by piece - which is to say, by assembling arms, legs, torso, and head into one perfect composite.
Some scenes remain (the crazed bride in her dressing room, the finale with Gale herself in the triangular "dance hall"), but the tone is much darker and more grizzly: instead of a crazed tailor hoping to fit you with a tuxedo for a dance with Gale, there is a crazed maniac (surgeon?) presumably stitching together the pieces of Gale's ideal mate. There are still some black fabric corridors, but in general we were much more aware of our presence aboard the genuine environment of the ship, and the ending with Gale dancing among her retinue of masked mannequins (whom we now presume to be "composite creations"), is wonderfully weird.
We do not recall being overly impressed by the debut of Voodoo Village in 2014, but that may have been only because it compared poorly to the Voodoo maze at Knotts Scary Farm. This year, we had a much better time with the Dark Harbor attraction. The characters seemed more aggressive and more numerous; there were fewer long pauses between encounters with the living dead. As always, the Queen Mary's Fishing Village provides a lengthy walk-through experience, with numerous settings filled with a variety of decor and monsters (including the inevitable bog monsters - quite appropriate for a maze simulating a Louisiana swamp).
Though Voodoo Village does not feature a full-blown prelude, the first room does act as a brief introduction, with a character leading your through and warning you of what to expect if you dare to proceed.
Set in the Dome that used to house the Spruce Goose, this maze has always seemed like an anomaly amidst the nautically themed Queen Mary Halloween event, but we do have to give it credit for feeling substantially different from what we remember. Though some old sets are back, the layout have been revamped, and what remains feels less like a circus than a fun house. Sure, there are white-faced mimes that could be taken for clowns, but the twisting corridors, with their colorful decor and laser-light effects, have little to do with the Big Top; it's more like a crazed trip down the rabbit hole.
Like Voodoo Village, the Circus begins with a brief intro: a character welcomes you to the Circus of the Damned, then gives you a chance to turn back. After noting some circus decor outside the tent, you enter through one of those inflatable birth canals, then wander through a corridor of mirrors, encountering manic clowns and other crazed folk inside.
The highlight involves an apparent dead-end; a character will instruct you to open a hidden door that does not, in fact, exist. Instead, you must climb over a small railing to enter an area filled with what look like balloons. Expect to sink knee-deep in what turn out to be brightly colored balls, which make it almost impossible to keep your footing. If you're lucky, you will get to the exit without splashing on your face. It's a fascinating experience, not least because, trapped in a maze with no apparent outlet, listening to a clown who has just deliberately misled you, it's hard to believe that you actually have to overstep a railing and walk across "balloons" to get out. The inevitable hesitation slows down progress, making this scene a real line-killer - but a thoroughly enjoyable one that turns The Circus into a must-see event whether or not you're a fan of killer klowns.
B340 (with Samuel the Savage)
Another debut from 2014, B340 is the last of Dark Harbor's three mazes set aboard the Queen Mary. The decor is imaginative (something like webbed tendrils filling the space in the claustrophobic corridors), but this year the lighting seems to have been dialed down to create a murkier experience. As you would expect from a maze featuring a character named "Savage," the tone is more grizzly than spooky. Strangely, we never caught sight of Samuel himself, but his mother made a strong if brief impression, stumbling down a corridor and insisting that her son was not responsible for the atrocities of which he had been accused.
B340 has an introductory scene. As you enter the first corridor, rank with stench, a raving ghoul blocks your way and offers to push a button to release even more foul odors. After that, there are lots of stairs, a very strict nun, and a multitude of shadowy corners where who knows what could be hiding. There is also a genuinely unnerving trek across an elevated walkway, guaranteed to induce vertigo.
Dead Rise, of course, is the other ship at the Dark Harbor - an escort vessel sunk by a German U-Boat during WWII while guarding a passenger vessel. With its sharp, angular prow jutting up from the ground like a ship rising from the surface of the ocean, Dead Rise is an impressive sight, but it cannot compete with the reality of the Queen Mary herself. Nevertheless, the maze is not without its charms, which have been enhanced in noticeable ways this Halloween.
First, Dead Rise now begins with a prelude, during which you briefly wait while listening to a radio transmission of the drowned crew calling for the captain as they announce their imminent rise from the depths of their watery grave; then a door opens, allowing you to proceed (special points to the first ghoul for his tasteless joke: "I hope you're not afraid of seamen"). There is a branching section, in which you must choose one of two directions to travel; the divergent paths reconnect quickly, but this does give you a chance to get around any annoying people who may be in front of you. And the corridors seem more haunted than we recollect from previous voyages, with more angry ghost sailors harassing the living.
One advantage of Dead Rise is that it is essentially an exterior maze, simulating a walk through a ship whose hull is well perforated, revealing the night sky above, along with belching flame (from the damaged engines?). But the most memorable image remains the sailor cut in half by a fallen lifeboat (realized by an actor playing the torso, with a mannequin serving as the missing legs).
SCARE ZONES AND OTHER ATTRACTIONS
Although Hollywood Gothique categorizes Dark Harbor as a Halloween theme park, the Queen Mary is really a hotel. There are no roller-coasters, but there are a few other attractions, including "Sinister Swings" (a ride borrowed from Michael Jackson's Neverland); live music and circus acts on stage; a few scare zones; the Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities. The stage shows and scare zones are included with the regular price of admission; the Sinister Swings and the Sideshow (like the Anubis Paintball Adventure) require additional tickets that can be purchased for $5 each at a booth near the swings.
Monster Midway and Slider Alley are the only scare zones designated by name, but the monsters tend to become unmoored and drift with the tides, turning pretty much all of Dark Harbor into a scare zone, especially the path from the Main Entrance.The decor in these areas seems to have been purchased from the old Nightmare at Scareview Farms (seen at the Pomona Fairgrounds a few years back), but the characters provide a carnivalesque feel, with strange performers flitting through the night, dancing or playing electric violins. You're likely to spot Dark Harbor's signature characters (The Captain, The Ringmaster, Scary Mary, Graceful Gale) pausing to enjoy the
The Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities
The Queen Mary has been trying to turn Dark Harbor into a tourist destination, where customers will stay even after going through all the mazes. There are comfortable places to hang out - bars, cabanas, and an RIP Lounge - but these tends to be expensive add-ons to your regular admission ticket. For those not wanting to drop an extra $99, the best deal is the Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities - a highly modified version of the Freak Shows that debuted in 2013.
The (misleadingly named) Freak Shows were a set of mini-mazes, usually with a single monster, which passengers entered in groups of two or three. The Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities combines elements of the Freak Shows into a composite attraction, adding a bar and a stage; it's like a mini-park unto itself
Walking through the entrance, you pass a collection of outre objects, then encounter Sparky, the skeleton comedian, who tells some jokes and plays a trick before directing you toward the main section. Emerging into this self-contained area, you encounter roving oddities, such as a pair of co-joined beauties arguing over who gets the most attention from love-struck admirers. You can watch magicians on the stage or sit back and have a special Halloween drink at the bar. The Ringmaster or one of the other Dark Harbor characters might show up.
You can also travel through the returning mini-mazes, White Ghost and Shadow Spirit. As the names suggest, these are two sides of the same coin: one bright, one dark. Both work on the same principle: making it impossible for you to see what's haunting you. Shadow Spirit achieves these simply enough by using impenetrable darkness, which hides a lurking thing of unknown aspect; White Ghost pumps its corrugated metal corridors full of brightly lit fog, camouflaging the titular spirit.
There is not very much in either maze, but everything there is for your benefit, personally. The whole point of the Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities is that it is separate from the crowds; you walk through the mini-mazes by yourself and get the full effect, undiluted by other passengers (unless you're too chicken to go alone, of course).
Sitting down to relax ranks infinitely last on our list of things to do at a Halloween theme park attraction, yet we found the Sideshow of Freaks and Oddities oddly appealing. It's like being in a separate world - more bizarre than frightening, with characters working overtime to amuse. (On opening night, our favorite was the gibbering pinhead, inarticulately plighting his troth to the icily indifferent Graceful Gale.)
A $5 ticket gains you access to this subsection of Dark Harbor. It's worth every penny - a great way to continue enjoy the Halloween spirit long after you're too tired to walk any longer through the endless corridors of the Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary Dark Harbor experience can vary greatly, depending on how much you are willing to pay over and above the general admission price. There are $99 VIP tickets with front of the line privileges and access to the RIP Lounge. You can rent a private cabana for another $99 and pay from $39 to $59 for a private performance by a sword dancing demon, a midway magician, or a corpse contortionist. There are even 15-minute personalized tours for limited groups (maximum of 10), led through each maze by its star character (the Priestess from Voodoo Village; Samuel the Savage from B340; the Captain from Dead Rise; the Ringmaster from the Circus); again, the price is $99.
With all of these cash grabs, it might seem that the Queen Mary is simply trying to milk as much as possible out of its Dark Harbor assets by selling a luxury version to an upscale crowd instead of improving the overall experience for the general public. Yet we found Dark Harbor to be as entertaining as ever - more fun than last year, in fact.
One aspect for which we have never credited the Queen Mary's Halloween event is its compact nature. The Dark Harbor is small but deep, its narrow surface hiding an ocean full of horrors. Or to put it in more prosaic terms, you can see and do a lot in a relatively short time, without working yourself to the point of exhaustion, and if you're lucky enough to attend on a slow night, or if you have a fast pass, you will have the energy to revisit your favorite mazes multiple times, savoring the frights again and again.
One last note: Dark Harbor's music is composed by Jaymie Valentine, providing the event with its own unique identity.
Dark Harbor continues at the The Queen Mary through October 31, with dates on Thursday through Sunday, plus Wednesday, October 28.Hours are 7 p.m. to midnight. The address is 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach, CA 90802. Call 562-435-3511 for more information, or visit the official website.