Over the last few years, the Reign of Terror in Thousand Oaks has developed and expanded in a manner more usually associated with profitable business properties than with dilapidated haunted houses. From a home haunt, to a community Halloween haunt at the Conejo Recreation Center, to not-for-profit but otherwise quite professional attraction in Janns Marketplace, the Reign of Terror Haunted House has visibly grown with each new location. Now that the walk-through attraction is comfortably ensconced in a permanent venue above Golds Gym, one might expect that there is room for only so many chambers, corridors, and catafalques. Nevertheless, Reign of Terror continues to house new terrors within its ever expanding walls. The growth from last Halloween to now may not be dramatic, but it is vividly clear to even the most casual haunt-goer. There are more scares than ever before, many of them quite startling.
The most obvious addition in 2011 is "Blood Manor," a sort of backwoods cabin loaded with guts and gore of the FRIDAY THE 13TH variety.This is not a separate maze but rather a separate section of the walk-through, appearing about midway, in between the old Haunted House and the more recent The Asylum. Unlike The Asylum ((which was added last year), there is no clear demarcation indicating that you have entered a new area - although there is a path for younger visitors and their squeamish elders to circumvent the carnage. Blood Manor is brief but distinctive, offering a more visceral form of shock than we are used to seeing at Reign of Terror. Although this graphic form of horror is somewhat at odds with with Reign of Terror's established tone, it fortunately does not dilute the rest of the haunt, which retains its old-school approach.
Reign of Terror's strength was always its impressively convincing sets, which make you feel as if you are walking through the archetypal haunted house - old and vaguely Victorian, almost supernaturally preserved - the perfect abode for spirits from beyond. In earlier years, the emphasis was on sinister spooky atmosphere, punctuated with mechanical effects and mannequins (shaking pots and pans in a haunted kitchen, a skeleton with unnervingly spastic twitching movements). 2010 saw a move toward more live actors, yielding a higher jump-scare ratio - a trend that continues to greater effect this year.
Reign of Terror is still loaded with mannequins, but often as not, these act as red herrings. Placed clearly in view, they grab your eye as you enter each new room, lulling you into waiting for some kind of mechanical pop-scare as seen in previous years: a sudden movement, a noxious exhalation of breath. Instead, while you are distracted by the prop, a live actor emerges from some cleverly concealed hiding place, delivering an unexpected shock.
The strategy is perfect, almost deliberately playing off expectations engendered by the haunt's previous dearth of live monsters. Lest this approach become too predictable, the actors are also adept at holding perfectly still: Just when you have learned to ignore the mannequin in front of you, in fearful anticipation of a hidden actor, the "mannequin" comes unexpectedly to life. So you never know where the next scare is coming from, and in the moody lighting, it is often impossible to distinguish living monsters from their mechanical counterparts. The creepy consequence is that you will dread the sight of each new shadowy figure, scrutinizing it for signs of life and putting yourself further on edge as you hopelessly try to outguess the arrival of the next scare. Sadly, you will never know - until it is too late, and the scream escapes your lips.
Is Reign of Terror worth another trip out to Thousand Oaks? Do you really need to ask? Gore-hounds who set their sights on Blood Manor may be disappointed by that section's brevity (there is actually an unnamed bog-like area that goes on longer). For us, the additional gore adds a little variety, but the real appeal is the additional scares. We have not subjected Reign of Terror to mathematical analysis, charting the number of jumps and jolts per square foot; however, our purely subjective sense is that, even as the haunt has expanded its corridors, its spiritual occupancy has grown denser, with more ghosts crowding within its walls, eager to elicit shrieks from fool-hardy visitors. Reign of Terror has always been one of the most enjoyable Halloween haunts in and around Los Angeles. This year, we feel safe to say, the venerable old house is more haunted than ever before.