The Reign of Terror Haunted House in Thousand Oaks has been one of Hollywood Gothique's favorite Halloween attractions since we first dared enter its old Victorian Mansion at the Conejo Recreation Center back in 2008. Since then, the haunt has moved to a space in Janss Marketplace, where it has accomplished something that, if not absolutely unique, is certainly rare: while retaining its original haunted mansion, it has expanded from year to year, adding a variety of environments: The Asylum, Blood Manor, Miner’s Revenge, Quarantine, and now the Fun House.
This may not sound particularly noteworthy, but on closer reflection, it becomes apparent that Reign of Terror has over-leaped the hurdle facing all long-running Halloween events: how to keep the old haunted house looking new and fresh without painting over the cobwebs and decay that provided its original personality. By adding new sections, Reign of Terror has managed to extend its reach into different realms of horror (some more graphic and/or modern in tone) without sacrificing the purity of its original concept: the Victorian Mansion remains virtually intact, still providing a subtle, spooky form of horror perfectly suited to the classic Halloween tradition. It's like the proverbial case of eating your pound of flesh and having it, too. (Wait, did I just mangle a metaphor there? Sorry.)
What's Old is New Again
For Halloween 2015, in addition to the new Fun House, Reign of Terror has restructured its walk-through, adding some new surprises to the old haunt. It's in the nature of fear-inducing attractions that subtle changes are difficult for customers to spot: no one notices fine details while screaming in mindless horror, and even if changes are noticeable, the details blur in memory, eclipsed by the overall recollection of terror. All of this is an elaborate way of stating that, unless you refresh your memory by perusing a video of the 2014 Reign of Terror, you are unlikely to consciously notice the differences this year, be they major or minute; instead, you will probably recognize the familiar settings and imagine that the haunt is much the same.
This perception, however, is misleading. Though Reign of Terror features the same basic settings, it has been reconfigured, so that the scares do not always come in the expected places. And though we did not keep count, it certainly seemed to us as if there were more hidey-holes, obscured by darkness, from which strange things reached and grabbed for us. In short, the semblance of familiarity may lull you into a false sense of security, from which you will be rudely awakened when you step around the next corner and encounter not what you expected...but something else.
Our favorite bit in the pre-existing sections, is a tight pathway with a bog-like feel, where a low fog and some laser lights create the illusion that you are walking on a layer of mist. For a moment, we were quite literally hesitated to put our foot down, afraid we would sink beneath the misty surface.
The Fun House
As for the new Fun House...what can we say? Our antipathy toward the "killer kownz" theme is well known. It is based on two factors:
- We think the theme is overused, which is vexing.
- Even more vexing is the fact that, more often than not, when we encounter the theme, we have to admit that, despite our prejudice, it often yields better results than we would care to admit.
Point #2 is certainly the case here. The Fun House reworks some familiar elements (e.g., the inflatable "birth canal"), but it also has several clever touches. There is an interactive element featuring a pair of characters at the entrance: the first introduces you to the Fun House; the second asks you to choose "A" or "B" to determine which path you will take. After that, there are some good jump scares with clowns emerging from hidden doors, and there is a nicely down hall of mirrors, with a good visual effect near the end.
More important than any of this is the fact that the Fun House works in the larger context of the Reign of Terror because it provides a different kind of scare - bright and colorful, with the lights on. Reign of Terror is so extensive that it borders on sensory overload (a walk through the attraction can last over twenty minutes, depending on how frightened your are to proceed or how fast you run to escape). With so much to see and hear, it's easy to lose track of exactly what one is seeing.
To cite a personal example, the year the Blood Manor was introduced, I walked through it without realizing. I mistook wretched structure for an additional, rundown wing of the original Victorian Mansion, featuring some slightly gorier mayhem; Blood Manor simply did not register on my addled brain as a distinct section unto itself. This kind of mis-perception is literally impossible with the Fun House. After going through Miner's Revenge, the Asylum, the Haunted House, Blood Manor, and Quarantine, you may think you have seen every form of horror the haunt can throw at you, and that anything else would be more of the same. The Fun House, with its radically contrast in look and tone, proves otherwise. There's even an archetypal maniacal clown with a chainsaw to chase you through the final door - an element that never would have worked in the original haunted house but which provides the kind of visceral climax needed to jump-start hearts weak from all the horror endured up to that point.
Reign of Terror seems to ramp up the scares every year. What started out, years ago, as a relatively mild spook show, relying on mechanics and mannequins, has gradually augmented its scares with more live actors, and 2015 continues the tradition.
Also worth noting: Reign of Terror sends its victims inside in small groups at regularly timed intervals, avoiding the conga line approach of Halloween theme parks. Even more impressive, at two or three points within the maze, we encountered ghouls as monitors at potential bottleneck points: when two or more groups had bunched together, these helpful ghosts split them up again, insuring that the jumps and shocks were never blocked from view by over-sized crowds.
At this point, the only criticism we can even imagine is that the diverse nature of the Reign of Terror almost cries out (to us, at least) for some kind of over-arching narrative to tie its disparate elements together. As of now, it feels a bit like a trip through time, starting in the old western mine, going through the Victorian era, and moving on to modern times with Quarantine and the Fun House. If there were some way to tie these themes together, like movements in a musical piece, the haunt could go beyond being a great Halloween attraction, becoming a Symphony of Terror.
Remaining dates are tonight and tomorrow, 7-11pm Saturdays; with a Family-Friendly “lights on” event 1-4pm on October 31. Tickets are $17 for General Admission, $25 for Front of the Line Passes, and $5 for the Lights on Tour for Kids (parents escorting children get in free). Reign of Terror is located above the Gold's Gym in the Janss Marketplace at 197 North Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. The official website is here.