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Review: Pirates of Emerson Drive-Through Haunt

Can a drive-through haunt truly terrify? The results in Los Angeles have been checkered, so Hollywood Gothique decided to trek up north to see what the venerable Pirates of Emerson could achieve with the format.

One good thing we can say right off the bat about the Pirates of Emerson’s 2020 presentation: it’s exactly what we expected a drive-through Halloween haunt to be. It’s not a drive-in disguised as a drive-through; it’s a lengthy outdoor course winding through various settings, haunted by live actors eager to deliver scares, enhanced with mechanical effects and pyrotechnics. The result is no match for the Pirates of Emerson’s usual approach, which has been honed over decades, but given the unfortunate realities of haunting during a pandemic, it’s impressive that they were able to deliver as much as they did.

Pirates of Emerson Drive-Through Review: Shore Leave

The advantage of the Pirates of Emerson is that, now in their 29th year, they have acquired plenty of resources, having grown from a single walk-through in Fremont to a multi-maze haunt now located in Pleasanton. Consequently, they are in possession of a treasure trove of sets, costumes, and effects; putting on a drive-through was just a matter of arranging them in a new way.

Unfortunately, there is also a downside. Through the Pirates will always remain the star attraction, their maze is one of six, which includes such others as Lockdown, Doll Hostel, and Wicked Wild West. When presented separately, each of these maintains its own identity and style, but when laid end to end in one continuous loop, their themes blur, loosing distinction. In fact, as your car prowls through the various environments, you may find yourself wondering where the pirates are. They do show up eventually, but they do not dominate the haunt; they’re one of many pit stops along the track.

Still, the proportion of pirates to vampires is mostly of interest to the mathematically minded. The real question is how scary the journey is.

Pirates of Emerson Drive-Through Review: Stranger Rides

The haunt begins with an approach to what looks like a fortress, presumably protecting a seaside city from marauding cut-throats. A creepy character at the gate (in our case, a witch) recites the rules (3mph, windows up, masks on) and paces the cars as they enter.

Pirates of Emerson Review 2020 Drive-Through
Cursed crossing guard makes sure cars are spread out before entering.

Inside, you first pass a few building suggesting a village or town before becoming immersed in beautiful back-light environment suggesting some kind of strange forest. The sense of slipping into a dreamy imaginary landscape is quite mesmerizing. The scenery is enhanced by a creepy soundtrack heard over the car stereo, which cycles through various ambient and melodic sections (including Marylin Manson’s cover of Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas); unfortunate, it’s marred by the repeated, recorded admonition to keep your car moving at all times – even though there are frequent times when stopping is necessary in order to avoid back-ending the car in front.

Pirates of Emerson Review 2020 Drive-Through
Halloween-themed village upon entering the drive-through

You soon pass through other environments – cornrows and a cobwebbed bridge (narrow and not very trustworthy to the eye). Most of the settings are impressive, but sometimes the attempt at a desolate, dreary ambiance backfires, creating a look that suggests a drive through a junk yard (the presence of some 18-wheeler trailers does not help).

Fortunately, there are some clever touches that compensate for the disadvantages of the drive-through format. In normal times, the highlight of Pirates of Emerson maze is walking through the hull of an amazingly convincing wooden ship, which could not be created here. Instead, there are several interior sections arranged a bit like a drive-through car wash, with flaps dangling from the entrance to hide whatever is inside until it’s too late for the helpless driver and passengers to do anything but scream.

Pirates of Emerson Drive-Through Review: Conclusion

The Pirates of Emerson drive-through lasts well over twenty-five minutes, depending on how crowded the event is, so it’s not as if passengers are being short-changed in terms of the ride’s length. However, the course feels underpopulated, relying too much on anticipation of what might be around the next corner. When the monsters do show up, they do the best they can, but inherent in the drive-through experience is the sense of safety that comes from being sealed inside a moving automobile, separating victims from attackers.

Pirates of Emerson drive-through review
The giant boar is scary, but can it break through the car windshield?

Pirates of Emerson might have worked better if the presence of the title characters had been established more clearly throughout. We were disappointed that the village was not being pillaged by rampaging pirates, but the setting could have worked if it had been used to set up expectations, with a character or two walking through burned-out buildings, warning cars to turn back before encountering the blood-thirsty buccaneers in person. Essentially, the ride should have modeled itself after Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, teasing expectations before fully revealing the characters.

When the Pirates of Emerson do finally show up, they don’t do much, which is too bad. In their regular haunt, the Pirates appear not only in the maze; they also stage sword fights and interact with customers in the outdoor scare zone area.

Obviously, it is unfair to compare this year’s presentation to what the Pirates of Emerson can accomplish when unhindered by safety restrictions related to Covid-19. Nevertheless, the haunt has established its own yardstick over the course of nearly three decades, and by that metric the drive-through version does not fully measure up. It’s good. It’s entertaining. It’s worth seeing. It deserves credit for achieving so much despite obvious limitations. But as one exits the location and heads home, it’s difficult not to think, “It’s not as scary as it usually is.”

Pirates of Emerson Rating

Bottom Line

The drive-through version of Pirates of Emerson is a mixed success. The lengthy course features a treasure-chest-full of scenery, props, and characters, but it cannot match the scare-factor of the haunt’s walk-through version.

The Pirates of Emerson continues on October 29 through November 1 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, on the corner of Bernal and Valley Avenue in Pleasaton. Get more information here: piratesofemerson.com.

Update: Pirates of Emerson has added two non-actor dates, November 6 & 7. This is the entire drive-through seen in October but without the cast, with tickets, $74.99 instead of $94.99.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.