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Review: Ventura County Fear Grounds

Ventura County Fear Grounds is a throwback to old-school popup haunts of the sort seldom seen in the Southland: move into an available location; take advantage of its available resources; add some decorations, fog, and sound effects; hire some actors; and start scaring people! The result is analogous to a garage band; instead of slick production values, it depends on the crude power of its no-frills approach, coupled with the enthusiasm of its performers (and, to be fair, there are some nice visual and mechanical effects.)

Ventura County Fear Grounds offers three haunted attractions: The Cage, Terror Trail, and Fright Train. The entrances to all three are tucked into a fairly tight area, making it easy to get from one to the other and also suggesting that the event is considerably smaller than it actually is. In fact, the footprint of the two mazes and one ride is quite extensive.

Ventura County Fear Grounds Review: The Cage

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The Cage is the shortest and simplest of Ventura County Fear Grounds’ three attractions. It’s basically a pathway formed by chain link fence; fortunately, there are a couple of clever twists.

First, the fence is covered with clear plastic instead of tarp, creating a translucent barrier through which the monsters stalking you can be seen as blurry silhouettes, leaving their victims to guess at the exact nature of what is stalking them.

This leads to the second clever twist. Although at various points there are holes in the plastic where the monsters can reveal their faces, the overall impression is that the fence will remain a barrier throughout – until, suddenly, there is an unexpected gap where victims find themselves having a much closer encounter with their tormentors.

Ventura County Fear Grounds Review: Terror Trail

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Terror Trail is the longest of the three attractions (at least in terms of time spent within – the Fright Train might cover more distance, but it moves faster). The length offers both advantages and disadvantages. This walk-through has more in it than the other attractions, but the long trek can be an endurance test for low-energy participants.

The basic approach is to use the available space of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, winding the path through secluded areas that look intimidating at night with or without creepy decorations. Along the way, several sections are adorned with props and set pieces, bathed in eerie light that makes them stand out against the surrounding darkness. The scare strategy is that the monsters are seldom lurking in these areas; they tend to be in the shadows just before or just after, so that when your eyes are distracted by the scenery, they can pounce.

Dotted with eerie video projections and a mechanical creature or two, Terror Trail nevertheless relies mostly on its live cast to fill the haunt with scares. They do a commendable job, even if they are stretched a little thin across the extensive trail.

Ventura County Fear Grounds Review: Fright Train
Fright Train to terror – all aboard!

Fright Train represents both the worst and the best of Ventura County Fear Grounds. First, it is a tram, not a train, with sound effects of a train whistle and chugging wheels that are barely audible over the tram’s diesel engine. It covers a lot of territory, but it is largely empty, and the few decorations (mostly of inflatable Jack O’ Lanterns) are underwhelming…until the very end, when Fright Train delivers the best scares VCFG has to offer.

On the ride out, Fright Train passes a few scenes. Two consist of an actor stepping in front of a backdrop and lip-synching to recorded dialogue that is hard to understand (one at least got a chuckle by breaking into a ridiculous dance after his lines ended). The third features a shrouded character with a blank visage (white face with three round black circles for eyes and mouth) signals the tram to stop while a blinding light from the side gives what is presumably intended to be the suggestion of an approaching train (maybe this is the fright train of the attraction’s title?). Unfortunately, there is little sense of being helplessly stuck with a train barreling toward a collision; the tram simply pauses for a few seconds, then moves on.

But wait – there’s more!

Past the would-be train wreck, the tram enters a darker area, tinged with dim, red light, where evil characters lurk, their chainsaws rending the night air with a menacing mechanical roar. The tram driver, as if sensing danger, floors the accelerator for all the speed his vehicle can muster, racing past the maniacs as they emerge from the shadows. The tram barrels inside a building which proves to be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire: bodies wrapped in plastic dangle from giant fan blades, spinning in demented circles; while the chainsaw-wielding maniacs continue their pursuit, the tram throttles its way through the red-tinged interior, performing evasive maneuvers until it finally emerges into open air and safety, before heading home.

For a few brief moments, Fright Train achieves a giddy sense of pandemonium that makes the whole journey worthwhile. It is one of the best scares scenes we have encountered this season.

Ventura County Fear Grounds Review: Conclusion

Rendering a final judgment on Ventura County Fear Grounds is a tough call. Our senses have been jaded by years of exposure to Halloween haunts, but judging from the voluminous screams echoing through the air on opening weekend, the paying guests were getting all frights they had hoped for. Los Angeles-based fans may not want to make the long drive to Ventura, but local residents and those in the area should find it worth checking out, to enjoy the climax of the Fright Train ride if nothing else.

Ventura County Fear Grounds Ratings
  • 75%
    The Cage - 75%
  • 80%
    Terror Trail - 80%
  • 50%
    Fright Train - 50%
  • 100%
    Fright Train Climax - 100%

Bottom Line

If only the entire haunt had been as great as the climax of Fright Train, Ventura County Fear Grounds would have been totally awesome. In honor of this highpoint, we decided to give that piece of the ride a separate rating.

Ventura County Fair Grounds continues on select nights from September 30 to October 31. In addition to the haunted attractions, admission grants access to The Dead End, a beer garden with treats, beverages, live entertainers, and photo ops.

Ventura County Fairgrounds is located at 10 W Harbor Boulevard in Ventura. For more information, visit venturacountyfeargrounds.com.

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.