Having first opened its doors last year, the Seaside Haunt is a relatively new attraction on the Halloween scene, put on in association with the people who do the long-running Spooky House (and the even newer Old Town Haunt, which made its debut this year). The theme for this haunt, as the name implies, is a nautical one. The legend, as described on the official website, is that the maze is set inside a lighthouse where, in the 1940s, a young lighthouse operator frequently turned off the light, causing ships to crash against the rocks.
For Los Angeles residents, the Seaside Haunt is a bit intimidating, because of the approximately one-hour drive to reach it. However, the distance has its own advantages. Traveling at night through frequently deserted areas, far from civilization, creates its own kind of desolate ambiance. On top of that, as you approach the Seaside Park, you are likely to find yourself engulfed by spooky clouds of ominous fog wafting in from the ocean. In short, you will be primed and ready for a scare before you even get to the parking lot.
Although the area is designated as a fairgrounds, it more resembles a shopping mall. We were mildly disappointed to see that the maze is not located in an actual unused lighthouse (as at least one online source reported, presumably taking the legend on the Seaside Haunt's website as fact). But when we stopped to think about it, a lighthouse would be far from an ideal setting -- basically, a long curving staircase up to the light room -- not to mention an insurance nightmare for the owners.
Outside there is a surfing ghoul (actually a skeleton) hanging ten on a fiberglass wave and a tent for psychic readings next to the ticket booth (Madame Xenobia was apparently taking the night off when we attended). We heard the thrilling sound of chainsaws in the sea breeze as previous customers made a mad dash out the exit; otherwise, the area was sparsely populated this early in the season, except for the employees.
With no waiting in line, soon we were eagerly thrust into the maze, which turned out to be a total delight -- a great combination of atmospheric design and enthusiastic haunters in the dark.
In this review, I mentioned the tendency of those attractions under the Spooky House umbrella (which include the three mazes at Spooky House and the Old Town Haunt) to have wonderful decor but a lack of haunters, creating a slightly disappointing fear factor. That was definitely not true of the Seaside haunt, which was filled with mad ghouls, lost sea-faring souls, and sinister sea captains at every turn. The performance level was ratcheted up as high as one could want, with the actors showing evident enthusiasm for their roles.
Like the Old Town Haunt, the Seaside Haunt benefits from its distinctive theme: even if you go to a lot of these attractions during the Halloween season, you will find that the Seaside Haunt looks and feels different from all the rest; you won't just be seeng the same stuff you could have seen closer to home.
Of course, the look is nautical. Some of it is wooden and rickety (including a suspension bridge that feels as if it will give out under your feet). Some areas are designed to give the impression that you are outdoors (it feels a bit like an old Hollywood movie, where they filmed "exteriors" on a set). Almost all of the rooms (at least those where you can see!) are elaborately decorated -- these are not just cardboard flats painted with spooky colors; they're reasonably convincing sets that make you feel as if you might be in a lighthouse or some other kind of seaside shelter.
There are lots of twists and turns, with sharp corners that sometimes confuse your sense of direction. Often, the entrance into each new room is covered with black cloth (like the chicken exits), so you're almost not sure whether you're going the right way (the exits are marked with a gray-white X, so avoid those); also, of course, you don't know what might be lurking on the other side of the barrier, so moving onto each new room is like taking a great leap of faith.
The result is that this is one of the few haunts that is frightening even when no one is jumping out at you. The uncertainty combines with darkness to put your nerves on edge. Some of the corridors are practically pitch black, and you may find yourself running into what feels like a dead end -- you wind up blindly scrabbling your hands against the walls, searching for a way out. The effect is compounded by a neat gimmick (also used at Spooky House) of forcing the customers through a corridor with a ceiling that gets lower and lower until you must proceed on your hands and knees through a claustrophobic tunnel -- which emerges onto an incline where you can slide down to the next room.
At one point during our tour, we missed a turn and ended up doubling back on our path, while a helpful haunter laughed at our confusion and whispered in sinister tones, "You're going the wrong way!" Eventually, we found our way back (the ghouls jumped out at us again in one or two rooms, even though we had been through before) and came to the finale, where a character who calls himself Dr. Scalliwag stops you and gives a scripted spiel before turning you over to another character, who looks like a deranged chef.
It's all a set-up, prompting you to shout, "It's suppertime!" --which cues the chainsaw-wielding maniac lurking unseen behind you. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the implications: it's the customer who's on the menu! This leads to a last frantic chase out through the exit and back into the exhilerating ocean air, while Dr. Scalliwag laughs and jokes at your cowardice. It was a fun, thrilling conclusion to an excellent maze.
Despite the distance to reach it, we were glad we made the trip out to Seaside Haunt; we highly recommend that you do the same. Obviously, you will not get a full-night's entertainment at this location, but you can stop at the Thousand Oaks Haunt on the way there or on the way back -- which should help make the long journey even more worthwhile.
Judged as a single stand-alone maze, Seaside Haunt is among the best we have ever enjoyed. It did not quite replace the Haunted Vineyard in our Halloween-loving hearts, but it runs a respectable second.
NOTE: If you decide to visit the Seaside Haunt, we would advise writing down the directions and following them, even if it feels as though you are going the wrong direction. Its location in the Seaside Park is not actually hard to find, but we trusted that we would be able to follow clearly marked signs once we got near the Ventura Fairgrounds, where the park is located -- and this turned out not to be the case. Even the street sign for Harbor Boulevard was poorly lit, making it hard to identity with certainty.
Here's a tip: When you take the California Street exit from the north-bound 101 Freeway, turn left on California, which comes to an end a block later. Even if you can't read the street sign, rest assured that this is indeed Harbor Boulevard. Turn right and proceed another couple blocks. It looks dark and deserted, and it feels as if you've made a wrong turn, but proceed anyway. When you reach the intersection with the sign telling you there's no outlet, turn left; this will take you on the long, curving driveway into the parking lot. A sign says the cost is $5, but that applies only during daylight hours, apparently; no one charged us when we went on Friday night. After that, there's nothing left but to buy your tix and enjoy the scares!
UPDATE: Word is that Seaside Haunt may move to more densely populated environs for 2006, so be sure to check before you make the trek out to Ventura.
2008 UPDATE: Despite talk of moving, Seaside Haunt remains in the same location.