Six October seasons have passed since last we visited the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest, in the eldritch year of 2005 (review here). That is vast eons of time in the competitive netherworld of Halloween haunted houses and hayrides, and Six Flags has expanded its Fright Fest with more mazes, scare zones, and shows than ever; we found this year's event to be much the same as before in terms of its overall impact, but it is bigger and better. Always the odd man out, Magic Mountain nevertheless has one big advantage over other Halloween theme park attractions: Six Flags offers all-day admission so that you can spend several happy hours enjoying the usual rides, before sinister specters emerge at night to thrill and fill you with terror. Is that enough to put Fright Fest on par with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, and the Queen Mary Dark Harbor? Read on to find out, if you dare...
First, in all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Los Angeles 's Six Flags Magic Mountain (actually located in Valencia) is not the most conducive location for a Halloween haunt. The adrenalin vibe is far too upbeat, and you feel it from the moment you exit your parked car: the thrilled screams from the nearby Colossus coaster get your heart pumping for excitement more than in anticipation of fear.
By daylight, from outside, the park displays little signs of Halloween activity, other than a huge inflatable spider mounted on the rollercoaster's support beams. As you enter Magic Mountain itself, you see some spiderwebs and signs confirming that you are indeed in the right place. It's not quite a scare zone, but you are greeted by zombies - just not the living dead variety. These are park employees who mindlessly and repetitively offer to snap your photograph, and they come at you in waves, as if you might change your mind when asked the second or third time. (Really? Why would I want a picture of myself with nothing but the entrance gate and the parking lot in t background?)
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and found the crowds to be light; most of the lines were not too long. Before darkness fell, we took advantage of the opportunity to ride Colossus backwards - which is quite an experience. Unable to see what's coming, you substitute surprise for anticipation, with each new twist and turn coming unexpectedly. The unnerving zero-gravity effects of a steep plunge is also amplified when you are not pinned against the back of the seat; you feel yourself floating up - and thanking god for the safety bar pressed against your lap.
After a long wait for a friend to ride the new Green Lantern roller-coaster (yes, we at Hollywood Gothique balk not at confronting the supernatural forces of darkness but wither at the sight of a metal contraption that flips you upside down like a yo-yo), we were happy to see the monsters emerge as night fell upon the park, and we made our way to the first of Fright Fest 2011's eight haunted mazes.
Lecter’s Slaughterhouse - despite invoking the name of Hannibal the Cannibal - is a bit of a boilerplate parade through corridors filled with grue. There are some good scares, but the strategy seems to be to let the first person in the group go by unmolested, then attack the cowards hiding in back; consequently, we felt as if we were missing half of what was going on. Considering the proximity to the DC Universe section of Magic Mountain, we thought this maze should perhaps have been themed differently, with something in a comic book vein.
Next up was Cursed -new for 2011 - which reminded us of Dead Man's Bog from six years ago. As before, this outside "maze" is essentially a straight path defined by handrails, with netting that obscures the ghosts and monsters lurking around you. A few set pieces dot the trail, and some surprises await, but this is pretty generic stuff; if you do not know going in that this features a lycanthropy theme, you might not realize it based on what you see. The best part comes the ending: the exit places you in a cul-de-sac, where werewolves await, continuing to deliver scares even after you have left the maze.
Warehouse 13 is also a bit generic, without much of a clear theme. The path doubles back on itself several times, so you feel as if you are walking over the same ground (the way you do when standing in a long line for a ride). Several monsters pop out, banging metal objects and inflicting the requisite jump scares.
To be fair, Warehouse 13 is not intended to be too intense; it rates a "2" on the Fright Fest maps you pick up as you enter Magic Mountain. According to this scale: "1" is for "General Audiences" (mostly rides and stage shows); "2" is okay for kids with "Parental Guidance" (some of the mazes); and 3 is "Not Intended for Children Under 12" (all of the scare zones and most of the mazes).
The Jokester's Hideout 3D also ranks a 2 on the map's scare scale. This is one of those clown mazes, of which we have seen far too many. However, this one is a bit different: instead of just walking through non-stop; you pause at various intervals, awaiting some special effect or surprise, involving a sudden entrance from an unexpected direction. The best of these featured a demented clown that parachuted in from the ceiling, lunged and bounced at the guests, then bungie-jumped its way back up through the ceiling. We haven't seen anything quite like that at any of the other Halloween events in Los Angeles this year.
Unfortunately, this brings us to our biggest complaint for the evening: the highly visible security in the mazes. Instead of costumed clowns setting us up for the scares, it was security guards who made us wait for each gag in the Jokester's Hideout. Without characters to play, the guards killed the drama; it was too obvious we were being made to wait for - and thus anticipate - something that should have arrived as an unexpected shock.
In the other mazes, the guards did not actively participate, but they were a ubiquitous presence, appearing in seemingly every other room. They were also rather obnoxious with the order not to shoot video inside the mazes. Long after we had given up (there was often little worth shooting anyway), they continued to pursue us around every corner, repeating the admonition endlessly. In fact, they pursued us far more doggedly than any of the monsters.
Bite II - located near the top of the Magic Mountain - seeks to rekindle some of the undead flair of the Lore of the Vampire, a maze at Knotts Scary Farm that was retired a few years ago. Bite II promises "sexy and sinister" vampires, but we felt little erotic allure in this maze. At least this one has a clearly defined theme that sets it apart from the other mazes. As vampire fans, we appreciate it whenever a Halloween attraction offers a labyrinth populated by supernatural creatures instead of maniacs and butchers.
A few steps away from Bite II is Willoughby's Haunted Mansion, which turns out to be one of the horrific highlights of Fright Fest. This haunted house has been around since our previous visit; although we do not recall being particularly impressed back in 2005, we are glad that Willoughby's Haunted House remains open. It's old-school in execution but effective: you get strobe lights, black lights, a corridor of mirrors, and "dot rooms" with black-leotard-clad ghost blending into the background; there's even a bungie-jumping ghoul who lunges down at you just before you beat a hasty retreat through the exit.
Willoughby's Haunted Mansion is reasonably long and extensive, with a variety of rooms and environments that manage to convey a sense of being inside a haunted place (as opposed to a generic location re-purposed for Halloween). Even when the sets are sparely decorated, the rough texture of the walls suggests dark dungeon walls hewn out of rock.
Even better, Willoughby's Haunted Mansion is densely populated by all manner of supernatural creatures, often more than one to a room. Just when you think the person in front of you has gotten the scare, something else pops up behind you. Unlike Lecter's Slaughterhouse, we never had a sense that we were missing anything; we felt every fright. This maze alone justifies the extra $10 for the wristbands.
Wristbands? What's that? In case you have been out of the loop, you should know that, as has been the policy for the past few years, Six Flags now charges $10 each for wristbands that allow entrance to the Halloween mazes. On top of the $61.99 entry fee, this makes Fright Fest the most expensive Halloween theme park attraction; fortunately, ordering online in advance can save you over $20, bringing the total down to a more reasonable price.
The Aftermath is the Fright Fest's other Halloween highlight. A post-apocalyptic disaster zone, full of belching flame and shattered debris, this walk-through features the biggest and best production values seen in any of the Six Flags Halloween attractions. You wander inside and outside, past demolished cars and overturned statues, as if you had entered some nightmarish conflation of THE ROAD WARRIOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. This distractions of noise and flashing lights offer ample opportunities for the demented denizens of this wasteland to catch you unaware.
And they don't give up. Even after the walk-through seems to be over, and you are leaving the chaos and confusion behind, don't be surprised if one or two more mutants are lurking near or beyond the exit, ready to startle you just when you are breathing a sigh of relief.
It's always nice when a Halloween event offers scares outside its walk-through attractions. In keeping with this tradition, Magic Mountain is dotted with scare zones during the Fright Fest, some of them themed to match the nearby mazes. However, much of the park is brightly lit, and little of it feels haunted - although there are some effective sliders delivering surprise scares as they skid across pavement into the midst of unsuspecting tourists.
There are exceptions. As we wandered past the Apocalypse roller-coaster, we entered a seemingly deserted area that was crying out to be filled with lurking terrors. A bit further on, we eventually found the Hillbilly Massacre area, which was everything we could have hoped for. The darkness was filled with hags and crones and demonic stilt-walkers of imposing height, and in a truly surreal touch, there was even a demented, upright-walking bunny rabbit (Harvey gone bad, perhaps?)
Unfortunately, our mathematical skills eluded us this evening, and we lost count. Thinking we had visited all eight mazes in the three-hour window from 7:00pm to 10:00pm (when the Fright Fest attractions run on Sunday nights), we happily made out exit, overlooking the new Chupacabra attraction. However, as this is the third of three mazes ranked with a "2" (suggesting it is safe for kids), we suspect that we missed few nerve-wracking thrills here. Still, with Halloween Horror Nights offering La Llarona, and Knotts Scary Farm presenting Dia De Los Muertos (in which La Llarona and the Chupacabra make appearances), we wonder what Magic Mountain would have done with their attempt to cash in on the trend toward exploiting Mexican horror themes for Halloween.
As we drove away from Six Flags Magic Mountain, we were happy to have revisited Fright Fest after all these years. Although some of the mazes are simple, and offer little that you cannot see at other Halloween haunted house attractions in Los Angeles, The Aftermath and Willoughby's Haunted Mansion gave us our money's worth. The former offers impressive, eye-opening spectacle on a level with Universal Studios; the latter satisfies our soul's yearning for old-fashioned haunted house horror - sure it's retro, but Halloween itself is an ancient holiday, so it's nice to see the old traditions survive.
The Magic Mountain Fright Fest may not represent a mortal threat to other Halloween events in Los Angeles, but if you want a full day's worth of fun - and especially if you love amusement park rides - then the value-added Halloween mazes and scare zones combine with the other attractions to create a potent witch's brew that will leave you screaming - whether from a walk through a haunted house or from a precipitous drop down a roller-coaster track.
Fright Fest continues at Six Flags Magic Mountain (26101 Magic Mountain Parkway, Valencia, CA 91355) on October 28-31. Hours are 7pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays; 7-10pm on Sunday and Monday (Halloween Night). Get more info here.