It is time for Hollywood Gothique's first annual Halloween Haunt Awards. This is the time - after the last scream has echoed away, the last lightening has flashed, and the last monster returned to its godforsaken tomb - when we sit down and assess the best events and attractions that we experienced during Halloween in Los Angeles.
As you will see, our system is not very systematic: categories overlap and are created on an ad hoc basis to serve the needs of a particular year. The goal is not to create some formal structure but simply to find a way to honor the many mazes, haunts, rides, and other attractions that entertained us so skillfully during the season.
BEST THEME PARK HAUNT: KNOTT'S BERRY FARM HALLOWEEN HAUNT
Halloween Theme Parks are the 800-ton Godzillas of the season - the ones that offer a full night's entertainment, including multiple mazes, plus rides and shows. Every October, I am asked so often, "Which is better, Universal or Knott's?" that I finally addressed the question in this article: Best Theme Park Haunts? However, that article was a general assessment of what to expect each year at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights, the Queen Mary Shipwreck, and the Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest. How well did they actually perform in 2008?
Advance word on the Queen Mary Shipwreck led us to believe that there would be few changes or additions since our visit last year, so we took a pass - not because we didn't want to go but simply because time is at a premium, and we were trying to visit as many new haunts as possible.
The Magic Mountain Fright Fest is automatically disqualified this year for charging extra for their Halloween mazes.
Universal's Halloween Horror Nights maintained their usual high quality: they truly do feature the best sets, costumes, and makeup. However, there was not much new this year: a somewhat extended Terror Tram trek through the back lot and a slightly refurbished Elm Street maze.
THE WINNER: Knott's Scary Farm's Halloween Haunt, on the other hand, featured six new mazes in 2008 - more than enough to make the trip to Buena Park worthwhile, even if you had visited last Halloween. With that much quantity, one can easily tolerate the occasional lapse in quality: the masks and makeup are not as good as those at Universal. HHN fans drip scorn when describing Knott's efforts, but that does not alter the fact that they provided many more new scares this year. Check out the first chapter of our video tour of the haunt here.
BEST PROFESSIONAL HAUNT: OLD TOWN HAUNT
One step down from theme parks are the Professional Haunts. These tend to offer one-to-three mazes, plus a handful of sideshow attractions (fortune tellers, souvenir shops, etc), but they cannot compete on the sheer scale of something like Knott's Scary Farm. Nevertheless, if you look at them as individual mazes, many are every bit as frightening as best the theme parks have to offer.
THE WINNER: There was some stiff competition from new discoveries this year, but ultimately we decided to create a separate category for those, and settled on an old favorite in this category. The Old Town Haunt in Pasadena maintains such a high quality from year to year that it is easy to grow complacent and forget just how good they are. The underground setting - loaded with great sets, a handful of mechanical gags, and many malevolent monsters - provides a chamber of horrors guaranteed to thrill. Read are review here and thrill to our video here.
BEST COMMUNITY HAUNT: REIGN OF TERROR
This category sits perhaps uncomfortable between Professional Haunts and Yard Haunts. In the present case, it refers to a previously amateur effort that grew too big for its yard and was transplanted in 2008 to a local community center, where it charged admission - not for profit but to offset costs and possibly raise money for the center. To be honest, although there are several haunts that fall into this category, this is the only one we managed to visit in 2008; nevertheless, its professional standards place it too high to fit into the Yard Haunt category, and its high quality deserves recognition.
THE WINNER: Reign of Terror in Thousand Oaks does an excellent job of making you feel that you are walking into a haunted house. The terror begins outside, gazing up the imposing facade. The inside is filled with mechanical monsters that shake, rattle, roll, and spit, plus the usual assortment of costumed actors. If there is any justice, this one should make the jump to professional status next year. It truly is that good. You can read more about it on our Halloween Haunts page and in Part 2 of our 2008 Halloween Haunt Odyssey.
BEST YARD HAUNT: THE HOUSE OF RESTLESS SPIRITS
Yard Haunts are amateur efforts that have grown over the decades from a few tombstones propped up on the lawn to elaborate, effects-filled extravaganzas that provide almost as much entertainment as professional efforts. They have become a form of folk art - a chance for people to express their creativity on a night when an audience is guaranteed to show up. There are many good ones out there, but the choice for the best is easy.
THE WINNER: House of Restless Spirits in Santa Monica was our most pleasing discovery last year, and the 2008 presentation is every bit as good - all the old ghosts are back, joined by a few new ones. Spectral faces appear in buckets of water. Dolls come alive. Phantoms materialize out of paintings. Spirit footsteps manifest on the walkway. Tombstones rattle; ghosts grumble; cats screech, and a statue reads moody poetry about death. What you will not see are chainsaws and monsters in makeup. The terrors here are all spiritual, not physical.
BEST NEW HAUNT: SKULL KINGDOM
The once proud Seaside Haunt in Ventura sank into the depths of the dark ocean after its 2007 manifestation, replaced by the disappointing Seaside Haunted Theme Park in 2008; fortunately, the Seaside spirit lives on in a new haunt, supervised by Mike and Erin Zatz, the couple behind the original Seaside Haunt. Skull Kingdom in Woodland Hills uses many of the same techniques to great effect: low-key lighting that creates an ominous atmosphere; sets that make you believe you are in a haunted house; and monsters that lurk in the shadows, giving you enough time to work yourself into a state of dread just from knowing that they may jump out at any second.
BEST DISCOVERY of THE YEAR: THEATRE 68'S HAUNTED HOUSE
This category is for haunts that, although not new, we are encountering for the first time. There were several stand-outs this year, including Yard Haunts (The Infected, Horror on Frankel Street), Community Haunts (Reign of Terror), and Professional Haunts (Heritage Haunt). Ultimately we went for an attraction that stood apart from the rest thanks to its unusual setting.
THE WINNER: Theatre 68's Haunted House in Hollywood is, as the name suggests, set in a theatre. The sets, costumes, and performances lend a nice theatrical quality to the scares, which are presented in a series of brief scenes that come to life as the visitor enters each new setting. If you're tired of monsters who simply jump out and yell "Boo!" or try to invoke fear by screaming until your nerves are on edge, here is a haunt that offers a little something different. We reviewed the haunt more fully here.
HONORABLE MENTION: Heritage Haunt in Santa Clarita has an effectively authentic feel, thanks to the fact that it is sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and set in what is essentially a museum dedicated to the area's past (including mining efforts and silent cowboy movies). There monsters waiting to scare you, but the emphasis is more on atmosphere and anticipation, with the spooky soundtrack inspiring fear of invisible spirits when there is nothing to be seen. There is also a nice use of mechanical effects to supplement the actors in makeup. Read a full review here.
BEST FAMILY-FRIENDLY HAUNT: LOS ANGELES LIVE STEAMERS GHOST TRAIN
The kid-friendly matinee versions of most Halloween haunts are rather wimpy: you walk through the same basic haunt during the day, with the lights on and with few or now live monsters. If you have children who want to enjoy Halloween but do not want to be terrified by chainsaws and other visceral horrors, this is the place to go: a pleasantly spooky train ride through Griffith Park's Travel Town, loaded with spooky lights and decorations. See the video.
MISCELLANEOUS MAZE AWARDS
With so many theme parks and professional haunts offering multiple mazes, it is hard to draw one-to-one comparisons. How does one rate the relative fear factor of Knott's, which has 13 rides and mazes, with Universal, which has five, or with professional haunts that have two or three at most? In this category, we asses the best individual mazes.
MOST ELABORATE:Universal's House of Horrors. It's like taking a trip through classic horror movies, complete with fantastic sets that make you feel as if you are in Dracula's castle or Frankenstein's laboratory. See the video.
MOST INTENSE:Knott's Quarantine. Knott's mazes are noted for the length, which is great but which sometimes leads to long dead passages with little happening. The Quarantine maze, on the other hand, packs a lot into a very short span, creating a great intensity that does not have time to wear out its welcome. See the video.
MOST SUSTAINED AURAL ASSAULT: Mangler's Haunt Asylum at Fearplex. During a low-level crawl-through near the end of this maze, some of the crazed inmated perform vocal duties that would exhaust an operatic superstar. It's a crude technique but effective - and it's impressive that the actresses can sustain the volume level without going hoarse. See the video.