The Los Angeles Halloween season begins in earnest tomorrow, September 24, with the opening of the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood; many other attractions are or will be opening in Los Angeles soon thereafter. However, before we begin to drink deeply of the delightfully dreary ambiance these Halloween events have to offer, we should first cast our mournful eyes back through the hazy clouds of time and take a moment to to pay tribute to those haunted attractions that have gone to the grave forever, never again to resurrect each October for our annual enjoyment of all things macabre.
The following list enumerates those Los Angeles Halloween attractions that we mourn the most deeply. Although they are gone, their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who visited them, and so we offer this tribute to the terrors they evoked and the shudders they sent down the spines of countless trick-or-treaters...
This Halloween yard haunt, formerly in Studio City, was unique thanks to its carnival atmosphere. There were few real scares; instead, it was a fun-filled, family-friendly event loaded with skeletons performing the most outrageous actions: Trick-or-Trout, Rotten Candy, the Formerly Human Cannonball. The mechanics were relatively simple, but the numerous displays were delightfully imaginative. Retired 2008.
UPDATE: Reopened with a slightly new theme (a skeleton magic show) in 2011.
Another amateur haunt, this one in Burbank, Fright Gallery was truly unique - not just a decorated yard but a full-blown musical show, with singing and dancing. Usually for the last week of October, the Fright Gallery crew would put on half a dozen shows a night. Each would take a piece of popular entertainment and twist it around for the Halloween season. Thus, THE WIZARD OF OZ became "Twisted" (a beach party-type musical in which the surfer dudes are dead), and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL became "Dead of the Class" (which is pretty self-explanatory). Considering that the stage was set up in a front yard, the production values were very impressive, including some magical scene changes and lighting effects. The (borrowed) tunes were catchy; the new lyrics were funny, and the performances were filled with enthusiasm. Retired 2007.
Once upon a time, this must-see yard haunt occupied the circular driveway of a house in Van Nuys. It was haunted by a fine array of moving tombstones and creaking coffins, along with a talking skeleton and a floating ghost. Without gore, chainsaws, or masked actors jumping out at your, this was not so scary that it would frighten away trick-or-treaters little kids, but the elaborate decorations were extremely atmospheric and impressive. Our favorite was a stationary statue that lit up while an echo-y voice wailed, "Where's my babyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?" Unlike many Los Angeles home haunts, which were forced to close up their coffins because of neighbor complains, Grimmstone went on hiatus after its 20th anniversary because its proprietor was busy with other activities; we can only hope that some day it opens its gates again for another Halloween's revelry. Retired 2006.
This was always the undisputed king of Los Angeles Halloween yard haunts, an ethereal journey into a moody miasma of tombs, spirits, gravestones, and ghosts. Located in Studio City, the Haunting Grounds eschewed visceral horror in favor of old-fashioned eerie chills appropriate to the October season. Many noted similarities with Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, but the Haunting Grounds did not provide green grinning ghosts and giggles; it was all about the atmosphere, which was achieved through expertly detailed decorations, sophisticated sound design, and carefully timed mechanical effects. Lines typically stretched around the block, and it could take twenty minutes to walk through the relatively small yard. However, the time was well spent: while inching slowly along, you eye would be drawn to tiny details that otherwise would have escaped detection, or some light or movement would manifest in an area previously still and dark. More than most other yard haunts, Hallowed Haunting Grounds was not just a fun show but a great piece of amateur art. This is another haunt that closed up its portals because its haunters had grown weary of clanking their chains every October; fortunately, some of its spirit returns to our mortal plane each Halloween, in Turbidite Manor (see below). Retired 2005.
THE HAUNTED VINEYARD
This stand-alone professional haunted house attraction was located in an actual abandoned winery in Ontario, California. The old stone building provided excellent atmosphere; the fact that it was a permanent location allowed for greater detailing of sets, some located inside, some outdoors. There were simple but great effects that created dozens of thrilling scares; although not afraid to make its visitors jump, there were also quiet sections, like a windy cornfield, that were based more on anticipation and dread. During its run, this may been the single best walk-through maze in Southern California. Retired 2005.
MOLAR MANOR/2nd CHANCE MANOR
Located in Canyon Country, north of Los Angeles, this walk-through attraction was less frightening that some, but it was still loaded with ghoulish goodies. Essentially, it was a private of museum collection of props and mechanical devices, which opened the doors for a few days each Halloween. There were few actors in costume; instead, it was a self-guided tour through a house of horrors, with each room offering some new pop-up mannequin or other effect to startle the unwary visitor. Later, new owners changed the name to 2nd Chance Manor and morphed it into a (theoretically) year-round attraction, although engagements seemed to be sporadic. 2nd Chance Manor closed its doors after a few farewell performances early in 2010.
SPOOKY HOUSE, SEASIDE HAUNT, & SKULL KINGDOM
These three professional haunted attractions came to an end with the death of owner Bob Koritzke in July 2009. Spooky House was the oldest, having endured for well over a decade; at its height it was a wonderful event in a permanent location in Northridge, with three distinct maze, each offering its own uniquely themed frights. Later, it moved to an abandoned cinema (not so good a setting) and finally to a new location in Chatsworth that allowed for the building of another permanent structure, providing a grand facade that truly resembled haunted house. Seaside Haunt made its 2005 debut in Ventura County, offering a nautical theme that emphasized dark corridors and credible sets, creating the illusion of moving through a real location; unfortunately, its final performances in 2008, under the auspices of a different manager, did not live up to the haunt's legacy. That same year, the original proprietors of Seaside Haunt moved to Woodland Hills and created a new haunt named Skull Kingdom, which duplicated much of the effectiveness of their previous effort; more than most, Skull Kingdom created the impression of being in a genuine haunted house, not a sideshow maze. Sadly, Skull Kingdom was a one-year wonder. All three haunts gave their final shows in 2008. (Note: One other related attraction, the Old Town Haunt in Pasadena, lives on each Halloween.)
For a few years, this self-contained, stand-alone haunted house was one of three separate walk-through attractions at Spooky House, when it was located in an abandoned cinema on Parthenia Steet in Northridge. Tubidite Manor proved to be one of the finest Halloween haunts in Los Angeles. A sort of a professional spin-off of the Hallowed Haunting Grounds, Turbidite was and remains a sort of electronically-guided museum tour of a haunted mansion, filled with spooky atmosphere and supernatural dread, while mostly avoiding the jump-and-grab scares of other Halloween attractions. Turbidite truly was - and remains - a “haunted house,” in the best sense of the phrase, relying on suggestive sound effects to create a creepy sense of unseen things lurking in shadows. Something about its ethereal atmosphere works even better when the crowds are smaller and quieter, when you can hear every whisper in the dark, every creaking of every floorboard. Fortunately, of all the haunts on this list, Turbidte is not dead, merely gone: having left Los Angeles after 2006, it now resides at Haunted Nashville in Tennessee.
The Witch's Castle, not far from Hallowed Haunting Grounds in Studio City, was probably the least frightening Halloween attraction on our list of dearly departed Los Angeles haunts. Essentially, it was an elaborately decorated yard, with some sound effects and music, along with one or two mechanical monsters (e.g., a dragon that waved its head while smoke wafted from its nostrils). Lurking back down the driveway was the witch herself, poised over her bubbling cauldron and willing to provide candy to those children brave enough to approach her. Retired after 2008.
There are many other Los Angeles haunts that have shuffled off this mortal coil. However, the late, lamented attractions mentioned here were the ones that remained on our list from one Halloween to the next, so good that they were worth visiting every October. Their absence is a sad loss for Halloween fans in Los Angeles, but we will keep the memories of these events alive as long as Hollywood Gothique exists.