One of the unfortunate realities of Halloween is that many of the frightfully free yard haunts providing entertaining tricks and treats every year are open on only one day: October 31. This makes it impossible to visit and recommend them before they disappear into the ectoplasmic mist; instead, we offer this after-the-fact assessment, which like a vampire waiting for sundown, will lie dormant in the archives, until next year, when hopefully it will provide guidance for Los Angeles Halloween enthusiasts seeking guidance.
2010's Halloween Haunt Odyssey, our annual tour of amateur yard haunts, began in Burbank, which seems to have replaced Studio City - since the demise of Hallowed Haunting Grounds and the Witch's Castle - as the bleeding, beating heart of Halloween in the San Fernando valley. Within an easily drivable distance are no less than four worthwhile haunts, with several other decorated yards also in the area (as with Christmas, when one house sets the tone, others follow).
Our first new discovery for this year was Spider-Lights at Catalina (806 Catalina St), a colorfully decorated yard haunt that lives up to its name: much of it consists of festive lights suggesting spider webs. Tombstones, coffins, cats, and skulls are also on display, but this is definitely a family-friendly place that welcomes young trick-or-treaters. It takes about a minute to walk through the display. There are no pneumatics or actors in makeup, but there are a few mechanical effects like a spider with moving legs, and there is a very amusing voice emanating from within the coffin, asking to be let out (strangely, the female victim's sighs of despair sound rather suggestively orgasmic). Candy is handed out on Halloween night only, but the decorations are mostly in place the night before Halloween, with many of them set up a week previously.
Our second new discovery was the Backwoods Maze (1912 North Pepper Street). As the name suggests, this is more than just a decorated yard; behind the house, there is an maze filled with horrors too intense for impressionable young kids out for some easy candy. The front yard sets the tone - a cemetery loaded with monstrous mannequins, including one demonic figure that towers 12-feet high. It's a rather bold display, raising high expectations for the maze - all of which are met.
As the title implies, this haunt offers a backwoods setting, with several mutant cannibals carving up more than pork in their farm's slaughterhouse. The rural loonies theme is not our personal favorite (we prefer ghosts and goblins for Halloween), but it yields effective results. This maze benefits from a careful layout that effectively uses the available space: although judging from the size of the house, the back yard cannot be particularly large, the pathway seems to go on forever, no doubt due to tight turns and narrow corridors For an amateur effort, the sets and props are very impressive, with some gruesome grand guignol on display; everything looks home-made or at least heavily customized, not off-the-rack. The actors wear masks rather than make up, but they are very detailed, and the costumes are accessorized to suit the backwoods setting, and the cast are really into their roles (although they will back off for a cute puppy).
Fortunately, the Backwoods maze is open for three weekends in October. Unfortunately for us, it was rained out when we tried to get to it early, forcing us to come back on Halloween weekend. It was worth making a second trip, and we heard from someone lucky enough to get in the previous week, that more scares had been added.
Next up: Nightmare Junction (2220 Chandler Boulevard) - a welcome surprise for us, who had given up on it after years of inactivity. Well, it turns out that the haunt proprietor had been too busy remodeling his home to deal with Halloween; fortunately, he got back into the spirit this year, resurrecting his chamber of horrors. Like the Backwoods Maze, Nightmare Junction emphasizes gruesome horror - in this case, an executioner's playground.
Nightmare Junction offers a short but entertaining walk-through, set up in the front yard (which is surrounded by bodies suspended above the fence). There are several displays set up in different "rooms," including one that features what appears to be someone (a mannequin) being electrocuted. The walls contain several clever hiding places that allow monsters to make unexpected appearances, and the torture devices are spectacularly hideous - things like tables with slowly spinning saw blades that appear to have sliced through bisected bodies. As with the Backwoods Maze, this is not our favorite theme for Halloween, but we love the maze anyway.
Saving the best for last - and that is saying something, in this august company - we wrap up the Burbank yard haunts with Rotten Apple 907's Nightmare at the Museum. The cast and crew of Rotten Apple have been haunting the home at 907 North California Street for two decades, changing themes from year to year, and they seem to get better every Halloween. In 2009, their old short and simple maze gave way to a new and larger structure elaborate enough to rival professional productions. 2010 sees the haunt extending its reach yet again, offering an amusingly twisted take on the premise of the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM comedies.
The scale of Rotten Apple's presentation is unmatched by any other amateur haunt. Nightmare at the Museum takes you through several different environments, simulating the display rooms of a museum (prehistoric ice age, jungle, Egyptian tomb) and winding up in what looks like a storage room, where a life-sized T-Rex head bursts from its packing crate, roaring and snapping as you try to make your hasty exit.
You just don't expect pneumatic effects on that level in a yard haunt, but there is more to Rotten Apple 907 than elaborate mechanics. There is a good variety to the scare techniques: some are subtle (sound effects and jets of air to suggest poison arrows whistling past you), and some are clever (a skeleton lurches abruptly to life, its human puppeteer shrouded in darkness). The entire walk through the maze lasts only three-and-a-half minutes, but it seems much longer because so much is going on.
If the Rotten Apple crew ever decide to go pro, I'm sure they could be successful, but I hope they keep doing what they have been doing: putting on a great show for the neighbors and raising donations for charity. When you mark your calendars for next Halloween, make to write yourself a reminder to visit this one.
Subsequent installments of 2010's Halloween Haunt Odyssey will explore the horrors lurking in Woodland Hills, the West Side, and the South Bay (the latter being a first for us).