When we first encountered Heritage Haunt in 2008, we quickly moved it onto our list of favorite Halloween events in Los Angeles, because it captured an old-fashioned atmosphere of horror perfectly suited to the roots of the Halloween season. Last night, we returned to Heritage Junction for the opening of their greatly expanded 2009 haunt. As might be expected, some growing pains were evident, along with opening night jitters, but there was also an electricity in the air. The crowds were bigger and more excited; there was more to see and do, and simply walking from one attraction to the next created a buzz of anticipation, as monsters lurked in the darkness of the dusty rural trail, taking by surprise travellers who thought they would be safe until they entered a maze.
One big advantage of Heritage Haunt is that it is located in Hart Park, which is maintained by the Santa Clarita Historical Society in order to preserves the history of the local area, once a mining community and later the location for early silent cowboy movies starring William S. Hart. At night, the unpaved pathway, leading between facades of old buildings, lends a convincing sensation of walking into a literal ghost town, perfectly setting the spooky tone for what follows. The ghosts of dead gunslingers lurk in the shadows; monsters of every variety – some ten feet tall – emerge out of the fog; ghouls and zombies haunt gravestones situated on the dimly lit hillside. To put it mildly, the place seemed alive with the undead.
Last year, Heritage Haunt offered a single walk-through haunted house, titled “Curse of the Ghoul Mine,” plus a “Sleepy Hollow” ballet. This year adds an additional walk-through maze (Psycho’s Fun House) and two haunt zones (Chewy’s Pirate Cove and the Haunted Village). Unfortunately, a planned haunted hayride did not materialize on Saturday night (one of the pitfalls of being a volunteer event is that sometimes volunteers get paying gigs elsewhere).
The haunted house is back, renamed Nightmares of Newhall. It features most of the same elements from last year, slightly re-arranged, but our walk-through suffered from over-crowding. In 2008, the haunted house allowed in groups of four at a time, which provided greater intensity. Last night, the Nightmares of Newhall opened late due to technical difficulties: in order to speed up the long line of understandly impatient visitors, larger groups were allowed through, diluting the scare experience. Also, the sound system seemed to be missing some elements (e.g., the ghostly voice that seemed to be whispering in your ear, “You cant’ see me, but I can see you”).
We were a bit disappointed by one addition at the beginning: a dialogue between a fortune teller and a demon. The fortune teller is a mechanical skeleton sitting at a table; the demon is a horrible face hidden behind a mirror. At first the scene is amusing in a Disney-esque sort of way, but the dialogue goes on too long, giving you time to register that the demon is simply a motionless mask affixed to a wall, with a light flashing on and off in time with its lines. The great thing about this attraction last Halloween was the feeling of being inside an authentic haunted house; this new scene undermines that feeling. The effects are fun but not really frightening; they seem more suitable for a family-friendly haunt.
Psycho’s Fun House, the new walk-through maze, is yet another in the endless line of killer klown attractions, of which we have grown somewhat tired. At least this one was short and sweet, with lots of characters packed into a relatively short maze, for a very condensed experience.
The Pirate Cove feels a bit like a yard haunt display. There is a ship manned by skeletal pirate, and a very nice background setting representing the dock, which is appropriately ominous and filled with creepy decorations. What the Pirate Cove lacked – at least last night – was any kind of animation to bring its ghosts to life. (Apparently there were electrical problems that kept its cannons from firing.) Displays like this are impressive in their size and detail, but they feel a bit like a snapshot. The occasional face appearing in a porthole, or body popping out of a barrel, would have lifted this one’s spirits to another astral plane.
The highlight of the new attractions, in our opinion, is the Haunted Village. You have to walk up a hill, past the Pirate Cove, so be sure to make the trek. Like the main Heritage Haunt house, the village consists of preserved houses from an earlier era, lending an incredible authenticity to the setting. Arranged into a small cul-de-sac up the dusty hill, they would look haunted in the dark all by themselves. With a few strategically placed props, lights, and sound effects, they are positively eerie, providing a home for several wandering ghosts, ghouls, and witches.
This is mostly a quiet haunt, opting for subtle shivers rather than shocks, but there are a few jump scares, too. Last night, a silent ghost wandered a make-shift graveyard; a witch cackled over her cauldron, and a stealthy zombie snuck up on us, taking one of our party by surprise. We particularly enjoyed the chapel, with one stationary ghost (a mannequin lit in black light) and a shrouded figure wandering behind. But the best scare of all was in the tiny school house. Although you cannot enter any of the buildings, the door to this one was open, inviting you to look inside. A stationary figure at the far end of the room distracts your attention – you keep waiting for it to move – and then a live scare-actor jumps out from behind the door, inches away from you. Even if you know it’s coming (having seen your friends victimized first), the scare still works.
Our overall impression of Heritage Haunt in 2009 is that it has grown into something much bigger and more impressive than last year. The growth has come at a price, in terms of technical mishaps and logistical difficulties that prevent everything from working exactly according to plan, but with a $10 ticket price, it still offers the best value of any Halloween attraction in Los Angeles. Hopefully, after the opening night experience, the staff will straighten out all the kinks for next weekend.
Hart Park – Heritage Junction
24101 San Fernando Road, Newhall, CA 91322
Dates: October 23-24, 30-31