To my surprise, looking over last year's posts, I find no 2009 edition of Hollywood Gothique's annual Halloween Haunt Awards. Although memories fails me here, I believe this decision was based upon the fact that any post-Halloween round-up of events and attractions in Los Angeles would have been somewhat redundant with my "Must See Halloween Haunts for 2009," which was posted pre-Halloween in order to give avid trick-or-treaters some useful guidance during the final days of October. Although 2010 again saw a last-weekend list of " Must-See Halloween Haunts," this year I want to take a moment to give special mention to the spookiest, creepiest, and kookiest haunts we encountered this Halloween, and redundancy be damned.
Forgoing the usual format of awards, I am not going to concern myself with categories. Instead, I am simply going to honor those award-worthy frights that reverberate in memory: the screams, the shocks, and the shivers that made this Halloween such a special one.
The T-Rex at Rotten Apple 907 's Nightmare at the Museum. For the last two years, the good folks at Rotten Apple 907 have put on an amateur yard haunt that rivals professional quality attractions. 2010's trip through a museum filled with mummies and other mayhem was a delightful fright from start to finish, but the life-sized pneumatic dinosaur that makes a surprise appearance at the end really sent this haunt over the top. Awesome, man, totally awesome!
The Aggressive Persistence of the Monsters at Fright Fair Screampark. In the old days, Fright Fair's trademark was the huge Tesla coil, sending sparks into the night sky like equipment from Frankenstein's laboratory, but what really made the pro-haunt jump was the cast, who were never content with a simple boo scare but always went the extra mile. The Tesla coil is long gone, but the intensity of the actors remains, and this year they turned the volume up to 11. Great stuff!
The Ghostly Bride of House at Haunted Hill. For 2010, this yard haunt presented essentially the same show as it had for the past few years, but a few new effects stood out. None more so than the spectral bride who emerges from an upper floor window and gazes down in ghostly gloom upon the assembled audience, her features seeming to shift with ectoplasmic fluidity as her countenance assumes the appearance of a skull. Beautiful and ghastly at the same time.
The Skeletal Ghost Who Blows out a Candle at House of Restless Spirits. Almost all of the effects at this Santa Monica yard haunt are tremendously impressive, sending shivers of delight down your spine. Many of them are subtle and so slowly timed that you might miss them if you rush around the building without stopping to savor the spectral delights upon display. One of the eeriest and most effective lies in the backyard cemetery, filled with tombstones illuminated by flickering candles: what looks like a transparent skull rises from beneath the earth, leans toward the candle nears its tombstone, and blows it out. Freaky!
The Last Ride at Forbidden Haunt. This new haunt for 2010 resurrected many bits and pieces from the dearly departed Spooky House but fashioned them into something new. As much fun as the walk-through maze was, we were thrilled by the "Last Ride," a double-wide coffin that simulated the experience of being hauled off to the graveyard and buried. It may not sound like much, but the experience of being closed within the coffin, and feeling the bumps and jolts as the stereo soundtrack suggests being driven to the cemetery and then lowered into the ground, where the worms await their dinner, is a great immersive experience.
The Sets & Atmosphere at Reign of Terror. 2010 saw this Thousand Oaks maze amp up the scare factor with more actors, but its stand-out feature remains its convincing simulation of being inside a haunted house. This one sets the bar really high, and few can match the effort - even the major theme park attractions like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The Claustrophobic Confines of Old Town Haunt. This professional haunt in Pasadena is so consistently good that it is easy to take it for granted, but they deserve praise for maintaining high quality horror year after year. They pack a lot of fright into their underground lair, including a creepy crawl through a claustrophobic, pitch-black tunnel: you can't see the monsters, but they - apparently - can see you, mocking your fear as you scramble on your hands and knees, trying to find a way out.
The Spirit Photographers at Heritage Square's Halloween and Mourning Tour. As part of this "living museum's annual Halloween event - a recreation of Victorian practices regarding funerals - two spirit photographers give a demonstration of their work. A wonderful, amusing mini-play that brings a piece of history to life with so much entertainment that you barely realize you're learning something. See video here.
The Personal Nature of the Scares at the Theatre 68 Haunted House. More of the smaller haunts - both pro and amateur - are getting smart about sending victims through in small groups - a luxury that the major theme parks like the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt cannot afford. No one, however, yields better results than the 68 Cent Crew, who somehow manage to make each individual scare seem as it is uniquely for your benefit. Never will you be the overlooked person at the end of the line who missed the monster's attack; here, you will always be singled out for special attention.
The Block Party Atmosphere of Revenge of the Ninja. This Halloween event in Torrance is a true community haunt, benefiting the neighborhood families. The walk-through maze is effectively frightening, with some great shocks and one or two truly amazing effects (like a live actor, vomiting blood, who appears to be a torso impaled on a bamboo pole). But what they achieve, better than many theme parks and pro-haunts, is the creation of a convivial atmosphere of fun and games that makes you want to hang around after finishing the maze. We need something like this in the valley!
The Unexpectedly Clever Surprises in the Haunted Shack. This Torrance yard haunt is loaded with skeletal ghouls lurking around corners, but the same could be said of many similar amateur Halloween attractions. What surprises is the unexpected sophistication of the maze, which begins with a "solid" wall that turns out to be a hidden door. Later there is a brief detour down a dead end that certainly looks as though it has a way out (it's all done with mirrors), and the exit - far from a welcome escape to safety - is haunted by a skeletal projection beckoning to you. You don't even realize there's a door, and you start to feel as if you may be trapped forever. Brilliant!
Best Use of an Actual Location: Voices of Pioneer Cemetery Flashlight Ghost Tour. This, the only actual "category" I'm using this year, would normally be a lock for The Queen Mary Dark Harbor, but it had stiff competition this year: Halloween and Mourning Tours at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles; the Flashlight Ghost Tours at Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar; and the Haunted Midnights Tours at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. Ultimately, we choose Pioneer Cemetery because the tour was fashioned to utilize the location to its fullest extent, not merely as a staging area but as a piece of history brought to life, the stories of its buried dead related by ghosts wandering in the graveyard. A unique fusion of Halloween and History.
Sorry if I overlooked any deserving haunters out there. You are all great in your own way. Thanks to all of you for working to hard to turn Halloween not merely into a single night of terror but into an entire season!