Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Haunted Play Presents "DELUSION"

It seems like every year, just as I'm starting to feel like I might be (gasp) a little burnt out on haunted houses, a new (or at least new-to-me) attraction comes along that restores my faith in Halloween and, you know, humanity as a whole. Quick recap of this phenomenon: 2008, Universal Halloween Horror Nights - I hadn't been in years and I was absolutely floored by how rad it was. 2009, L.A. Haunted Hayride's inaugural year - a totally unique experience for me, as it was my very first haunted hayride. 2010, Reign of Terror in Thousand Oaks - I couldn't believe the attention to detail and length of the maze. And what takes the creepy cake this year? A haunted house/theater hybrid known as Haunted Play presents "DELUSION."

Much has been made about one very specific aspect of Delusion's online FAQ:
  • Q: Will they touch me?
  • A: All haunted houses say their actors won’t touch you. That is NOT the case here.

This is basically the haunted house equivalent of the old Psycho trick of killing off the star of a horror movie well before the end of the film - it creates anticipation and makes the audience feel like all bets are off, and absolutely anything could happen. Well, rest assured that you probably will be touched if you attend Delusion, but it probably won't be as traumatic or violent as what you're imagining! (But really...who knows? Mwahaha.)

Yet my favorite aspect of this play/attraction isn't wondering whether or not the actors would touch me - it was being able to walk through such a fabulously creepy crumbling old mansion. Yes, the above photo is actually where Delusion takes place - an eerie, rundown, Haunted Mansion-esque estate. And the interior is even more deliciously spooky, with the kind of attention to detail that really makes a haunt.

Since Delusion was created by a Hollywood stuntman, you're probably expecting some cool stunts, right? Again, you won't be disappointed. The actors in this haunted play execute stunts more sophisticated than anything I've seen in a haunted house. When one of the "patients" (check out the website for the full Delusion backstory) laughs maniacally and then suddenly flies up out of view, it's like witnessing something out of The Exorcist in real life. Likewise when another character is dragged down the hall kicking and screaming by an unseen force. You expect these kinds of effects in movies, but not at a haunted house.

Another quality that sets Delusion apart is the fact that it forces you to become an active participant in the story. You will be asked to perform certain tasks, and your life (and the lives of your dozen or so companions) may hang in the balance. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes - you may be running from room to room in order to evade the ghouls!

Halloween is just two days away, but if you're looking for some last minute scares, I recommend trying to fit this one in. And if you miss out this year, go ahead and mark your calendar for October 2012 - I guarantee Haunted Play is going to be one to watch for many Halloweens to come.

Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Theatre 68 Haunted House

As a Halloween fan in southern California, it's easy to get caught up in going to the same professional haunts year after year. They're always fun, but after a while they do start to get stale. The maze layouts, the props and set pieces, even the scare tactics all start to feel rather...predictable. And predictability is not conducive to terror. That's why it's so much fun to discover a smaller, more unassuming haunt; you have no idea what to expect, and suddenly you're vulnerable again! Like a virgin...scared for the very first time.

So yeah, it was indeed a "white wedding" for me when I visited Theatre 68's 6th annual haunted house in Hollywood last night. Located on a rather nondescript block of Sunset Blvd. - east of the Sunset Strip, west of Sunset Junction - across the street from a Food 4 Less and tucked in the back of a small strip mall, the theatre sure didn't look like much from the outside. But once you walk down a short hallway festooned with cobwebs, you'll find yourself in a lobby decorated with photographs and mug shots of famous serial killers, an appropriately unsettling choice of decor. The best part of this haunted house is probably the fact that you are only allowed to go through 2 at a time, so you'll be able to enjoy the atmosphere and relish in the fact that the monsters are working to scare you, and you alone.

There were so many unique touches to this haunted house. You begin by being escorted into a dark room where you watch an introductory news bulletin on TV about a serial killer who is loose in the area. After the broadcast is abruptly cut off, a frantic reporter runs into the room and tells you where to go next - and then the experience truly begins.

I have no idea how they crammed so much haunted house goodness into such a small space, but we were going upstairs, downstairs, into rooms that appeared to be dead ends (but weren't, thanks to a mysterious moving wall), through closets filled with clothes on hangers, and more. I loved the ghoulish glowing bride and the poor fellow who "lost his head," but all of the sets were very creative and different from anything you can expect to see at Knott's or Universal.

If you don't have a lot of cash to spend on a "pro" haunt, I definitely recommend Theatre 68: Tickets are only $12, and if you bring a canned good you'll get $1 off. (Food will be donated to local organizations that serve the homeless for Thanksgiving - and, of course, your admission will help fund a small local theater instead of merely lining the coffers of a corporate conglomerate.) Another benefit of visiting Theatre 68's haunt is the fact that it's open seven nights a week, so you can check it out anytime.

Theatre 68's haunted house proves that passion, ingenuity and genuine enthusiasm can still be found in the heart of Hollywood for under 20 bucks. It's a Halloween miracle!

Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spooky Trip: San Diego's Whaley House

Whaley House, long ago.

Whaley House, not so long ago.

The Whaley House, a rather unassuming brick structure located in charming Old Town San Diego, has a reputation that belies its unremarkable facade: It is commonly known as "the most haunted house in America." Now I'm not sure how, exactly, one can quantify the "haunted-ness" of a locale, but in any case, I had been eager to check it out for years. When I heard that the Whaley House was offering free admission for Museum Day, I knew it was my chance to offset the cost of the 4-hour round trip car ride down to San Diego and back, and Mr. Spooky and I seized the opportunity.

No, we didn't see or hear any ghosts - surely there were too many tourists (and too much daylight) for that. But you know that feeling you get in some older buildings or other places that are said to be haunted - that feeling like the air itself is oppressive, like you're slightly seasick even though you're standing on level ground, that sense that history is closing in around you? That uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yeah, parts of the Whaley House definitely had that - something that I also felt the first time I set foot on the decks of the Queen Mary.

After exploring the house itself, we walked around Old Town San Diego, ate the most amazing fish tacos and sweet, chewy churros I'd ever had in my life, and finished off by taking a stroll by the eerily lovely Victorian homes in nearby Heritage Park. If you're in southern California and you're looking for a fun and affordable spooky day trip, a jaunt to the Whaley House is highly recommended.

Los Angeles Haunted Hayride 2011

Ah, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride. It may only be in its third year of existence, but the LAHH is easily one of my top 5 favorite Halloween activities. Back in 2009, the Hayride took place at a rather secluded ranch in Calabasas, and it had a deliciously Ray Bradbury-esque carnival-gone-weird vibe unlike anything else I had ever experienced at a commercial haunt. Last year, the Hayride was relocated to the old abandoned zoo in Griffith Park, a more easily accessible location for most of L.A., but one that was a little lacking in the original's rustic charm. While I still enjoyed myself in 2010, I did feel like the Hayride was too brief and the Hey! Maze (as it was then known) left much to be desired. Luckily, the LAHH is back and even better for 2011.

When I entered the Hayride grounds this year, the first thing I noticed was that the "haunted carnival" aspect had been scaled way back. In fact, it had been pared down to just a handful of booths: A food vendor selling cleverly-named refreshments (including candy apples, popcorn, hot dogs & other "fair food"), a fortune-teller, and a "gift shop" tent. There was also a sideshow and a couple of rides/attractions - a house of mirrors and the adorably macabre "scary-go-round."

One nice change this year is that you can walk through the house of mirrors or take a (backwards) spin on the scary-go-round at no additional charge, whereas in '09 and '10 you had to spring for tickets. Even though the carnival has been downsized for 2011, it still has that same magical autumn vibe that I love so much, and that sets the LAHH apart from its peers in the haunt world.

While we were waiting to board the ride, a number of characters in full costume came out to taunt the crowd, including some sort of black-feathered bird creature on stilts and the unfortunate bride pictured above (it's hard to tell in the picture, but that's actually a bloody fetus protruding from her belly). I loved how inventive the characters were - another unique aspect of the LAHH is that the actors seem to be given far more creative reign, and that makes for a more exciting, unpredictable and genuinely haunting experience.

The Hayride itself was not unlike its predecessors; those of you who went last year or the year before will recognize many favorite set pieces, including the "Angel of Death," the "I Scream Man" and the clown tent. There were also a few new pieces, including a creepy Christmas scene and - my favorite - three robotic masked farmers promising to "make you barbecue" as they inch closer and closer to the captive riders. And yes, the ride was longer than last year's - about 25 minutes total.

Another way in which the Hayride has improved over last year: The maze! It's actually fun and scary this year! Now dubbed "the In-Between" and included in the price of general admission, this maze is unique in a couple of ways. First, you're in the dark. I'm talking complete pitch blackness, with only a flickering lantern to guide your way. They also stagger the line so everyone goes through in groups of 2 or 4. (No safety in numbers!) When we went, one of the characters - an unwholesome, Charles Manson-looking fellow carrying what appeared to be a bloody pillowcase full of who-knows-what - actually accompanied our group through the maze. The smaller size of the Hayride when compared to behemoths like Knott's or Universal means that you can get that kind of one-on-one attention - who says customer service is dead?!

When all was said and done, Mr. Spooky and I only spent about an hour and 15 minutes at the Hayride, but it was time well spent. I can't think of any other Halloween attractions in or near Los Angeles that have quite the same anarchic, backwoods feel. And the spooky memories, of course, will linger long after you leave Griffith Park: "Close your eyes and take a picture," one of the clowns whispered in my ear as our tractor pulled away from their tent. "We'll be in your dreams..."

Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes to review this event.


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