From bloody amusement park mega-mazes to off-the-beaten-path haunts that push buttons and boundaries in the most raw and brutal of ways, L.A. is a veritable land of freaks and creeps when it comes to Halloween happenings.
But which spooky seasonal attractions truly bewitch? Which have the best visuals, atmosphere and concepts? Which simply scare the crap out of you most?
It depends on what you're into and what your personal fears are, of course. Is it ghosts and the paranormal, serial killers, monsters, demons or simply the unknown in the dark that send a chill up your spine?
The quick startle techniques employed by today's haunts and their hired ghouls are always effective, but the ominous and graphic environments are equally important at these things.
We sought to find a haunt for every taste by taking a non-stop tour of the most popular haunted houses and horror themed events the past weekend and several nights -- and a few of them were sleepless nights. Here, the terror-filled top 10 that had us shaking and will leave you shrieking for more.
Freakiest: Dark Harbor
There's something about a seaside locale that's inherently eerie and the Queen Mary's event benefits immensely from the nautical chill of the oceanside, not to mention the nostalgic presence of the ship itself. Of its six mazes, we enjoyed the circus-themed one in the adjacent Mary dome -- with mirrors, creepy clowns (who doesn't love/hate clowns?) and even a slide. The mazes on the ship, while fascinating from a history perspective and as an exhibit, since you are literally in the boat's musty bowels, were somewhat unpleasant to actually spend time in, or, like, breathe in. It's supposedly really haunted, but it was more claustrophobic than creepy. We actually felt bad for the actors down there trying to scare us. Our favorite Harbor horrors? The old-timey freak shows on the fair grounds, which are housed inside dark, garage-like structures with the doors slammed behind you! Patrons must walk in one or two at a time all the way down near the "freak" to get out, and sometimes the exit is hard to find, especially in two of the boxes, one blinding you with fog and the other pitch-black save for small cracks of light. We got stuck in one so long the costumed sideshow mutant had to show us the way. Think she she was thinking, "Gobble-gobble... One of us... We accept her!" like in the movie Freaks? 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. Thursday-Sunday, through Nov. 2. $24 (GA advance) - $109 (VIP at the door) www.queenmary.com/dark-harbor/
See also: Pics from Dark Harbor's opening night .
Most Creative: Urban Death's Tour of Terror
Zombie Joe's "Urban Death" shows in a North Hollywood theater have garnered an avid cult following over the years, admired for their provocative presentation and gruesome underground artiness year-round. For the first time, UD has endeavored to create a more traditional haunt experience for Halloween, transforming its lobby into a macabre lights-off maze filled with shocking scenes you view only by flashlight. At the end of the maze, patrons are asked to sit in a circle on the floor in complete darkness, then shown dimly-lit, extremely bizarre theatrical vignettes. Though this one is obviously lower-budget than the big theme park thrillers, the vulnerability you feel sitting in the dark for extended periods of time is more effective than the biggie's bells and whistles. Your eyes start to play tricks on you, as do your ears. Did we really see and hear what we thought we did on "Tour of Terror"? Only the space's impresario, Zombie Joe, knows for sure... At Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Friday & Saturday showings at 8:30, 9:15, 10:00, 10:45 and 11:30pm, through Nov. 2; $12 (tickets at zombiejoes.tix.com). Reservation Hotline: 818-202-4120. www.ZombieJoes.com, www.UrbanDeath.com
Most Exposed: Haunted Hayride
Have you ever driven through Griffith Park at night and thought about what might be lurking in the darkness amidst the trees (besides hustlers and johns hooking up?). Haunted Hayride makes good use of its dark park location, providing a slow-moving tour on wheels through graveyards, corn fields, Hellraiser-esque torture cages, satanic themed tents, a children's home full of burn victims (see photo) and more. Zombies, clowns, tree people, and hooded ghouls come at you non-stop, and since you're sitting (in itchy hay by the way) there's not much you can do to deter them. Ironically, we felt the scariest part of this outdoor attraction was when the vehicle bed was enclosed under a tarp, putting us all in complete darkness. We wont tell you what happens when someone -- something -- turns on a flashlight under it, but it definitely brought back memories of hiding under the covers from the boogey man. At the Old Zoo, Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Dr. Thurs.- Sun., Thur Oct. 31. $30 GA- $55 (VIP). www.losangeleshauntedhayride.com
Most Interactive: Delusion
Who knew Neil Patrick Harris was such a weirdo? The former Doogie Howser/current Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother) is a big theatre maven, of course, so his credit as producer of a theatrical show like this makes sense. But Delusion: Masque of Mortality, as it's called this year, infuses its "show" with the startle and shock of a haunted house and makes you more than a spectator; you are one of the stars who ends up in peril. And as in all good horror productions, the pivotal question is: Who will come out alive at the end? At Bethany Presbyterian Church, 1629 Griffith Park Blvd. Thurs.- Sun., thru Nov. 23. www.hauntedplay.com
Most Sex, Guts and Rock N' Roll: Rob Zombie's Great American Nightmare
Subtlety has never been Rob Zombie's thing and this is reflected in his haunt and concert meld, held every weekend at the Pomona Fairplex now thru Day of the Dead (on which the musician and film-maker will perform). The three elaborate mazes each have their own novelties. One experienced entirely under a sight-obstructing hood is downright unpleasant (call it self-torture porn) with walls that shock your fingers when touched and rubbery creatures blocking you as you try to feel your way out. Another has a white trash feel with characters from Zombie's Night of 1000 Corpses, and a celebration of serial killers in their environments with disgusting sights and even rotting smells. If you want to be touched by the murderous psychos inside, you get a red Manson-follower-like X on your forehead. Some will find it offensive, but we just found it gross. Horror nerds, however, are sure to think this one, um, kills it. Our favorite maze, based on Zombie's adult animation El Superbeasto is in neon 3D and features an entrance that well, reminded us of our last gyno visit. Once you squeeze inside the giant blow-up gal's legs to enter though, it's a fun and vibrant maze with an other-wordly vibe that really makes you feel like you're in a cartoon. Every Friday, a dance party takes over called Destroid and the rest of the weekend features rockin natural acts. At the Pomona "Fearplex," 1048 W. McKinley Ave. Thurs.- Sun., thru Nov. 2. $30-80. www.greatamericannightmare.com
Most Apocalyptic: Backwoods Maze
DIY haunted houses and mazes have something that can't quite be captured by the theme parks, and this little gem is a good example. First of all, it's free (but donations are appreciated), and second, it's in Burbank, a part of town so innocuous, you just know there's some twisted minds living there. This bleak and brutal vision for the end of days proves it. 1912 N. Pepper St., Burbank. Fri.-Sun., thru Oct. 27 and on Thurs., Oct. 31. www.facebook.com/TheBackwoodsMaze
Most All-Around Mayhem: Knotts Scary Farm
Knotts Berry Farm was one of the first amusement parks to really get into the haunt biz and their passion for sinister aesthetics shows when you go there. Nearly every inch of the park gets spookified. The Mexican Village becomes a Dia de Los Muertos celebration while the western-themed Calico corner becomes a literal ghost town. The gift shops and even game areas are stocked with zombie and skeleton dolls and the park's shows take on a grim and/or enchanting tone, from the intensity of the rhythmic "Blood Drums" show to the popular show called "The Hanging" (which infuses classic fairy tales with Hollywood insider references and killing) to the Mistress of the Dark herself Elvira in an all new seance-themed spectacle. But people come to Scary Farm mostly for the mazes. This year there are a total of 10, three of them brand new. Vampires, cannibals, puppets, mutants... there is a maze for every (bad) taste. Our fave? The "Trick or Treat" witch house, which must be entered by ringing the green hag's doorbell just like on Halloween night. Forget about candy, though -- once inside it's a coven of evil crafts and carnage. 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. Thurs.-Sun., thru Nov. 2. $38- 70. www.knotts.com/haunt
See also: Pics from Scary Farm's opening night
Biggest Screams: Six Flags Fright Fest
While the wailing here mostly comes from the mega-roller coasters (which get frequent visits from the undead night-prowlers as in the video above), Magic Mountain has made a respectable attempt at competing with Knotts in the haunted maze department. They've got eight of 'em, three of which are new this year: Toys of Terror, Weepy Hills Insanetorium and Total Darkness. Pretty self-explanatory title-wise. For those of us who grew up in SoCal, the coolest part about coming to MM during Halloween has been the nostalgia factor and at Fright Fest, these fear-full flashbacks come courtesy of riding Colossus backwards, which the park has been doing for years. In this spirit, this year, they offer many of their most popular rides completely in the dark including Full Throttle, Viper, Tatsu, Batman, Riddlers Revenge and Goliath. 26101 Magic Mountain Pkwy, Valencia. $50.99-70.99. frightfest.sixflags.com/magicmountain
Most Historic: Old Town Haunt
Held in the basement of the supposedly-haunted Union Savings Bank Building, this Pasadena mainstay has been making skin crawl since 2005. Old Town Haunt is getting buried forever after this year, so it's a must-go. The underground labyrinth recalls horror films of yore throughout, from The Exorcist to Catacombs, and it's a genuinely creepy experience, especially when you get to its pitch-black crawl portion. Wear comfy clothes. 20 N. Raymond Ave. Pasadena This Fri & Sat., Oct. 19-20, then Thurs.-Sun., Thur Nov. 2. $15-20. www.oldtownhaunt.com
Most Movie Award Worthy: Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights
When it comes to re-creating the images that kept us up at night as kids, nothing comes close to Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. It's where movie magic is made and celebrated after all. Knotts "monsters" look downright amateur in comparison to the elaborate get-ups and masks worn by the Universal ghouls. Weapons wiedling fiends follow you and come up behind you in scare zones just like at Knotts but they're way more frightening... they come so close it's a wonder they don't actually injure you.
The mazes offer breath-taking detail thanks to input from Hollywood's top effects people and even directors. For the Walking Dead maze, the show's creators had hand in the design, while the mazes for Insidious, Black Sabbath 13 in 3D, Evil Dead and El Cucuy (aka The Boogeyman, narrated by Danny Trejo) each take their themes to excessive levels with live and animatronic creatures, movie-grade gore and lighting and sound effects. Sound as well as sights are a huge part of Universal's atmosphere too: heavy metal plays throughout the park while the chainsaws blast from masked brutes everywhere.
After several nights of screaming, jumping, and walking amid the "dead" at the above, we thought we were desensitized to it all. Then we strolled through the Chucky "scare zone" (new this year) which was anything but child's play. Little people dressed as the killer dolls emerge from behind carts and props to chase you around with bloody knives! Friends til The End, indeed. Thurs.-Sun., thur Nov. 2. $44-149 (depending on the night and whether you get GA or a "front of the line" pass; we highly recommend the latter which will save you literally hours of line time. 100 Universal City Plaza.
Honorable Mentions (click links for more info):
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