The month of October may be the busiest in all of L.A., at least in terms of after-dark activities. Along with cooler temps, a flurry of fiendish fun rolls in: dress-up parties, concerts from decidedly darker artists, Halloween fanfare in the clubs and horror-ific attractions.
The L.A. Haunted Hayride is one of the most successful nighttime attractions in town, bringing thousands of Angelenos to a historic locale (the old zoo in Griffith Park) for an evening of giggles, jumps and screams in the outdoors. But unlike theme park maze-a-thons, it’s more of a mom-and-pop operation — well, a mom operation, anyway.
The hayride concept is not new, but it had yet to be attempted in Los Angeles until Melissa Carbone, a former marketing exec at Clear Channel, decided to throw her pointy hat into the Halloween market.
“My partner and I owned a house in Westwood, and we created these really elaborate Halloween displays in our front yard,” recalls Carbone. “We started noticing kids coming to check them out every year. Then, parents and families started coming. It led me to start researching Halloween as a business, and I discovered a lot of potential. It was a $6 billion industry.”
It’s now at $8 billion, and Carbone’s gamble to create her own attraction (she put up her life's savings) paid off. Not only has she proven there's room for her bloody new baby in Southern California, but since the attraction’s inception, her company Ten Thirty One Productions has expanded the macabre business model to a New York Hayride, a boat attraction in the OC called Ghost Ship and spooky year-round events in the park including an overnight experience called the Great Horror Campout and the Great Horror Movie Night.
Carbone, who grew up in Connecticut, says that the epic Halloween parties her mother threw were a huge influence. But she’s not the gothy horror nerd you might expect her to be. She comes at it from a monetary mindset.
“For me, it was about loving business models and logistics and blueprints. I love watching the trends and flow of revenue,” says the current Los Feliz resident (who, by the way, no longer has time to decorate her own home for Halloween).
And Carbone definitely knows her stuff. Her business acumen even got her a “yes” on Shark Tank, the NBC reality show on which contestants pitch investors. NBA impresario Mark Cuban, one of the show's “sharks,” invested $2 million in her company.
Though Knott's Berry Farm and Universal Studios both heavily promote their Halloween experiences, Carbone says there’s no clear leader in the industry when it comes to Halloween attractions, and she felt it was “up for grabs.” Other attractions such as Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare didn't have the longevity to be an annual thing. Add to this the fact that loving horror and Halloween is less niche and more of a universal seasonal pastime, and it’s not surprising she’s making a killing, so to speak. Dates, families and sizable friend squads gather and go together weekly.
Carbone attributes much of the horror happening’s success to its locale. Hayride started at a ranch in Calabasas, but it was the old zoo at Griffith (already rumored to be haunted) that struck a chord with scare fans in LA. “It was the best move we ever made,” she says. “But it was really difficult. They had never done a private partnership before. We were the first.”
Hayride always ups the ante to grab attention, and this year they're using even more of the park. Scenes of bloody murders, satanic rituals, killer clowns, haunted orphanages — they’ve tried it all. This year’s theme, ”Secret Society,” is the first time the ride isn’t just a ride but actually makes patrons get off the truck for an experience that incorporates a more traditional maze set-up, with a walk-through that immerses attendees like never before. The concept is this: You are a member of the “Secret Society of Samhain (Halloween)” when you enter the Hayride, but its ghoulish members determine which part you belong to: The Elite or The Deranged. You are judged and sent down the path of your status, so guests have an opportunity experience two different scary scenarios.
I found the new concept somewhat convoluted. Inside the gates of the “society,” I had no idea which faction I was in. And leaving the safety of the hay wagon was a thrill for some but distracting from the mood of the actual ride for others. The themes of “power, corruption, influence, tyranny and evil,” showing how “this day is not all about costumes and candy,” was a very cool and new twist on traditional Halloween themes, especially in the current political climate. The soundtrack choices for the whole experience — a melange of metal, carnival music and rhythmic stomps — were perfect.
This year, the Hayride has also teamed up with the new movie Ouija 2 (Carbone knows her marketing!) for a maze right near the entrance of the event. It’s OK, and probably better than OK if you’re into the movie franchise. A second maze, “Trick or Treat,” is the must-see hell-raising humdinger of the event, though; you actually get to knock on doors and ask for candy from an array of audacious creeps, vamps and weirdos. Hey, that sounds like some neighborhoods in L.A. Truly frightening.
Haunted Hayride at Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive. Open now through Oct. 31. losangeleshauntedhayride.com.