Nick and I took a trip to Williamsburg back in October to check out Busch Garden’s annual halloween festivities: Howl-o-Scream! At first glance, Halloween activities might not seem to have anything to do with mysteries or puzzles, but I think Halloween shares the same appealing spirit of adventure and intrigue. After all, it’s a night where everyone wears a disguise! And haunted houses are full of mystery (what’s around the next corner, and where will the next ghoul surprise me from?). There might not be any puzzles or mysteries to solve, but the atmosphere is definitely in the same family.
I had been wanting to check out Busch Gardens’ Halloween stuff for a long time, so I was super excited that we got to go this year. I was a little bit wary after we had a lackluster experience with the Halloween efforts at Six Flags Fiesta Texas last year, but BG turned out to be leaps and bounds better.
Howl-o-Scream consists of several different elements that transform Busch Gardens into a fun Halloween experience:
- Theme and Decor: Creepy decorations and music all over the park, and all promotions for the park follow a central theme.
- Shows: Halloween-themed shows and performances,
- “Scare Zones”: Five different themed zones, set up in transition areas between park sections, where actors jump out and scare you
- Haunted Houses: Five different haunted houses set up throughout the park
Theme and Decorations:
The theme this year was “The Dark Side of the Gardens,” which featured heavy imagery of garden hedges, big red roses (with eyeballs in the center), an evil-looking screaming lady, and a theme song sung by a little girl, inviting you to “Come play in my gardens.” They certainly got their money’s worth with that theme song. Between standing in line and taking a few train rides, I had the lyrics memorized pretty quickly (and I could still recite them now!). Luckily, the song wasn’t particularly annoying and fit very well with the subtle, haunting theme. I actually wished they had taken the garden theme a little bit further. It seemed like it was only used in the song, the promotional materials, and a few decorations. It’s a solid theme, and it seems like they could have taken advantage of it a bit more, maybe with something like a hedge maze or a Little Shop of Horrors type of botanical-themed area. In any case, it was cool to see a fresh theme in the sea of zombies (or the generic “gore” theme) that Halloween has become over the past few years.
We were both fairly impressed with the decorations overall, but we might have just been coming in with a low standard after our Six Flags experience. Where the Six Flags decorations seemed pretty lazy (throw some cobwebs here, put a weird statue there, whatever), the Busch Gardens decorations seemed to be more plentiful, and thoughtfully placed throughout the park. Dozens of ghosts were hung super high up in the trees in one area, another area had a huge troll statue for photo opportunities, and all the decorations in general seemed to have been put in effective and appropriate places. Busch Gardens has always been a beautiful (and beautifully-themed) park, and it’s nice to see that they bring that standard of quality to seasonal events as well.
We only saw one of the Halloween-themed shows, a music and dance performance called Fiends, held in the Das Festhaus in the Germany area. Fiends followed the story of a mad scientist and his many monstrous creations. Different classic monsters like vampires, mummies, and werewolves gave singing and dancing performances to punny pop tunes (for example, the werewolf soloist sang “Hungry Like the Wolf”). The set was great, and the show was entertaining enough, though we were both surprised at the racy costumes and dance moves of the scientist’s legion of sexy nurses. We even heard some parents near us expressing discomfort at how scantily clad they were.
This type of issue brings up an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you might say “This is supposed to be a family park, how could they put on such an inappropriate performance?” On the other hand, it’s Halloween and the park decorations are all gruesome and gore (the circle of monsters displayed right outside Das Festhaus were particularly nasty), how is a sexy nurse any more offensive than blood and severed limbs? For some reason, our culture almost always considers sex to be much more obscene than violence.
Aside from worrying about the family next to me, I thought the show was pretty fun. The sexy nurses had great routines, they got to wear bubble-gum pink bobbed wigs, and they looked like they were having a ton of fun. And there was a little bit of equal-opportunity sexiness as the upper-half of Dracula’s costume was nothing more than a bare torso-revealing vest. The stage was well-decorated, and fog machines and laboratory sounds helped set the mood. The characters lines were a little hard to hear, and it was a little difficult to follow the story at times, but the musical performances were cute.
There were five different “Scare Zones” set up in the transition areas between park sections. The themes were Widow Makers (lumberjacks vs. mutant spiders? Didn’t make it to this one), Grin and Scare it (creepy clowns), Unleashed (werewolves), Stitchin’ Time (bodysnatching/Frakensteining), and Scavengers (evil crows/scarecrows). We managed to make it to all of them except for Widow Makers, but auditory clues implied that chainsaws featured prominently.
All of the Scare Zones were pretty similar in format, just short 30-60 second walk-through decorated areas with lots of actors hiding behind things to jump out and scare you. The Scavengers actors had some pretty creepy bird masks and noisemakers, and the Unleashed section had some very well-camouflaged actors that got me even after I started looking out for them. The Grin and Scare It area was my least favorite. It’s not that I’m afraid of clowns, I just don’t like the way they get all up in your face as their primary scare tactic. It’s sort of like they’re saying “I’m a clown, aren’t I creepy? I bet I’m creeping you out right now!” when really they’re just making me feel awkward, because what do I do if I’m not scared? Just stare them down? More likely I turn away because I feel awkward, which reads as me being scared and uncomfortable, which means they get more up in my face! Clowns are confrontational and I am not!
I thought the Scare Zones helped add a lot of atmosphere to the whole event. It was fun to be walking around at night and hear the sounds of chainsaws and frightened people echoing through the air (maybe a little too fun?). It helped give a sense that exciting things were happening all around. It also gave a sense of anticipation just for traversing the park, which is a huge plus. And even though we had walked through the decorated areas several times during the day, they seemed so much different at night with the actors and the sounds and the darkness.
Now for the meat of the post! I was most looking forward to the Haunted Houses, and I think they’re definitely the feature that draws so many people into the park for Howl-o-Scream. I had heard that they close off admission in the evening because the park hits max capacity, and that people were waiting a whole hour to get into certain houses, so I was really hoping the crowds wouldn’t keep us from making it to all five houses. Still, I wasn’t prepared to pay any extra money to make that happen. All of the lines had some sort of quick pass system going on, and park attendants convinced a lot of the people in line near us to pay $5 and get in the quick pass line. No thanks!
The first haunted house on our path was Catacombs, located in the France area of the park and themed after the famous bone-lined Catacombs of Paris. The house was set up in the building that houses the stage for the Royal Palace Theatre. We got there at 6:04, and the line already seemed pretty long at first glance. That turned out to be an optical illusion, and we definitely didn’t wait for any more than 10 minutes. Our brief wait was made a little more interesting with some cool gothic statues they had placed along the way.
This first haunted house kind of set the tone for what we would experience for the rest of the night, as far as the structure of the haunted houses went: Walk a few feet, turn a corner, get spooked, repeat. No subtly here. In fact, when it was almost our turn to go in to the Catacombs, we could plainly see and hear that a ghoul spooks you pretty much the moment you step through the entrance. Only people who weren’t paying attention could have gotten spooked by that one!
The first half of the Catacombs house was almost pitch black, and you had to really follow the people in front of you to keep from running into something (though I did run into a few walls and corners). This reminded me a lot of the house we went through at Six Flags Fiesta Texas (that one was blackness almost the whole way. Talk about cost-saving measures!). I like this idea when used in moderation, and since they didn’t use it in any of the other haunted houses, it got my approval.
The second half of Catacombs brightened up a bit, and we could actually see some set design that resembled an underground catacombs, with arched ceilings and brick patterns. Very nice decorating here! The path also elevated a bit at this point (we all tripped when we reached the ramp), and ghouls would hit the path from below.
Overall, I’d say Catacombs had the weakest theme, which was basically “The French catacombs are a creepy place to be.” This house had the fewest decorations (or at least the fewest visible decorations), but the pitch-black first half helped make it unique from the other four.
13: Your Number’s Up
Next on the route was 13: Your Number’s Up. This was where we encountered our first big line of the night, and it was truly large this time. This house was set up in kind of a hilly area of the park (I’m not sure what building it was set up inside of, I’m not super familiar with BG), so you ended up climbing this incline and then, from the top, looking out over this massive winding line. We had to stop and think for a minute before committing to that line for sure. Early in the line, we saw a lot of people take the $5 quick pass that the park attendant came by and offered. From a money-making standpoint, it was definitely in Busch Gardens’ best interest to make sure you could see the whole line before you got in it. They definitely weren’t taking the Disney World approach of distracting guests from the long lines here (though they probably wouldn’t even have the space/budget for that sort of thing, these being seasonal attractions placed in an already mostly full park).
Overall, we had about a 45 minute wait. Luckily, we had a pretty adorable family in front of us with two funny kids. They taught the youngest one “how to scream” for the haunted house. He seemed a little too young to be going through, and we were worried he was going to get scared and start crying, but instead he hilariously gave his high-pitched practiced “scream” right in the face of every actor he passed by! I bet he spooked other people more than he got spooked that night!
The theme for this house was phobias, with each of the 13 rooms dedicated to a different phobia. Signs set up along the line gave guests a primer on the phobias that would be covered, which was helpful. They were your typical phobias like darkness, bugs, dentists (nice use of waiting room muzak here), snakes, torture, etc. I don’t remember any of the rooms particularly standing out, and the themeing was pretty heavy-handed. Though the 13 phobias theme sounded interesting at first, it really boils down to “Here are a bunch of rooms with scary stuff in them”, which is what every haunted house is about. I thought the best room was the final phobia: death. “How will they represent death?” I wondered, cringing at the thought of a dude in a stereotypical grim reaper costume staring us down as we exited the house. To my delight, they did something really creative. When you got to the room, it was just two huge billowing walls of black trash bag plastic (with fans behind them I suppose), pushing out against each other. To progress, you had to sort of walk right in between them and be consumed by the walls and the darkness. It was kind of claustrophobic, a little artsy, and very cool. It was one of the most simple effects I saw the whole night, but it left a huge impact.
Other than that last part, I didn’t think 13 was anything special. It also suffered from a few flaws, namely There’s Too Much Damn Stuff Hanging From the Ceiling Syndrome. A few strategically placed snakes or streamers hanging from the ceiling in a dark room is great for a creepy effect. But I ended up being so focused on pushing these heavy rubber snakes and crap out of my way just to get through the room that I couldn’t be bothered to be spooked by the actors or pay attention to the rest of the themeing. I was annoyed, and annoyance is like a fear repellent. I can’t be scared of something if I’m MAD AT IT.
Another small issue I had with this house was in the marketing. Copy from the promotional material for this particular haunted house read: “For 13 long years, the dark tower was locked away from the world—existing only in the nightmares of those who had dared to experience Howl-O-Scream’s first and most terrifying maze.” It goes on to talk about how the tower is open now, and you should go to the 13th floor and get scared. Giving this a quick glance before our visit, I foolishly assumed that 13 was actually going to be a maze, which sounded awesome. I also heard someone else in line talking about the same thing, so I wasn’t the only one who made that mistake. What the copy was actually saying, I think, is that on the first year of Howl-o-Scream, 13 years ago, they had a totally sweet maze that had a dark tower in it. Now we get to go into that tower (but not the maze). It’s cool that they were trying to tie things back into the whole 13th anniversary thing, but I wonder how similar any of the elements of this house were to the one 13 years ago. Does anyone remember there being a maze 13 years ago? Did they really need to mention it? I think I’m just sore because there was no maze, and this wasn’t really a problem they could have foreseen. (Interestingly, in my research for this post, I came across a different website that referred to all of the HOS haunted houses as “mazes,” which is baffling to me. I think, by definition, a maze cannot be clearly linear (as in, only one path). And the haunted houses at Busch Gardens were nothing if not linear.)
I think Dead Line was my favorite house of the night. First of all, it was set up underneath the Escape from Pompeii ride. That ride already creeps me out (I have a slight phobia of machines in water, which includes, but is not limited to, water rides with moving parts and fire features), and it’s one of the best-decorated rides in the park, in my opinion. I love the ride, and I love seeing things behind the scenes, so I was pretty excited to get to go under that huge ruined temple facade.
The theme for this house was that construction on a new Pompeii Metro line met disaster when workers hit an ancient pipe. A strange gas began leaking out, and the in-progress subway was totally sealed-off, trapping the workers inside. All the trapped workers were presumably killed by the poisonous gas… OR WERE THEY? (Spoiler: They were not. They were turned into scary gas zombies) This ride had a promotional video playing near the line where they went over the story and the reason we were being sent underground with this dangerous gas. I can’t tell you why we were being sent underground. The line for this house was actually quite short, and we didn’t have a lot of time to get acquainted with the video. Or maybe I was just too busy staring at the ride’s raft-moving machinery under the eerily still water. In any case, this was the only house that had a video feature, and really the only one that had a story.
I really liked the theme for this one. The story and decorations were fairly unique as far as haunted houses go. The actors were all pretty much just zombies, but the settings were awesome. One area was an under-construction subway platform, with vending machines and newspaper stands and stuff like that scattered about. Then we went inside an actual subway car (or a very well-fabricated replica), cool! There was also a public bathroom-themed room, which was definitely something new and different! The creepiest room for me was some kind of power/control room, where there were exposed wires hanging from the ceiling, sparks flashing, and electrical buzzing sounds. For me, this room touched on a very real fear that we’re taught from the first time we try to stick a fork in an outlet as little kids. Live wires are scary! Electrocution is super scary! The exposed wires hanging down made me really uncomfortable, which none of the other houses really managed to do. Well done, Dead Line!
Dead Line also used an effect similar to the black trash-bags and fans used in the Death room of 13, but Dead Line used white trash bags instead. I think it was supposed to represent getting decontaminated from the gas or something?
Overall, strong theme, great sets and decor, fun story, awesome location, A++ would go through again. Also, the most brightly lit of all the houses, despite supposedly being underground. Not everything has to be dark to be scary!
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Fear Fair, due to my aforementioned distaste for clowns’ usual in-your-face scare tactics. Plus the line was super long. Though this house was last on my list, interest-wise, it turned out to be one of the more unique houses of the night. The theme basically turned out to be circus and freak show, which is more creative and interesting than straight-up clowns. They really stuck to this theme and did a good job with it, starting with the vintage-style freak show posters hanging up as you got closer to the entrance.
This was the only outdoor (well, partially-outdoor) house, and was set up in a grassy area behind the Roman Rapids (you could actually see part of it from the train!). Instead of traversing from room, to hallway, to room, to hallway like the other four houses, this house was set up as a series of small circus tents. The tents were separated by a short walk outside, which made this house feel a lot bigger and also helped the keep the specific themes feel distinct from tent to tent. Each tent was dedicated to a different “freak” in the show, or other circus attraction, with posters outside each tent to let you know what’s inside. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what most of the rooms were supposed to be. One was sort of bearded woman/hair themed, with long hanging from the ceiling and all over everything. Another room had a quite disturbing chicken theme, with feathers everywhere and a distinct chicken coop smell. Bleh! (But bonus points for being the only room in a haunted house that has ever engaged my sense of smell!) Some of the other rooms seemed to have more of a funhouse theme. One room was full of huge inflatable balls that guests had to get past, another had big heavy panels full of sand hanging from the ceiling that were difficult to get past as well. One room had a maze-like section that was pretty disorienting and fun. Most of the rooms had some spooking actors, and most of the transition spaces outside had them too, though the open layout made it pretty easy to see or anticipate most of their hiding places.
Great theme, okay rooms, a few creative ideas, and a unique layout. Not bad for what I thought was just going to be clowns in my face.
We almost didn’t go to Bitten. I had read on the park’s Facebook page that people had waited an hour to get in the night before. In hindsight, there was probably a certain time period where most of the houses had around an hour wait, not Bitten specifically for any reason. When we got in line, we heard an attendant say he thought it would be about a 45 minute wait. We had been in the park all day, and we were getting pretty tired, but we decided to stick it out. That line turned out to only be about 10 minutes, so that ended up being a good call.
Bitten was set up in, I think, the old operating area for the late Big Bad Wolf roller coaster in Germany, or some similar building nearby anyway. All we knew about Bitten was that it was supposed to be Vampire/gothic themed. The waiting area was sparse, just some strings and poles set up to make the line area and basically no other decorations other than wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the house (unless it was too dark to see any other decor). For atmosphere, they did have some big red flood lights (Bitten will always be “the red one” in my memory), and music. That music. I guess I wouldn’t really call it music. It was a track with one grandiose, dissonant chord being played by strings and horns, in slow repetition over and over again, in kind of a Jaws/Psycho sort of way. The chord stings would get louder and louder, more and more ominous and blaring, until they reached a peak. Then they would get a little quieter and start over again. It was an eternal climax, constant suspense and terror. I find that when you try to crank the emotional level of something up to 11, and then you just leave it at 11, the effect isn’t a constant emotional high, but a flatline. They may as well have had an airhorn blasting continuously.
Maybe the boring music was a preview for what was to come. I thought Bitten was by far the weakest of the five haunted houses. The theme here was not very strong at all. If I hadn’t known in advance that it was supposed to be vampires, I don’t think I would have been able to figure it out just by going through the house. Props to the designers for not filling it with stereotypical high-collared, widow’s-peaked Draculas, but it still left a lot to be desired. It did seem to have the gothic/aristocratic sort of decor and costumes, and looked like maybe it was set in a mansion or something, but the whole thing just seemed kind of disjointed and bland.
Bitten did have one unique feature used well near the end of the house: a hallway where the walkway was full of sand. At first, I was annoyed. My general reaction to sand in any setting is “I hope it doesn’t get in my shoes.” Then I felt impressed that they would put sand in their haunted house, knowing that people like me would find it annoying. And then I started noticing the effect the sand was having. It was hard to walk, in kind of a fun way. It also made me feel anxious, like if something scary started chasing me, I would have a hard time getting away quickly. A hallway full of sand made me feel a little scared. Simple, effective, and like the Death room in 13, it left a bigger impact than any spooky actors or severed limb props scattered about.
Overall, I had a great time at Howl-o-Scream and felt like I got my money’s worth. The decorations were great, the one show we saw was fine. The Scare Zones had some really creative themes, which impressed me since they could have just made them all extensions of their closest haunted houses and thought of five fewer ideas than they did (well, technically Grin and Scare it was circus themed). But there is always room for improvement, and my criticism falls most heavily on haunted houses. I hesitate to complain too much, since the entire Howl-o-Scream experience pretty much met or exceeded my expectations, and I know that the event already takes a huge amount of money and effort to coordinate as-is. But I don’t think there’s any harm in taking an analytic approach to some of its weaker points.
My biggest beef with the haunted houses was that all five of them followed the same basic structure. At their core, each house had the guests following the same pattern: Walk through a predetermined route, where you will see some decorations, and where you will have about a 30% chance of an actor jumping out at you approximately every 10-20 steps. The end. Having gone through all five houses, this formula became very repetitive and boring. If all the houses follow the same formula, that means their uniqueness relies on their theme and special features, which seemed to be hit or miss.
It is difficult to be too critical, though. A haunted house inside a theme park must have to deal with a lot of unusual obstacles and limitations. They have to work within a very limited and inflexible space, they have a strong incentive to get as many guests through as quickly as possible, and guest safety and comfort is the highest priority (not that it isn’t a priority for all haunted houses, but a large company like BG, with a reputation and investor interests to protect, might be less likely to try something new and interesting if there is any chance that a guest could have a bad experience. Another reason the sand in Bitten surprised me!). I’m not a theme park owner/operator, so I don’t know the challenges that type of venue presents and my ideas and suggestions may be impractical. For example, I might think something like making the train ride into a haunted attraction would be totally sweet, but there are probably a lot of reasons something like that wouldn’t work out (Guests who are actually using the train as a way to get around the park more easily might have to wait in a 45-minute line to do so!). And since the haunted houses are included in the price of park admission, the budget for the houses is probably fairly limited. The restraints discourage risks, innovation, subtlety, and interactivity, while they unfortunately encourage streamlining, efficiency, heavy-handedness, and repetition.
Taking all of that into consideration, I guess my only advice would be to try and push the creative limits of those restraints. If your haunts must follow the same basic formula, then the themes need to be really strong and well-executed with interesting, engaging rooms. Play on more subtle fears, like the sand hallway and the live-wire room. Distract your guests with their own thoughts to keep them from just anticipating the next scare. Try not to repeat too many tricks across the different houses (I’m looking at you, actor who is hiding behind a sliding panel in the wall that makes a loud sound when it opens). Get creative with lights and sounds. You don’t need an actor around every corner.
I always imagine (and this may or may not be true at all) that modern haunted houses are plagued with this problem where they feel like they have to be “scary.” And by “scary,” I mean the very juvenile definition where scary means extremely gross and gruesome and that dude jumped out at me and made my heart stop for a second. And so, I imagine that haunted house creators might think that if they don’t put a jumpy scare around every corner and don’t cover their actors in gory make-up and masks, then the kids who visit their haunted house will tell all their friends it was lame, and dumb, and, worst of all, “not scary.” And as the years go by, that standard of “scary” is going to get pushed more and more to the extreme, and the kids will get more and more jaded, and suddenly your haunted house is nothing but gross zombie monsters jumping out at people over and over and over again. It’s “scary” turned up to 11, it’s trying to throw “scary” in your face, and at a certain point, it ceases to be scary at all. Or interesting. Or even entertaining.
When I was in high school, I helped with a fundraising haunted house put on by my school’s Fine Arts department. The American remake of the Japanese horror movie, The Ring, had just come out, and I had dressed up as the creepy little girl, Samara, the previous Halloween. I decided to use that costume for my part in the haunted house. I volunteered to be in an area where I would be alone (I still don’t understand why I would do such a thing), and my area was at the end of a very long hallway. When guests rounded the corner of the hallway, they could see me standing at the end, with a red light behind me. As they started to make their way down the hall, I turned off the light and hid inside a room off the hallway. Meanwhile, the creepy background track from the Ring video was playing on a boombox nearby. Once the group got close to my room, I would emerge from behind the door, all that black hair in my face, and slowly lumber towards them. From some of the guests, I didn’t get much of a reaction. Just a “Hah, it’s that girl from The Ring, she’s acting creepy!” and they exited the hallway. But for others? They freaked. The hell. Out. I never made any quick movements, I never even made a sound, but it was like magnets repelling. One group of kids actually hid behind obstacles in the hallway that put me between them and the exit. I had to back off so they would feel comfortable enough to leave. And for any punks who liked to push or grab the actors, they got a nice surprise. I had covered my arms in vaseline and periodically sprayed down my hair and clothes with water, so I always had that fresh-from-the-bottom-of-the-well slick, wet feeling that you do not want to feel in a haunted house.
This was when I first learned the joy of scaring people, and though my example certainly isn’t the most subtle, I felt that I had done it in a way that seemed much more satisfying and lasting than just making them jump, or grossing them out with my monster face. All forms of “scariness” have their merits, but I feel like the more subtle methods that get under your skin and into your head are really underexplored in modern haunted houses.
So, in short, the haunted houses at Howl-o-Scream could have used more variety, but I can understand the restrictions that make this difficult. We made an effort to hit all five houses, but maybe the expectation is that you only end up making it to one or two, so it doesn’t matter if they’re all basically the same thing. Still, from a marketing standpoint, it’s wise to leave your guests feeling like that there was more they could have done and seen. Maybe even enough more that they’d be willing to come back tomorrow to see the rest. If I go back to Howl-o-Scream next year, I certainly won’t feel like I’ve missed out if I only make it to a couple of the houses since I now know they’re basically all the same.