Haunts on the Brain

It may only be August, but my mind is already fixed on my favorite month of the year — October!  I love the weather, fashion, and activities that come with fall and October, my birthday is in October, my favorite holiday (Halloween) is in October, and October means haunted houses!  (Haunted houses might not seem to fit within the theme of this blog, but I love haunted houses with all my heart, and I’ll be damned if I run a blog where they don’t belong!  Just file them under “adventure” with a small dose of “mystery” and let’s all move along.)

Haunted house audition and construction season has just begun, and opening nights for events like Busch Gardens’ Howl-o-Scream are just a month away, so it really isn’t too early to start thinking and talking about haunts!  I’m excited for my first October living in Richmond.  Since it’s a bigger area, there are a lot of local haunts to choose from.  We’re also a lot closer to things like Howl-o-Scream and all the crazy stuff they do up in Baltimore (Bennett’s Curse sounds pretty cool!).  Of course, my budget will probably limit me to just one or two houses this year, and I don’t think we’ll make it back out to Howl-o-Scream, but it’s nice to have a lot to choose from, and especially nice to have so many choices right in our hometown.

So if I only get to go to one or two haunted houses this year, how will I choose?  To be 100% honest, the biggest influence on my decision will probably be presentation in marketing.  And by that, I mean the website.  So many haunted houses have these really crappy, cobbled-together websites that look like something I would have made in 1996, all full of links and stretched-out images, and the useful information nowhere to be found.  I know a haunt could still be totally amazing even if it doesn’t have a good website, but to me, a crappy website says “I’m not really taking this seriously.”  And if it’s not worth the creator’s time and money to present their attraction to me in an appealing way, maybe it’s not worth my time and money to go.

If there are a number of professional-looking haunts available, then I can start looking at my own personal preferences for a haunt experience.  I love scary things, obviously, but I don’t really value gore and scare jumps.  (Let me be clear, though — I do love making gory things like props and costumes, maybe because I like scaring people and imagining that what I’m making might creep somebody out.)  Actually, it might not be that I don’t value those things, but that they tend to be used in so much excess in pretty much every haunted house that they lose their value.  Like everything, they’re probably great when used in moderation.

I value novelty and the unique activities and experiences that some haunts choose to provide.  Scare for a Cure blew my mind when it herded my group into a van and then sent the van speeding through the forest (and then the same thing again at the end, but that time we didn’t know we were in a vehicle until it started moving!)  I’ll always regret not going to a haunted maze I read about that had black-out nights where they turned out all the lights and you were just given a glowstick to light the path.  Walking through a series of hallways getting spooked by monsters is boring.  Throw in an element of adventure or action into your haunt and I’m sold.

Theming is another important element for me.  When done right, theming can let you get immersed in the haunt experience even while you are actively trying to avoid doing so (“They’re just an actor, they can’t hurt me.”)  Scare for a Cure knocked this one out of the park with their refugee camp waiting area in 2010’s haunt.  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more immersive live-action ANYTHING.  A live band provided the soundtrack of the evening, while barrels held fires for warmth and ambient lighting.  We got to know the strange characters, learned the back-story, and were included as a part of the production.  Then the haunt itself seemed to span such a huge area and so robustly decorated, it was easy to forget where we were or how we had gotten there.  Well-executed theming helped transform a haunt I didn’t care about to one I really appreciated at Howl-o-Scream.

Going back through my reviews of Howl-o-Scream last year, one word that kept popping up was subtlety.  I want the haunted house to plant the seed of fear and then let my mind do the rest of the work.  Howl-o-Scream had a few nice touches last year like the live electrical wire effects in Dead Line and the sand-filled hallway in Bitten.  Mazes appeal to me so much because of the puzzle element, but they definitely have that subtle suspense element where you don’t know what’s going to be around the next corner.  (And there doesn’t even need to be anything around the corner at all.)  I once went through a self-guided mini-haunted house in Kobe, Japan by myself.  I don’t think anything ever actively scared me (it was all cheesy motion-sensor animatronics and crappy props, no actors or anything), but I was terrified of what I was going to encounter in there alone, and it became one of the scariest haunt experiences of my life.  In the end, my mind will always cook up something scarier than whatever your costume and prop department can create.

This is no good.  Most haunted houses aren’t trying to appeal to people like me, they’re trying to appeal to teenagers who will go tell all their friends that the haunted house was totally lame if the costumes weren’t gorey enough and they didn’t get enough scare jumps.  I’m probably going to have a hard time finding haunted houses that explore “scare” as an art form.  But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying!

Are any of you guys as crazy about haunted houses and Halloween as I am?  Any favorite haunts in the Virginia/D.C. area?  What do you like or dislike in a haunted house?  (Got any good stories??)