Haunted House Frustration

Over the weekend we went to check out our first haunted house of the season, “The Warehouse: Project 4.1” up in Rockville, MD.  Late September is a little early for Halloween activities, even for me, but we were able to get a Living Social half-off deal and were going to be in the area anyway, so we went ahead and kicked off haunt-season early.  I won’t go into too much detail as to not spoil anyone, but I would like to get my general thoughts about the experience out of my system.

The marketing for this house had me really excited.  The website was solid (the first test anything has to pass for me) and the concept seemed interesting.  Much to-do was made about it being the first and only all-indoor, “urban” haunted attraction in the area.  I was particularly interested in seeing what creative ways they might utilize an indoor space since we’re hoping to do a puzzle event in a controlled indoor environment sometime soon.  The promo video for the house was completely uninspired and uninspiring, but I was definitely willing to let that slide since I rarely even watch those anyway.  In general, I felt like the marketing was pushing a “this is going to be something a little different” vibe.

When I imagined what “The Warehouse: Project 4.1” was going to be like, I envisioned it taking place in, well, a warehouse.  That was actually kind of a big selling point for me.  Instead, I was surprised to find (and almost didn’t manage to find) that the venue was a unit in a strip mall, next-door to a Toys “R” Us.  Not what I was expecting, but I was still just as interested in seeing how they utilized the space.

A staff member handed us waivers and lead us through the door and into a lobby area with some staffed tables.  One big red floodlight was the only decoration, and that was good enough for me.  After handing in our waivers and before doing any ticket business, we were guided to an escalator (!) heading upstairs into a decorated area with laser lights and screaming sounds and such while a security guard actor warned us about the zombie virus.  Going upstairs at all surprised me, and the entire haunted house turned out to be staged on the second floor of the strip mall, spanning a couple of downstairs shops I suppose.

Upstairs and around the corner, we were finally in the actual ticket/registration area.  I really liked the way they sort of made it feel like the experience was already starting (as you went up the escalator) before you had even paid for anything.  The multiple stages of entry and registration also seemed to be good preparation for larger crowds later in the season.  (That being said, the ticket line was a bit disorganized despite the small crowd that night.)

The waiting area post-purchase had a well-produced video being projected on the wall and a large chalkboard wall where you could “write your last words” before entering the house.  We didn’t get much of a chance to check out these features since the line was pretty short, but it was nice to see some effort at keeping what probably will be large crowds entertained while they wait.

A staff member/DJ got us all lined up to enter the house, giving us the choice of being escorted or going it alone.  We were both a little surprised that we would just get to go through the whole thing by ourselves and not be lumped with another group (though that might have only been the case because it wasn’t super busy).  We opted for alone, of course, and made our way down the hall.

(Here is where I’ll have to refrain from getting too specific.)  The theme of the house was some sort of zombie virus outbreak.  There were some flavor newspaper-style posters in the front window, and then the video playing in the waiting area, but we didn’t really get a chance to check them out.  The maze of the house took us through a mishmash of different room themes, including the titular “warehouse,” an operating room, some zombie holding cells, and offices, to name a few.  If there was a larger narrative at play to connect these rooms, it was impossible to extract as the only characters in the entire house were zombies of some sort and their only lines were a shout or growl of some sort.  (I do have to point out one exception here for a character I’m calling Clicky Doctor.  He was a “normal,” white-haired, older doctor with an eerie demeanor who kept his hands behind his back and clicked something, maybe a pen, loudly and rapidly as he approached us.  Nick says he didn’t hear any clicking, so maybe I’m just crazy, but it was super unsettling.  Clicky Doctor stole the show for me, probably because he wasn’t a zombie.)

If you want to go ahead and call a haunted house an “interactive” experience (which works especially well in this instance since the house was self-guided) like a video game, then the “gameplay” of this house consisted solely of walking, encountering a zombie, being shouted at and/or followed, and then moving on.  There was a point about a third of the way through when I realized “This is all it’s going to be the whole time, it’s not going to get any more interesting,” and I got kind of depressed.  By the end, I was almost feeling like I had been duped.  I’m always on the hunt for a unique, novel experience, and I really latched on to that image with this place.  Instead, I got about the most stereotypical cookie-cutter “haunted house” experience imaginable, minus chainsaws.  It was kind of a Doug’s Bad Trip moment for me, and made me feel a little silly.

All of that being said, the house was not without its high notes.  The sets seemed quite well-made and there were some nice special effects here and there.  The actors did their best with what they had, and actor placement was especially well-done with a few instances of zombies above us (nobody ever looks up) and a nice trick where we appeared to need to choose between two paths to progress, and a zombie would inevitably pop out of the one we moved toward first.  The last room was great with a fun build-up and an extra surprise at the end that actually had me running a bit and scared enough to want to be out of the room quickly.

My one hope going in was to see at least one thing done in an interesting or new way, and that was definitely fulfilled, but in general this house left a lot to be desired.  There were a few rooms where you could imagine that maybe the creators had some sort of vision, but for everything else it seemed like the creative direction stopped at “Put a zombie on it.”  It occurred to us afterward that neither of us have actually been to very many typical haunted houses, and that Scare for a Cure was definitely coloring our perspective quite a bit.  They definitely recognize that a series of awkward stalemate interactions with lineless actors who can’t even touch you is not (or at least should not be) a sustainable model for the haunted house experience.

Anyway, as the title of the post states, this haunted house experience mostly just left me frustrated.  If you’re going to go through the entire process of funding, marketing, building, and running a haunted house, why not try and make it interesting and unique?  I’m trying to imagine what kids tell their friends after they’ve gone to a house like this.  “There was this one part where a zombie jumped out at me!”  And that’s literally ALL the parts.  Arg.  Now I’m really hesitant about the other haunted houses I was thinking about going to.  Are they just going to be more of the same?  Is that maze I was excited about actually going to be a maze, or just a maze-shaped potato?  Where can I find a unique, memorable experience that I wouldn’t regret paying full price for?

Haunt season is off to a rocky start!

4 comments on Haunted House Frustration

  • Dan E.

    I was going to ask what you were expecting, because what you describe is pretty much every professional (commercial) haunted house I’ve seen. I think they’re more fun for kids, and I think the designers are pretty risk averse in terms of experience.

    The amateur installations are often more creative (and of course often less well done).

    I have not been to the spook houses at major theme park destinations, maybe those are better. But also note that your complaints (predictability, vague implied story, limited gamut of interaction) apply to most theme park experiences! So if you think of this as “B-grade theme park ride in a strip mall, without the little carts” then that describes what you saw pretty well.

    From the owner’s point of view, that sounds like a pretty solid recipe. Violating expectations is mostly going to get you in trouble, after all, with crying kids and/or confused parents.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Yeah, I think I really just didn’t know what I was getting into and set my expectations way too high! I spend a lot of time looking for/reading about really cool unique experiences that are creative and sometimes high-risk, so while I think “why bother” at the idea of a boring, predictable haunt, I forget that most people are thinking “because money.”

      We went to the Busch Gardens Howl-o-Scream in Williamsburg last year and I wasn’t really impressed. A couple of the houses used their theming really well, but they were all really formulaic, especially in the scares. I had a lot of thoughts that night about the battle between interactivity/novelty and massive scale. The two feel kind of at odds, since interactivity usually takes time (often variable time) and in general isn’t conducive to sending hundreds/thousands of guests through per night. It seems like to make something cool, you would either need to do it on a very low budget or charge a very high price. The more unique and interactive the experience, the more expensive it becomes (even if that cost is just time), the more exclusive it must be?

      Anyway, the Howl-o-Scream houses were still much better than the mall one though! And I really would like to check out the Universal ones since it sounds like they really go all out.

      The more I think about it, the more perfect Scare for a Cure seems. They’re very up-front about the level of interactivity and physicality involved, and you sign a waver that basically says the actors can mess with you (we saw guests picked up and carried off, one monster danced with my husband, they put us in a van and drove us off through the forest, etc.) and you’re okay getting covered in fake blood. It might be high-risk, but it seems to be paying off for them, probably because it’s one of the coolest haunt experiences out there and it’s based in a city that’s pretty into unusual experiences. Ugh, I’m so spoiled now.

  • Jen

    Yeah, I think we just need you to show us how it’s done! 🙂 To be honest though, I probably would’ve been freaked. Things that pop out and creepy music are all that’s needed to scare me. I don’t go to haunted houses really, but I remember one when I was little. It was just a house in our neighborhood where they’d invite you in when you reached that point in your trick-or-treating route. (Nowadays that probably sounds creepy, le sigh.) In my memory, things were almost claustrophobic the way they decorated it, and all around you (since it’s Halloween), everyone’s in costume and sometimes you didn’t know who’s about to scare you or who’s just walking through. Back in those days, there was grabbing too (reaching for your ankles, etc.) and lots of ‘decorations’ (like a mummy in a coffin standing up) ended up coming after you! Man, was my heart racing after that.
    Sounds like it was deeeecently put together though and that they’re trying to appeal to whole families and whatnot – I agree with what Dan said. Would definitely be cool if there were any “gameplay” at all, like if you had to find some sort of antidote, or kill all the zombies (laser tag?? haha), or save people/find survivors…are those things that you would’ve found interesting?

    • clavicarius (author)

      I had some scary haunted house experiences as a kid too! I walked through a “graveyard” section at the end of a haunted trail, and it had open dug graves where actors crawled out, and one of them grabbed my ankles! I ran through so fast and I was spooked for weeks, haha. Somehow despite all that, I’ve grown to love scary stuff!

      Although those ideas are awesome and would be really fun, I don’t think interactivity was even really necessary to impress me.. Just some sort of variety and novelty, or some feeling of progression. I don’t know, make the very first room/hall completely dark and soundproof, freak me out, set me up, don’t put a zombie around the first corner (and then every subsequent corner). Use some subtlety, show me something new! I had this same problem with Busch Gardens.. there are a hundred ways to scare people without using costumed actors, and half of them have got to be easier, cheaper, and more reliable than using costumed actors. I don’t know why these places feel like they have to saturate the entire place with zombies. Whatever my brain imagines is at the end of that hallway is always going to be scarier than whatever you can put there, so let me imagine.

      At one point we had to walk through a room where the path kind of weaved back and forth around some shelves (like a theme park ride line), and we literally had one zombie following us all the way through there, screaming the same scream at us every 5 seconds or so. That makes kind of a good metaphor for the whole experience, all I could do was laugh at how ridiculous it was.

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