Hoods, guns and blood: Are Halloween attractions getting scarier?

By , on October 2, 2014


At Halloween, yards and public spaces may be decorated with traditionally macabre symbols including witches, skeletons, cobwebs, and headstones. Anthony22 / Wikimedia Commons.
At Halloween, yards and public spaces may be decorated with traditionally macabre symbols including witches, skeletons, cobwebs, and headstones. Anthony22 / Wikimedia Commons.

NEW YORK—Halloween seems to be getting scarier, with attractions going ever-more interactive and in-your-face.

At Knott’s Scary Farm in Buena Park, California, guests are outfitted with neon-green laser guns and ordered to shoot actors portraying zombies by aiming at their heads. At the Dent Schoolhouse in Cincinnati, a butcher appears to demonstrate how to slaughter a pig. And at The Basement, part of the ScareHouse near Pittsburgh, hoods are placed over visitors’ faces.

“We put a hood over the customer and it’s remarkable how much a difference that makes,” said Scott Simmons, ScareHouse creative director. “You’re taking away sight, a core thing, and it’s such a nerve-racking experience. You see these terrible, horrifying demons and clowns, and they put a hood on you, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You feel terrible things touching you and whispering in your ear. But as extreme as it is, it’s still fun. People come out shaking, but they’re smiling.”

Visitors to The Basement sign a waiver and must be 18, and are given a “safe word” that they can say to stop activities if it’s too much.

But why have Halloween attractions become so intense?

“After 20 years of haunted houses with people stepping out and saying ‘boo,’ these days if you’re really trying to scare people you’ve got to be edgy and out of their comfort zone,” said Simmons. “What scared people in the ‘70s and the ‘80s isn’t what’s going to scare them now.”

“There’s no doubt Halloween attractions are getting scarier and more extreme,” said Larry Kirchner of HauntWorld.com, a website devoted to haunted attractions. With high-tech special effects, including video, animation and Hollywood-quality sets, “they are more sophisticated. They have gone to another level.”

When done well, Kirchner says, a great haunted house is “100 times better than a Broadway show because it’s interactive entertainment that puts you right in the middle of the action and makes you the star.” But Kirchner thinks some attractions cross a line into poor taste—he’s not a fan of story lines based on real serial killers for example, or activities where participants are humiliated in some way.

Here are a few Halloween events and attractions taking place around the country this season—most of them offering experiences way less intense than being hooded. Expect long lines and check schedules. Some events are weekends only, some run through early November, some sell out.

Universal Halloween Horror Nights

The horror film “The Purge: Anarchy,” which is the sequel to a movie about an annual night of unfettered crime and violence, is just one of the inspirations for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal theme parks in Orlando, Florida, and in Los Angeles. The events feature hundreds of elaborately costumed actors and Hollywood-quality sets, special effects and mazes inspired by pop culture influences ranging from El Rey Network’s “From Dusk Till Dawn,” to AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

HauntWorld’s Top 13

Pennhurst Asylum, in Spring City, Pennsylvania, got the No. 1 slot on HauntWorld.com’s top 13 haunted attractions, while Dent Schoolhouse took seventh. Also on the list: 13th Gate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Netherworld, Atlanta; House of Torment, Austin, Texas; The Darkness, St. Louis; Erebus, Pontiac, Michigan; Kersey Valley Spookywoods, Greensboro, North Carolina; Headless Horseman, Ulster Park, New York; Cutting Edge Haunted House, Fort Worth, Texas; Bates Motel, Philadelphia; Bennett’s Curse, Baltimore; and 13th floor, Chicago.

Attractions by region

New York City’s annual Village Halloween Parade kicks off Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. with thousands of participants in costume and hundreds of enormous puppets.

Pennsylvania offers Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Shocktoberfest in Reading. In the Northeast, there’s Nightmare New England in Litchfield, New Hampshire, while Salem, Massachusetts, hosts parades, ghost tours, performances and more in the town where real witch trials took place in the 1600s.

In the Midwest, check out Wisconsin FearGrounds in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Fear Fest, Flint, Michigan.

In Florida, Tampa’s Busch Gardens offers Howl-O-Scream. New Orleans, has The House of Shock; Houston has the Terror Dome.

Family-friendly

By night, attractions at Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, Georgia, include ZX-1, a haunted zone where a “deadly infection” is “wiping out mankind” (as if real-world Ebola isn’t scary enough). But by day the park offers family activities like a corn maze, harvest festival, pumpkin painting and spooky stories, with children 12 and under invited to dress up for a costume contest.

Elsewhere for kids, SeaWorld San Diego has a Halloween-themed sea lion and otter show called “Clyde & Seamore’s Spooky Adventure.” And of course, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida offers Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and trick-or-treating.

AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang contributed to this report from California.