The Haunting at Halloween Express – Review

The Haunting at Halloween Express

Where: Halloween Express on Bell Rd., just West of I17 on the North side

When: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays starting September 24th, from 7 till at least 10

Cost: $20, coupon also available from the website 

I meant to review The Haunting last year, but became too busy with the Halloween season as I am apt to do. I first went in 2009, and this may have been the first year it was open but I can’t be sure. Unfortunately their website has not been updated since last year so I have no way of knowing whether they plan to bring it out again. I was a little concerned by the number of customers both times I went. Ironically, the problem I normally have is that there are too many people, as the way Fear Farm gets so mobbed during October, but at The Haunting I never had to wait in line. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t the only people there, but I’d have preferred it hit the sweet spot of business where the fellow patrons are just numerous enough to make it feel like a social affair. I’m sure the financiers of the attraction would agree.

I sincerely hope it does return, because it’s one of the finest haunted attractions I’ve seen. The way it sets itself apart is production value. It’s the only entirely indoor haunted attraction I’ve seen that feels like an outdoor attraction. The Halloween Express store occupies one half of a former Albertsons, leaving ample high-ceiling warehouse space for the haunted house. You enter through a rather nifty lobby (with sadly unnecessary serpentine line markers) that sets the tone perfectly with gothic faux-stone walls and column busts. From there it opens out into a huge, open crypt scene where customers are milling around. I was very confused by this the first time I saw it. I didn’t know whether to proceed in spite of everyone or wait for something to happen.

Something does happen of course. Depending on the kind of person you are, you’ll find it terribly awesome or terribly pointless. A full choreographed rendition of Thriller occurs around you. An army of children dressed as zombies perform the whole song and dance in its entirety. They do a very nice job of it, but you have to wonder if it really belongs (this becomes a theme which I’ll get to later). The performance occurs about every 15 minutes, and is optional to watch. This makes things rather awkward because as people gradually line up to start the haunted house tour, they are also watching the Thriller dance happen, and you don’t know if it’s appropriate to cut in line. They need more structure here.

As the tour starts you make your way through three different, linear sections: The Haunted Mansion, the Asylum, and Pirates of the Scare-ibbean. Yeah. You may notice two of these are Disney attractions. I’m at a loss as to how a community haunted attraction with few customers is able to use Disney trademarks. And they are Disney trademarks. The door to the Haunted Mansion segment features the official logo, and the Pirates segment has characters straight from the films.

The Haunted Mansion and Asylum sections are quite excellent. They are detailed, well-constructed, and feature the appropriate amount of scares and interaction. I saw some truly novel special effects such as real life-size holograms of ghosts. I really wonder how it was done. The actors have an unfortunate tendency to speak to you (in character of course), which some people enjoy but I find painfully awkward. When you’re in a fictional environment like this with your friends, wearing normal street clothes, and a witch woman puts herself several inches into your personal bubble and asks what you fear, you understand exactly what an actor you’re not. The Asylum contains a great scene in which mad doctors attempt to restrain a flailing patient to perform some dastardly operation while the fluorescent lights flicker. It’s very striking and makes you want to stop and watch. But of course, they gotta keep you moving.

Then……

Well, remember how I earlier alluded to out-of-place elements? What happens at the end of this attraction is what you call “tonal inconsistency”. As the Asylum portion ends, you are being herded out by screaming madmen, and one shouts “Go! The pirates will save you!”

“What?”

You find yourself fully immersed in a Pirates of the Caribbean recreation, with rickety wooden bridges, seaweed and moss, water, and of course pirates including the ubiquitous Jack Sparrow. As you make your way through you wind up on a “ship” that is incredibly impressive, with a gentle rocking motion and water forcing its way through seams in the wood. The costumes are also incredible, particularly the Davy Jones, whom in the film was created with CGI but here he is flesh and bone (and rubber I suppose). It looks so good and so realistic you wonder why they bothered using CGI in the first place. But as impressive as this section is…… Pirates? Why? How? Many haunted attractions are set up as different “houses” with separate themes, but in this one they flow seamlessly into one another. It is supposed to be a cohesive experience, but the whole Pirates thing throws the whole affair off.

In the grand scheme, that’s a fairly minor complaint. The production values are incredible, the scares are numerous and creative, and there are NO LINES! Value-wise it’s not great though. Total run-through time is around 15 minutes, but that goes up if you stick around and watch the Thriller performance. If you consider it three separate haunted houses it falls in line with the standard pricing, but that’s kind of spurious considering you have no option to see them separately. I have no buyer’s remorse paying $20 for a ticket to this attraction though, by virtue of them trying something new and interesting. A lot of effort went into this, and I understand a portion of the proceeds are going to charity.

Hopefully we get to see The Haunting return in 2011.

Update: The Haunting will NOT be returning in 2011, nor will the Halloween Express store itself. However, a new haunted house is opening in the same space, The 13th Floor. Can’t wait to check it out and review it!

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