Living in Los Angeles, there are so many haunted events that it’s rare for me to get to one outside the general extended LA area. In fact, the farthest I’ve ever gone before was Thousand Oaks and it’s well-known massive haunted house. So when I got the chance to head to San Diego to check out their biggest haunted events, I was thrilled.

The only problem was that I had one night to do it. Three different locations. 5 different mazes. One night only (and not even an overnight—I still had to make it home for work the next day.) But I grabbed my roommate and one of my last Diet Cokes. I planned the route so that we would start the farthest from Los Angeles and work our way back as the night continued. And then we began this epic adventure.

HAUNT #1 – THE HAUNTED HOTEL

Description: Recently ranked #1 Scariest Haunt in America, the Haunted Hotel is located downtown in the Gaslamp District and is the longest running haunted house in San Diego.

This year, plunge into the depths of horror on the ALL NEW Hellevator, stroll down the dark, deadly Zombie infested alley and drudge through the muck and mire of the “wrong turn” hillbilly swamp. Hone on as the Mutant Mine Shaft is shaking and collapsing all around you, make your way through the Morgue Autopsy Lab and good luck in the Chaos Hallway!

Review: The Haunted Hotel is quite literally in the downtown hotspot of San Diego known as the Gaslamp District. It’s also not a Halloween-only event—it’s open year-round, although with far less scare-actors in attendance. I had actually been to the Haunted Hotel during off-season, so I was looking forward to seeing it in full make-up and most frightening mode.

I was not disappointed. This is a classic haunted house comprised of one large underground maze with multiple different zones. Set decorations and monsters are themed to each zone beautifully, including some very scary surprise scare locations hidden amongst the set. There are also quite a few special effects within the path, including an ‘elevator’ that breaks down as it descends and a room whose path is not nearly as stable as you normally see in a maze. The creators of this maze have clearly worked very hard to make it as exhilarating as possible.

They’ve succeeded. Standing in line before me was a group of 4 firefighters, each as manly and burly as the next one. They were cracking jokes about never being scared as they waited. And yet, I’ve never seen a group of men get scared so quickly. We literally lost them ahead of us as they screamed and moved through the maze as fast as they possibly could. This might be because the rules of the maze specifically point out that if you run, the monsters will chase you. They ran….and they got chased.

I understand why they ran. The performers in this maze are passionate about scaring people and they have quite a lot of space and hidden positions from which to do so. I found myself jumping from actor’s surprise appearance directly into a second scare from another actor more than once.  The makeup and costuming was created with equal passion and I squealed from several of their terrifying looks.

In the era of extreme haunts and ever-increasing alternatives, I sometimes want to just experience a great haunted house. The Haunted Hotel delivers on the classic “haunted maze” experience and there’s a damn good reason the line for the maze was almost a block long before they opened their doors.

HAUNT #2 – THE HAUNTED TRAIL

Description: Located in San Diego’s world famous Balboa Park, The Haunted Trail is a stroll through the park you will never forget. Enter the mile long Trail through the twisted grove of pines and gnarled oaks. Visitors watch your back; you’ll never know which way the terror will hit you. !

This year, Horror Icons have taken over the Haunted Trail! Freddy, Michael Myers, The Nun, and it’s Friday the 13th EVERY night as Jason has pitched a tent at Camp Crystal Lake. Follow the red balloon…

Review: This is a truly unique haunt located in San Diego’s Balboa Park (the same park that holds the San Diego Zoo). It’s a massive walking haunt that leads through the western part of the park, weaving into and out of various paths and sets and buildings. In the process, this haunt creates one of the most interesting haunted house experiences I’ve seen in years.

This year, the theme of the trail is most definitely classic horror icons. I found myself wandering through the cabins of Crystal Lake and the sewers frequented by both Pennywise and Freddy. Another turn brought me to a house with writing on the wall familiar to anyone who loves the Upside Down.

On and on the trail went—literally for over a mile. And while the number of scare-actors here was definitely smaller and more spread out, the trail uses one piece of technology incredibly well to create a serious sense of foreboding. Because this is a park at night, they needed to light the path between buildings. But they light the path in such a way that you are constantly finding yourself in turns blinded by the lights and then completely unable to see anything in the darkness. The constant switch between light and dark gives the trail this bizarre, surreal quality that is exceptionally appropriate given the theme of the trail.

The constant assault on your eyes also makes it very easy for actors to find your blind spots and scare you silly. I lost track of the number of times my roommate yelped after we hit about 50.

The sets for this haunt are by necessity a little less complex because they have to be created for the trail and then dismantled again and removed from the park. Those requirements made quite a few of them feel a little less tangible, a little more temporary. But they worked perfectly fine for the job.

And I cannot get over how disorienting the lights were. That’s the sort of simplistic effect that does wonders for creating the off-kilter nature that every good haunt needs to have.

The Haunted Trail at Balboa Park remains an incredible experience, full of scares and amusing moments in equal measure. Everyone should experience this event at least once in her life.

A little less successful for me was “The Experiment”, a maze that you go through before you enter the actual Haunted Trail. It’s a maze designed to send people down wrong paths to dead ends while actors are scaring them. This year’s theme remained true to the idea of horror icons as individuals with Purge masks and scary nuns assaulted us.

I like the idea of this type of maze more than I liked the final prospect. Perhaps it was because even though they send people into it in smaller groups, those groups before us got completely lost. So suddenly we had so many people roaming around in the maze that it became impossible to enjoy the tricks. Or perhaps the maze was actually too complicated—or not complicated enough. Whatever the reason, I found myself getting bored with it and I was very happy when it was finally over and I had found the one path that gets you out again. If The Haunted Trail continues with this added attraction, I hope they retool it to be a smoother experience.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed The Haunted Trail. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of most of my last haunt of the night.

HAUNT #3 – THE SCREAM ZONE

Description: San Diego’s largest haunted experience, The Scream Zone is considered among the goriest, scariest and screaming-est fright fests to be found in the dark corners of Southern California.

Your Triple Haunt favorites are back: the horrifying House of Horror, the dizzying KarnEvil and the Haunted Hayride, each casting its evil spell on the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Review: Nearly twenty miles north of San Diego offered our final haunt of the night, The Scream Zone at Del Mar Fairgrounds. This event promises to be three different mazes with a ‘scream zone’ hub themed with food and drinks.

And technically, all of those promises are there. There are three different scare attractions. The ‘scream zone’ hub, however, was a tiny corner of space with a few vendors and a bar. There was a stage that had appearances earlier that night, apparently, but by the time we got there they were all finished (and we were there only halfway through that night’s open hours.) All in all, it was underwhelming.

As for the attractions themselves, I’ll get into specific details in a moment. But first I wanted to talk about the fact that the lines were very slow the entire time we were there. We waited nearly 45 minutes for the first attraction (to the point where I began to believe we would only manage to get through two of the three before they closed)—and this was with only about 100 people total in front of us and them letting people in 6-8 at a time. If there had been enough other things to hold my attention during that wait, it might have been okay.

But the entire night, I only saw three scare-actors moving through audiences in line or walking through the scare hub. There was a large digital screen playing the Dark Shadows movie—but there was no sound and no close-captioning so there was no point. And the stage, as mentioned before, was already empty of performances. So we were just standing there. For a long, long time.

Suffice it to say the ambience of The Scream Zone left quite a bit to be desired. So how were the actual attractions?

House of Horrors: The first attraction we entered was a pretty straightforward haunted maze. There were clowns and zombies and yet another Pennywise, who is clearly this year’s favorite haunted creature as I’ve now seen 6 different versions of him in haunts. It makes me begin to wonder what the copyright issues on using such in a maze other than the one at Warner Bros.

The monsters were great at what they were doing. There were moments where I got caught by a jump scare. But unlike the previous two haunts, this particular maze just did nothing for me. It felt like a collage of ideas thrown together haphazardly with no real rhyme or reason. That was the same at the Haunted Hotel but their quality overcame that randomness.

Here there was only random chaos. Mediocre sets. And a bunch of actors who were doing their absolute best to scare you (and in some cases succeeding) despite a maze that seemed to bore both my roommate and the rest of the people brought into our maze just as badly as it was me. The only person scared was the blonde who was speaking everything that happened to her out loud because apparently if she gave a running commentary on the maze, it wouldn’t scare her. That belief turned out to be invalid, by the way. She was scared more than anyone else, largely because I think the monsters found her narration as grating as I did.

KarnEvil: The second attraction we experienced was far better than the first. This maze was a series of fairy tale vignettes turned onto a darker ear. There was a wolf-eating grandmother while Red attempted to get us to kill it with her. There were also three piggies attempting to blow the wolf apart before it blew their worlds down. Moment after moment, we found ourselves in scenes from a fairy tale as though told by a demented child who had spent far too long watching adult horror movies.

Some of these vignettes were quite clever, with exceptional theming and monster design. Some of the others were far less clear to the point where I could not fathom exactly which fairy tale I was supposed to be seeing. As far as I am concerned, the single most important thing to do with a maze like this is make sure I understand the fairy tale you are transforming. Because I could not always do so, the maze ended up being very uneven for me. I enjoyed the moments that I enjoyed but then would get taken back out of the experience as I attempted to discern the next fairy tale’s lineage.  It ended up being a real shame, as I loved the concept of this maze very, very much.

Haunted Hayride: We saved the attraction we were told was the best for last and, frankly, I had little hope for it after the previous two attractions.

To my utter surprise, however, I found the hayride to be by far the Scream Zone highlight. They took us to 7 distinct ‘scenes’, each telling a different story and each populated by new monsters, new soundtracks and new special effects. It was perhaps the smoothest and clearest “haunted hayride” experience I’ve ever seen. And while it had nowhere near the number of actors that the Los Angeles Hayride uses (in fact, this entire haunt seemed to be low on scare actors), the way this hayride used its actors nearly puts the Los Angeles counterpoint to shame. Some of the scenes only had two actors—but if those actors are used in a strong narrative sense, you can make a truly unique experience even with that few a number.

I was thoroughly impressed with the Hayride and would have wanted to go again if there had been time. It was that good.

The Scream Zone overall was by far the least interesting haunt I experienced that night. While it had multiple attractions, most of it failed to reach the dedication of staff, the passion of actors or the quality of set design that the other two haunts possessed.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sweeping through San Diego in one night like this was an incredible experience and I really enjoyed most of what I saw during the evening.

The Haunted Hotel is an exceptional haunt that reveres the classic ways of scaring people. Using its strong actors and excellent set design, the Haunted Hotel makes for an incredible one-maze experience.

The Haunted Trail was so unique that it’s almost hard to describe effectively. But the idea of wandering through a park and finding monster after monster was simply delicious. The Haunted Trail makes a walk through the park something terrifying and brilliant.

The Scare Zone needs some work to reach the level of the other two haunts. I think the individuals working it seem to have a lot of passion. I saw them mark down who on our hayride still needed to see mazes so they could keep them open past closing and get those people through those mazes. So I firmly believe it could be a great attraction. But I don’t think it’s quite there yet.

3 haunts. 5 mazes. 1 night. The trip was a full success and a grand experiment in trying to cover a bunch of haunts in one go. San Diego has some exceptional haunts for its lucky residents and I enjoyed seeing them all immensely.

Photo Courtesy of The Haunted Hotel
Haunts

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