Haunt Review: Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Howl-O-Scream

Welcome witches and warlocks,

I had the pleasure of attending Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Williamsburg this year and figured I would offer up a few thoughts on the event for my fellow haunt enthusiasts.  Just so everyone knows where I am coming from, the last time I attended Howl-O-Scream in Williamsburg was in 2008, so all of the houses and zones are entirely new to me.  That being said, I did only get to go through each house once, so my thoughts are limited to a one time view which may not account for any bad runs or improvements made over the course of the event. Like my other reviews, I will be putting the houses in the order that I saw them with some random thoughts on the various shows and scarezones I saw thrown in for good measure. 

THE CASE OF MR. KARVER (ESCAPE ROOM)
We are trapped in the workshop of famous marionette creator Mr. Karver and must find our way out before we become his next puppets.  I have to admit, I find puppets to be creepy so stepping into this was a bit nerve wracking.  That being said, it became clear very early that this was not at all about scares, but focused chiefly upon finding the clues to get ourselves out of our predicament.  Adding a sense of urgency to the proceedings is the fact that Mr. Karver himself is locked in the room with us and while he may seem distracted or focused on his own work, he occasionally has some lucid moments where he measures us for size.  The actor playing Karver is the main selling point of this experience as we were constantly interacting with him or trying to figure out the next clue based upon where he was wandering.  Sometimes this strategy worked, sometimes it did not, but it made the experience itself all the more memorable just by having him in the room.  The sets themselves were nicely detailed, though it was definitely something built to be incredibly space conscious.  This was evident even more when we would hear the noise from the adjacent escape room (The Case of Jack the Ripper) bleeding over into our experience which did sort of kill some of the atmosphere.  All in all, this is not focused upon scares, but instead the ambiance and urgency of trying to escape Mr. Karver's clutches.  Thanks to the interactive elements this was an enjoyable experience, but if they were to get rid of the sound bleeding issue it could have been a new classic.

NIGHT BEATS (SHOW)
The Casket Club is open for business and filled with vampires, an undead band, and some musical numbers that are sure to stop the heart.  I appreciated the fact that all of the singing for this show was done by the actual cast and not just them lip synching while dancing as it allowed them to let their talents out in a major way.  While I enjoyed the acting, music, dancing, singing, and effects, I found the scripting of the show to be a bit lacking as it seemed the least Halloween focused of the event.  All in all, the production and work put in by the cast keep this show entertaining, but the connection to Halloween is loose at best.

CATACOMBS (HOUSE)
We descend into the belly of the Paris underground only to run across a hidden catacomb where the dead do not rest in peace.  If it is not evident by that plot description then allow me to make it clear right now, this is the most claustrophobic house at the event.  The sets are by no means grand in scale, but instead focus upon disorienting us with how similar each area is to the next and keeping the actors nearby for their scares.  While some of the hiding places are obvious, there were still plenty of times where someone popped out of seemingly nowhere for a scare, only to quickly disappear back into the shadows.  At times, we saw the actors follow people through the house a bit just to achieve a second scare.  The only downside to this house was that if there was a difference between the costumes from one role to the next, it was not distinct enough for me to notice leading to everything feeling similar from scene to scene.  All in all, the sets and costumes are adequate, but certainly not the focus as the scares successfully take center stage.

VAMPIRE POINT (SCAREZONE)
We enter a German village overrun with vampires who are more than happy to make us their next meal.  Based upon the signage and sets that were scattered about the Germany area of the park, I sort of expected this to be a much bigger scarezone.  As was, it felt small with the majority of the actors occupying only one third of the overall space.  The area they occupied was probably the best for scaring as it was a much more confined space, but I still would have loved to see the whole of the zone utilized.  The actors themselves were dressed in the more traditional cape type of costume and were pretty decent at achieving their scares. All in all, this scarezone has a wonderful setting with a pretty solid cast, but it could use some more actors and props to fill in the more open spaces.

DEADLINE (HOUSE)
We enter an abandoned subway system beneath Pompeii where a virus has turned those stuck underground into the undead.  The conceit of this is especially clever given that this haunt is actually housed beneath the Escape from Pompeii ride.  As we enter into the EfP show building we are treated to a descending walkway through a cave system where we can hear digging going on above our heads.  This was a very effective way to start the house out, as it created tension before we even saw our first scare actors.  The actors themselves are where I had the biggest issue with this house as I honestly did not find them scary.  My reasoning is that, for the most part they stood out in the open where I could see them as soon as I entered the room.  Some of this does come down to room design as a few of the rooms in this house did not seem to have any effective spots for hiding.  Apart from issues with hiding spots, the rooms in this house varied from mundane to quite impressive.  The bathroom scene, while disgusting looking, created one of the more memorable moments as everyone who walked through seemed grossed out.  All in all, I did not find this scary, but the setting and effects were interesting.

FIENDS (SHOW)
The egocentric Dr. Freakenstein is once again building a monster with the help of Igor, his murses, and some other monster friends.  Those who read my review of the Tampa event will know that I saw their iteration of this show so I feel that some comparing and contrasting is in order.  Right off the bat, I was once again impressed that the cast of this show did quite a lot of their own singing with only a couple of the dance numbers of lip synching.  This was Williamsburg's first notable departure from Tampa's general Fiends template.  The second came in the form of Nurse Simplicity who is actually a fleshed out character given a few songs to sing, some fun one-liners, and a small character arc.  From here on, it is hard not to notice that this show puts more emphasis on production than on trying to cram in pop culture references.  Like Tampa it does keep the Halloween theme and has some fantastic musical numbers/dancing.  As a first time viewing this was a lot of fun, but I honestly do not think it would be very different year to year, which is something Tampa has over Williamsburg.  All in all, this is quite a lot of fun with a great Halloween theme that ended up being my second favorite show of the event.

BITTEN (HOUSE)
We come upon a gothic manor infested by vampires.  This one is straight and to the point from the opening scene: here there be vampires.  The actors in this house look fantastic and do a fantastic job at scaring.  In fact, it seems like they are absolutely everywhere as they come from above, below, in front, and behind with some truly clever hiding spots.  For the most part, the actors were incredibly well concealed as their boo holes were perfectly integrated into the already impressive sets.  The gothic look of this house left plenty to distract the eye as I was constantly examining the finer details of the set design.  One creative touch was that the floors of the coffin room finale were covered in sand in keeping with vampire lore.  All in all, from the first corner we turned to the finale it seems like the actors did a fantastic job of appearing out of nowhere only to vanish back into the marvelous sets.

RIPPER ROW (SCAREZONE)
The streets of London tremble in fear under the bloody spree of Jack the Ripper.  This scarezone oozed ambiance as a soundtrack of screams and bobby whistles permeated the fog soaked streets of Banbury Cross.  Lurking within the fog were prostitutes, bobbies, decapitated victims, and The Ripper himself.  Jack proved equal parts showman and menace as he slinked through the mist, scared guests, chased prostitutes, and still managed to take some time out for pictures or interactions with guests.  I appreciated that there was only one more traditionally suited Ripper actor in this zone (plus what looked like a bloody butcher) as it helped lend an authenticity to the area.  Given that this was set in the London area of the park, it already had good theming which they built upon with some extra props to fill out the space.  All in all, this was an effective zone for atmosphere, interactions, and scares wherein everyone was working their hardest to recreate a bloody period in history. 

UNEARTHED: SCARLETT'S REVENGE (HOUSE)
We find ourselves beset upon by a demon named Scarlett and her minions when we go exploring a recently excavated house.  This house proves to be the only crossover property between Busch Gardens Williamsburg and their Tampa counterpart, though both approach the subject differently this year.  Williamsburg decided to keep the character Scarlett in the house which I believe to be the right decision from the standpoint that having a centralized icon for the haunt makes it all the more imposing when she crosses our path.  I appreciated as well that this version of Unearthed had more than one Scarlett lurking within its halls and walls.  Sadly, the set design of the house is incredibly hit or miss as it has the handicap of being built within an actual ride, so they had to do the best they could with those space/restrictions.  When the sets were built out, they were good which made the emptier areas all the more noticeable. What also hurt is that where these empty areas are (there were two major ones) there was a projection effect instead of actors to keep us on our toes.  The cast members themselves were giving it their all (the zombie in the finale hallways was especially impressive) so the polished areas of the house really clicked.  All in all, though it is held back a bit by its location, the cast and inclusion of Scarlett helps to keep this a good house if there is not a super long wait. 

STARFRIGHT ORCHESTRA (SHOW)
Not much of a story to this one, it is essentially an orchestra playing Halloween or horror related songs with some singers thrown in for good measure.  This continues the tradition of live singing and really expands out upon the orchestra aspect of the show with an entire section devoted to the band playing famous television tunes from The Addams Family to The Munsters.  The setting for this performance, in the open air theater of the Italy section, makes it a wonderful show to watch while grabbing a bit to eat which adds an appropriately dinner show appeal to the proceedings.  All in all, the live orchestra makes this worthwhile and it is a fantastic show to catch while having a meal. 

LUMBERHACK (HOUSE)
We stumble across a campground being terrorized by malicious undead lumberjacks.  First of all, I think it is worth noting, this house is mostly outdoors so seeing it at night time is pretty much a must.  After having gone through this myself, I could not imagine this being an indoor house at all as there is an authenticity about the experience that no amount of fake trees could capture.  I was honestly impressed with the sets along the trail as they could have gotten away with a lot less, but they still included picnic grounds, tents, cabins, outhouses, and many other traditional backwoods staples.  As we meandered along the path we ran into the killer lumberjacks and their families/victims wielding axes, chainsaws, and other blunt instruments.  I had some good scares in here, but I feel like the uneven nature of the terrain meant that a lot of the scare actors had to be positioned at a bit of a distance to avoid possibly tripping and falling into guests.  There was also one area near the end of the haunt where we walked by some lumberjacks sharpening their axes (sparks flying and all) that was devoid of any actors other than the two that seemed like distractions.  Since neither of them were doing any scaring, this felt like a missed opportunity to really freak out the guests.  All in all, the authenticity behind this house is its main selling point as the scares can be just a bit too far out of reach to make an impact. 

MONSTER STOMP ON RIPPER ROW (SHOW)
A young girl becomes enchanted by Jack the Ripper and joins him beneath the streets of London where he makes his home.  Can this famous killer shed his bloody ways for a woman who loves him?  Listen, I am not going to lie, the story here sounds terrible, but this is easily the best show at Howl-O-Scream and is in my top two Halloween themed shows of all time. Why, one might ask?  Two words: knife play.  That is right, I said knife play.  There is a whole sequence here where four of the cast members beat out tunes on the lid of a coffin with their sharpened knives.  As we watch the cutlery pierce the lid, it is hard not to imagine their antics going horribly awry and ending in a lost finger.  In a way, this scene alone sums up the entire show as it emphasizes the energy, music, and bloody nature of the proceedings.  The show starts off with a killing and only proceeds to off more people as it goes along in a fashion reminiscent of Sweeney Todd.  The fact that it manages to keep so darkly upbeat even as throats keep getting slit is a testament to the cleverness of this show.  This production never pulls any punches leading to a fantastically choreographed, gothic outing.  All in all, this is THE SHOW to see at Howl-O-Scream. 

CORNERED (HOUSE)
We form part of a search party that is looking for all the people who have mysteriously gone missing at a local corn farm.  Our second outdoor maze proves to be more of a combination between indoor and outdoor sequences with a greater emphasis on tight spaces.  The clever use of claustrophobia means a lot of the scare actors were directly in our faces throughout the entire maze.  Now, when I say maze, I quite literally mean maze on this one.  The finale of this house is particularly good as we are released into the main "cornfield" which has no direct path.  With the fog pumping and the actors roaming between the rows, this proved to be one of the more effective finales as it was completely disorienting.  In fact, much of this house relied upon making us feel lost as, before the finale, there was a long mirror maze section where it was often unclear if we were headed in the right direction.  Given the effectiveness of the design, I wish there had been a few more actors to fill in the more perplexing sections as it was the perfect time to catch me off guard.  All in all, the design of this house is easily the most perplexing and with a few more actors in some of the scenes they could really up the scare factor. 

SIDESHOW SQUARE (SCAREZONE)
We are lured onto the circus grounds by billboards promising wonders beyond belife; what we find is carnies who want us to join them forever.  To be honest, this area already has a lit up, festival sort of feel so it did not take much for them to add up some more billboards and a few extra carnival style decorations.  This makes the theming of the area already right on the nose, which leaves it up to the actors to transform this into something that feels special.  For the most part, they nailed it as many of them went very method in their roles, only moving or scaring in certain ways.  The makeup, masks, or costuming of these actors was fantastic making it a memorable zone from a looks standpoint.  If I had to make one suggestion, it would be that the actors spread out a bit more as they seemed pretty well contained in one area.  All in all, thanks to some fantastic acting and a good utilization of a festive area of the park, this zone makes quite the impression. 

CIRCO SINISTRO (HOUSE)
We journey further into the otherwordly looking circus grounds where the ringmaster is intent upon making us one of this new attractions.  I am so tired of circus houses, they all use bright color schemes, vibrant music, and have clowns around nearly every bend.  Then I stepped up to Circo Sinistro where I finally saw, from a design standpoint, a circus house that seemed as if it was built just to defy all other similarly themed haunts.  Here the tents looked grungy, the colors were muted, we were not immediately assaulted by clowns, and the carnies populating the circus grounds looked like something out of The Devil's Carnival (2012).  The setup of our journey was also unique in that instead of a conga line or even a pulsed line, they bring a group of people into the first tent where they relay the story to us before releasing us into their otherworldly carnival.  As we brave the boardwalk we pass through the luggage car, the knife throwers, the train cars, the portals, the roulette room, the trapeze artists, and finally the doll house.  The weaving in and out of the various tents effectively captured the feel of an old time carnival, but ti comes at the cost of some tents being noticeably better than others.  Most of the areas that did not work were down to a lack of scare actors, or a lack of good hiding spots for the players.  While the atmosphere was on point throughout, I could have used some more creepy carnies populating the fairgrounds as they really were a wonder to behold.  All in all, with some slight tweaks for scares this atmospheric gem could be turned into one of the best carnival houses on the market. 

All in all, this fantastic event is nicely included with day park admission making it a must do for those who want to get the most out of their Williamsburg visit.  That being said, it is nearly impossible to see everything in one night (I ended up having two nights and still missed two scarezones) as the festivities kick in around six and the park closes around eleven.  One other issues I ran into is that occasionally the queues for the actual houses were run in such an odd fashion that, at least one time, I could have gotten right back into a house after I exited, essentially cutting the line.  Credit where it is due, though, the queues that had food huts often themed them to match that of the haunt which only helped to further extend the reach of each of these respective houses.  The majority of the houses had very creative scares with equally impressive set designs which made them wonderfully entertaining.  Speaking of entertainment, two of the shows kick some major butt and I would go right back to the event to see them again. 

Nighty Nightmares,
The Creeping Craig