Haunts

Last weekend we made a pilgrimage to Lambertville, where Dolores Dragan, one of my all-time favorite Halloween artists, lives and haunts.

The first day was beautiful, so we decided to see New Hope, where we were staying, and save Lambertville for Sunday, when we’d have all day to wander. That was a tremendous mistake. The day started a little rainy, which never puts us off. We went into antique shops in the light drizzle. It didn’t take long for the weather to get much, much worse. Bad enough that even an Oregon native decided to travel by car.

Despite the rain, I parked by Dragan’s house and took a bunch of pictures of plastic-draped figures. Wonderful, wonderful figures.

The display has expanded down the little walkway between her house and the neighbor’s, where Dolores has put up tented vignettes. These were also covered in plastic, but I discovered gaps in the draping at the corners, where I could just fit my lens without disturbing anything.

 

I don’t know what she calls everyone, but I think of this figure as “Mourning.”

There are many great displays along N Union, but because of the weather, we didn’t stop to study much.  I did go around a block and get back to this one with hand-painted decorations. I’m a sucker for the handmade stuff!

Since the weather was likely going to stop folks from lighting their displays, we headed on home. We may stop again next year on my next planned road trip…to be announced later.

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Spooky atmospheric prop shot.

We attended our first haunt of the season last night. I heard about the Vault of Souls on a facebook group I follow, and it sounded intriguing. I couldn’t resist grabbing reservations and heading to Tampa for the evening.

Our reservation was for 6:00pm. We hit traffic and arrived at 6:15pm, but they were running a little late, so the doors were just opening. Not unusual, especially for the first run. We left our car with the valet, and after a few minutes in line, we were ushered into the front part of the lobby to present our tickets. There we received a credit-card sized “passbook” that I expected to present at some point.

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The Spousal Unit gets the bizness.

Once processed, we had our auras cleansed by a witch before entering the lounge. She took her job very seriously.

She just kinda noodles in minor keys.

She just kinda noodles in minor keys.

The Vault is located at the Exchange National Bank building, erected in 1926. It’s a lovely space, with high ceilings and plenty of room to mingle amongst lovely vintage furniture pieces. The lounge includes a bar, and servers circulating with hors d’oeuvres. Melancholy cello music sets the mood, and occasionally dancers take the floor.

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I think she had a crush on my man.

There is a tarot reader, and Mysteria the Psychic, who will come hold hands with you and deliver messages from beyond, like “open all the drawers, you may find something useful.”  Just about everyone picked on the Spousal Unit. It’s like they were all cats, and they sensed he was allergic.

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Your name is on my list, yesiree.

We waited in the lounge until 8:00pm.  About every 10 or 15 minutes, the gatekeeper strikes his gong several times, and announces about five names. Those folks gather, are given time to use the facilities, and then head to the preliminary vault where they are given white masks to wear, and further instructions on spirit etiquette.  The Spousal Unit got in trouble for the first time here. He talked back (to be fair, the guide said something kinda stupid), and had to go stand against the wall.

I won’t go into detail on what happens beyond that. You are taken to the basement and allowed to wander at will. You’ll meet many characters, and they will interact with you very personally. The actors will touch you, but not in any way that’s particularly scary. The Spousal Unit was extremely indulgent, and no one drew back a stump.

Us with Buddy the Bouncer.

Us with Buddy the Bouncer.

Once you’re tired of wandering around, find your way out and you’ll be taken to the Speakeasy or the Reading Room. We visited both. The Reading Room had a lovely dessert table, and lots of couches where you can unwind. The Speakeasy was more of a bar, complete with personable bouncer.

So what did I think?

Well.

First, the wait in the lounge was nuts. We arrived 15 minutes after the doors opened, and waited 90 minutes before entering the haunt. There was very little entertainment, and I was desperately wishing for a book. I can only guess that later reservations didn’t escape until the wee hours of the morning. This could have been first-night problems, but it genuinely seemed like they overbooked the reservation slots.

Now, I’ve never been to a truly expensive haunt before. This was a big splurge, at $100 per ticket. And that was the least expensive option. So I had expectations. I wanted a coherent story, some good scares, great costuming, great makeup, and maybe even some special effects or unusual props.  I’d hoped there might be a puzzle or mystery to solve.

I got none of that. Well, I’ll give them nice period costuming, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The whole thing seemed like one huge missed opportunity. I never even used that fancy passbook we got at check-in. Just an expensive souvenir.

I will say that the actors were fantastic, and very entertaining. But each time we entered a scenario, there was interaction, setup, and…nada. I kept thinking, oh, they’re gonna try to scare me now…but no.  It’s dark! Something’s going to happen! No.  I don’t need jump scares, but I do expect some art. Usually at a haunt, no matter how humble, I have to stop and wonder at some fantastic prop, monster, or scene. While the scenes were realistic enough, I found them lacking interest.  By the end of the experience, instead of thinking about the good bits with glee, I was just happy to be done. We left at about 9:00pm.

Apparently, what you’re paying for are amenities. Valet parking. Two bars and a dessert lounge.  So if you’re into live theatre, and want an interactive experience in a creepy setting, this is great. Grab some friends and go. But if you’re a Halloweeniac who expects something scary…have a cocktail.

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Dolores Dragan

Winter Witch can be stationery, or used as an eight-foot puppet.

Winter Witch can be stationery, or used as an eight-foot puppet.

One of my favorite haunters is a retired art teacher living in the Halloween-friendly town of Lambertville, NJ.

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Darkly comic, I’m trying to get through the post without mentioning a certain film maker.

Dolores Dragan creates stunning figures from rigid wrap. They are black-and-white caricatures, often of people she knows.

Mistress Borghese visits Halloween House

Mistress Borghese visits Halloween House

She wants her display to be spooky rather than gory–a rare preference I happen to share.

From nj.com

From nj.com

The figures are designed for blacklight, which shows them to perfection.

I’d love to visit myself someday, but for now I’ll have to content myself with pictures and videos.

 

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This weekend we went on a haunt bender, with Hellview Cemetery as the topper.  As I usually try to do, I stopped by a little early for some daylight shots.

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Dueling Minecraft torches.

I always plan to take five minutes getting shots. It never works out that way, because I gotta talk to the people. I met Nikki (left) and Rin, fans extraordinaire (seriously, they talked about subfandoms I’ve never heard of), and helpers at the haunt. Nikki is an actor–and I didn’t spot her as I went through, which is impressive. Rin is one of the guides for the Scooby Doo tours, the less-scary version for munchkins. We had a great time talking. I’m glad it wasn’t too hot, or the Spousal Unit would have roasted waiting for me in the car.

Before the haunt opened to the general public, a couple of special groups went through. You can see a few of the Harry Potter folks in the background here.

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There were also some lovely Whovians, including this fan in her awesome dress and matching kicks.

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I also talked a bit with one of the organizers, Sally Gage. I didn’t get a picture of Sally (dangit!), but she let me hold her baby. This is Stella. She was such a sweetie, didn’t howl or anything.

We talked about the background of the hosts, many of whom hail from Halloween Horror Nights. They wanted to do something local, but still spectacular, for those who aren’t up for a drive to Orlando.

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It’s difficult to gauge the size of the haunt from the outside. The entrance is near the exit, but that doesn’t mean anything. The facade is impressive, with some very nice foam work creating columns, stone walls, and a cathedral-like entrance.

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Mark Muncy, the Caretaker, and owner of Hellview, welcomes victims inside.

The answer to how big: big. They have a fair bit of space, and use it well. Hellview lacks the usual claustrophobic feel associated with haunt mazes. Instead, it is mapped more like an amusement park ride, with the viewer moving from one large set to the next. The sets are fully realized, and rich in detail. If there’s one flaw, it’s this: the actors are too good. There was more than one instance where I wanted to stop and watch the mesmerizing performances of these charismatic professionals. Yep, toward the end of the haunt, the actors were saying (ominously, of course): “Move along! Faster, faster!” Heh, oops. Of course, that may be because the folks behind us were frightened, and running through. They were on top of us by the end. Chickens.

I will say the lighting could have been more dramatic. The Caretaker especially could have used a scary light on his face (mostly so I could get a better picture!), but it was still dusk, and it was their first run of the season. According to Sally, they had just finished the lighting, so I don’t think I got the best look at it.

Hellview was amazing. I may go up to Orlando next year to see the “big ones,” but for the most part, I think I’m done with pro haunts. They just aren’t as creative, they don’t show as much heart and art.

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The York Drive Project didn’t have the easiest setup this year.  City officials decided the haunt was an “accessory structure” that they could not have in the front of the house. Despite having to shift the entire haunt to the backyard, Brad and Jessica Myers opened on schedule.

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This is why I adore home haunts–so much love and creativity was put into this. The theme this year, “Portals of Terror,” left the builders free to create a number of themed scares, many of them inspired by movies.

We hung around for a bit before things opened, chatted with folks,  and let another group go ahead so a news cameraman could follow them. We’re not camera shy, but the other group had pre-teens, and pre-teens are screamers. Much more fun to get on camera. After the first group went in, there were sounds of chopping and pounding and screaming. Pretty much what you’d expect. The Portal Guardian, an adorable munchkin in a Rocket Raccoon costume, rushed out front grinning to tell everyone: “He’s tearing them up!”

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They got a lot of mileage out of their space; the haunt was surprisingly long, and a lot of fun. When everyone there is having a good time, you do as well. At one point, after the Spousal Unit had been jump-scared about three times, he muttered to himself: “at least it’s not bloody clowns. I hate clowns.” Remember, in a haunt, there is always someone listening. About three steps later, an actor beat against the slats of the wall and shouted: “NO CLOWNS HERE!” As for clowns later? Not telling.

York gets especially high marks for stage direction. There were some genuinely creepy moments, thanks to the blocking of the actors’ movements. There was also some excellent costuming and makeup.

After we went through, we came back to chat, and Brad Myers came out to say hello.  We talked a bit about haunts in general, and his own movie-inspired scares.  It was great to meet a local haunter. The area isn’t as Halloween friendly as I’m used to, so it’s nice to connect with “my people.” You know, scary folks.

york 03 brad

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Enter if you dare

Enter if you dare

Radley Haunted House was our first haunt visit of the season, and what a way to kick things off. The story this year is about the unfortunate Dr. Radley, who obtained a mysterious statue, unleashing a nightmare god who torments him in his sleep.

The queue film is important to the setup. This professionally produced short by Andrew Ford tells the story of Dr. Radley, and the genesis of his nightmare machine. Give it a watch:

The office set is the first room you enter. The film sets you up to experience the story as you walk through, and it’s very effective.

Setting up

Setting up

We arrived at about 7:00pm, 30 minutes before opening. We got a good parking spot right across the street, and watched the haunters get ready. The haunt cost nearly $15,000, part of which was provided by a Kickstarter. All that funding didn’t go to waste. The score, the film, the details, and the freakin’ amazing costuming all shines.

The line just before opening

The line just before opening. Can you spot the Spousal Unit?

The two girls in line ahead of us were what I call “screamers,” teenagers who love to be scared, but, well, they’re scared.  One of the setup guys (in fact, it was Dr. Radley from the queue film) walked along the line, and the little brunette asked: “Is it scary?” Heh. He answered: “Nah, not at all.”  I laughed and laughed. It was kind of an evil laugh.

Folks went in 2 or 3 at a time. When we entered the first room, the girls were still there, afraid to go on. They begged us to go first. I took the lead, and the Spousal Unit brought up the rear, so they would be surrounded by safe, older folks who don’t scare easily. It didn’t take long before my charge had to hold my hand, and I pretty much dragged her and her friend through, with Bill occasionally pushing from the back. They were so terrified. It was adorable.

You won’t get any spoilers from me. I will only say that this is one of the finest haunts I have been to, pro or home. I class it with Baron von Gooloo’s regular gig at Fright Town in Portland, Oregon.  The reason is originality. So often, the story is just a loose prop that allows haunters to drag out the same old tropes. At Radley House, the rooms firmly support the story. The actors are great, and the costuming–well I think I already mentioned that.

This was a fantastic experience, and the perfect opener for haunt season.

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Radley House is at 3900 19th Street N, St. Petersburg, FL 33714.

Dates: OCT. 9th-12th, 16-19, 23-26, 30-31, NOV. 1-2

$5 donation is appreciated.

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