Okay, I am definitely going to date myself and sound like my Dad, but when I was a kid, there were no “haunted houses” or “haunted graveyards.” The best you could find was a ride-through at an amusement park and, rarely, a walk-through. And then someone, who probably is a gazillionaire now, captured lightning in a bottle and started a “haunted” attraction on some local yokel plot of ground around a few weeks before Halloween. The rest, as they say, is history. A cottage industry grew, and “haunted” houses, graveyards, etc. sprang up everywhere. Instead of those awful animatronics they use to have in ride-throughs, they used actors with make-up.
Today, the haunted attractions are BIG business. No longer the cottage industry in schools, farmyards and even people’s backyards, now there are detailed, expensive, pre-fabricated structures that are built just for October, with computerized lighting and animatronic designs, and, of course, trained actors with make-up that rivals that in horror films.
So what’s the problem? As Alfred (Macy’s young janitor) said to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same – don’t care what Christmas [or in this case, Halloween] stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.”
So we took our blended family to one of the most promoted haunted attractions in our area – The Haunted Graveyard at Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut. The place has been hyped on the radio and featured in newspapers. There were even discount coupons at Dunkin’ Donuts and radio giveaways. (Okay, my wife did win two tickets from a radio contest – and even then, the trip still cost us $200-plus).
The Haunted Graveyard boasts that it has more than 200 actors and is “Southern New England’s largest Halloween attraction.” It consists of constructed walkways indoors and outdoors on the grounds of Lake Compounce amusement park. It had humble beginnings indeed. It got its start in 1991 when the founders’ daughter was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. In order to keep their daughter’s mind off candy and trick-or-treating, they decorated their backyard with Halloween themed things and it slowly evolved into what it is today. According to its website, the Haunted Graveyard has donated more than $1,000,000 to various diabetes organizations.
Knowing all of the above makes it difficult to say a bad word about the place. But the bottom line is that it just wasn’t that good.
It should have been. There were probably over 200 actors. The entire place is broken into themes: catacombs, cemetery, pumpkins, slaughterhouse, cornfield, werewolves, bat cave, zombie forest, spiders, vampires, witches, jungle, Mayan temple, dungeon, Hell holler/sawmill, the mist, demons, fear of death, vortex, mansion and reapers realm.
While there was great attention to detail throughout the attraction (I even spotted portraits of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and Quentin Collins (David Selby) from the old Dark Shadows TV series), most of it was lost on me. I didn’t even realize how much was there until I went to the website afterwards and discovered everything I missed.
The reason? Sheer numbers of people. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to take in all of the details, much less be frightened, when you are herded through the place like cattle. The organizers call the experience “shows” and break them down into half-hour intervals. For example, we were in the 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. show – with about a thousand others. The actors were even lost in the shuffle. Unless you were at the right place at the right time for one of the actors to jump at you, you saw in advance where each one was and what each one did.
If they had broken the attendance down into smaller groups that went through by themselves, it would have been so much better. Of course, that would mean that they would not accommodate as many visitors (not make as much money) but the demand via word of mouth would be incredible. Indeed, they should think about reservations only.
I must say that while I appreciated the total production value of the attraction, the masses just made the whole thing a nightmare (pun intended). I yearn for the days that were so much simpler when real cornfields with amateur actors and not-quite-as-good make-up gave you a real scare for your money.
Yes, I’m a scaredy-cat. A full-blown, all-out wuss, a coward, a jellyfish – call me what you will. A hater of horror films and anything that’s just plain gore for gore’s sake…take your Jasons, Michael Myerses and Freddy Kruegers, toss them all in a room together and let them go at it. Better yet, toss them into the Amityville Horror house and stir up a few poltergeists for good measure; as long as I don’t have to see them, it’s all good. Did I say I hate horror? A point in fact: years ago (in not one of my finest moments) I took all but my youngest to the Haunted Corn Maze at Larson’s Farm in Brookfield, CT and hid behind my son Aidan who was probably eight or nine at the time. In the dark, I proceeded to push my visually impaired child ahead of me, where he courageously shouted at the creepy clowns, reapers, zombies, and any other creatures of the night who dared to mess with his mom (this wasn’t child abuse – he LOVED it!) The lot of us were quite the spectacle: my oldest daughter, also a wuss, buried her head in her friend’s shoulder and cried the whole way through while the creepiest of clowns followed her during most of the maze (she hates clowns). It didn’t help that the brother of an old friend of mine (yes, you Dave!) had created the damn maze and he had previously instructed the costumed actors to screech out my name while we traversed it. I hated it. I really did…yet somehow I lament over its closing.
This year, in the interest of finding some seasonal entertainment with our Brady Bunch-esque clan, most of whom enjoy this sort of thing, we decided to take several of them to Lake Compounce’s Haunted Graveyard in Bristol, CT; two of them couldn’t join us, and we elected to leave my youngest home with his grandparents. Aidan couldn’t have been happier when I won tickets on the local radio station, 98Q, who’d been promoting it in practically every other commercial break. It was only two tickets but at least it saved a few bucks on the hefty price tag. At $31.99 a piece for a combo ticket (for the graveyard and rides) for everyone age twelve and over, we still plunked down a big chunk of change. That, coupled with $8 for parking and dinner…ouch.
In addition to the fact that I hate horror, I also hate being cold. Fashion took a back seat though, and I had the good sense to layer for this adventure – even the adrenaline I anticipated would be coursing through me couldn’t be enough to offset the frigid night. After the long line to pay and to get through the turnstiles, we were off. I’ve been to Lake Compounce many times, but being there in the cold and in the dark was a first for me. From time to time, creepy characters were seen roaming the park and we nabbed a few photo ops with them. There also were two scheduled “Thriller” dance performances in a stand-alone mock-graveyard, one of which we caught a bit of while in line for Zoomerang – introducing two of my stepchildren to their first-ever roller coaster. Hubby turned green on the ride, mostly because of his claustrophobic tendencies when the harness came down before the ride even began. I turned blue from the wind whipping through me. What a sight (albeit a colorful one) we must have been. Who’d have thunk though, that the lines for the rides would have been as long as they were for a chilly, 50-something degree night; as a result, we only were able to take in a handful of them before getting in the insane line for the haunted house. People were out in droves – or hordes as the case may be (catch the zombie reference?)
I was trying to be brave – even momentarily considered grabbing some “liquid courage” as there was an adult beverage stand close to the entrance (I didn’t…c’mon, we were with the kids!) But I was prepared for the worst. From the outside the whole set up was quite impressive and I bought into the hype. I even made sure to hit the bathroom first, just in case…if you’ve ever watched the clips of The Ellen Degeneres Show where she sends her staffers into haunted houses, more than once I’ve heard them report that they’ve peed themselves and I wasn’t taking any chances. While in the restroom with my daughter Chayce we overheard a conversation where someone said the haunted house was really long and really scary. Oh, no! So Wayne wrapped his arm tightly around me and I braced myself as we entered. I was ready to have the pants scared off of me…
Did I say I was ready? Yes, I was…and I kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting for it…But, to my surprise, and even dismay, the scares never came. The whole convoluted maze of catacombs, the slaughterhouse, cornfield, bat cave, spiders, creepy pumpkins and more were merely a great bunch of sets, well-designed but not scary at all. Mid-way through I began to feel bad that we left Brady at home. He actually may have enjoyed seeing the fun costumes and animatronics. And it was long – although I didn’t time it, I think it was somewhere around 30-40 minutes in total.
So what went wrong? First, they let in groups en masse. There’s safety in numbers but who wants that when you’re paying good money to be scared? There had to be at least 20 or more per group and in our crowd, chattering kids talking about fried chicken behind us didn’t help. Second, there were far too few costumed characters doling out the screeches and surprises relative to the size and length of the adventure; they boast 200-plus actors so I expected there to be many more ghouls jumping out at us but they just didn’t. In addition, if one jumped out at someone at the head of the group, that was it; either they didn’t jump out at the members in the back of the group or else you knew they were coming. Third, few if any of the areas were very dark which didn’t lend itself to a spooky or eerie overall atmosphere.
So we bought into the hype. And I mean BOUGHT into the hype. For our group of six we spent over $200 and that was with two comp tickets. For families with younger children who do like mild Halloween scares, I would say this is just up your alley. For families with older children/teens, expect to feel in the Halloween “spirit” but if you really want the adrenaline, watch an old horror movie with the lights out. Excuse me if I just ask you to pass me the popcorn while I take in a rom-com in the next room.