Haunted Houses 2014

By on 8 October, 2014 in Fun, Holidays, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

I. On fear and the escape from our domestic lives

We don’t quite understand fear. The things that make us afraid (i.e., a plane crash) are far less likely to kill us than our regular lives (i.e., driving a car). Also, the things that scare us are different than the things that induce dread. We dread ebola. We are scared when someone unexpectedly knocks on our car window. There’s a whole industry invested in the landscape stretching from dread to fear. Its peak business time is right now – around Halloween. Sure, the holiday’s full of sexy vampires and hard rock werewolves, but its wonderful core is about being scared. Dread is easy these days – just turn on the news. But the stinging surprise of fear is a rarer commodity, especially in a setting where you’re probably not actually going to be injured.

We love the feeling of being scared. Sure, it gets your heart racing, but it also elevates your senses to peak levels and seems to slow time in a way that reminds you that you are alive. Also scaring someone is a surprisingly delicate art – it involves content, defiance of expectations, prior knowledge and (for a certain kind of fright) surprise. Timing is everything. That’s why so many horror movies and scary attractions involve people jumping out of the darkness. If you don’t expect something, it can alert you and even scare you.

Modern life is designed to round off the edges of this kind of fear. We try to live in homes impervious to dangerous predators, paving and destroying the habitats of wolves and bears and venomous things. We build our routines to create an illusion that our devices and habits will keep us safe from the harms that maimed our ancestors. And we traffic in tropes associated with that controllable fear: the slasher, the zombie, the evil clown.

One of us is a veteran haunted house attendee; the other first sampled the genre a few years ago. Both of us love the art form. If you’ve never been to a haunted house — which should be distinguished from “a house that is haunted” — you should know that these amusement style attractions vary tremendously. Sometimes it can be like the difference between going to a Biscuits game and a Rays game. Sure, both are technically “professional.” Both are comprised of baseball. But you’d never mistake one for the other.

The idea of a haunted house is, basically, that you pay some money to traverse a fixed route which is (in theory) going to be scary. Some people will probably jump out at you. There will likely be some scary/gross visuals and special effects. Maybe you will have to walk through a tunnel or other disorienting experience. But the A+ experience knows how to sequence the lunging people, bizarre visuals, physical/kinetic timing and sensory overload to make the journey something that is scary as opposed to simply absurd or (at worst) laughable. If you can temporarily suspend your disbelief in whatever horror they are selling, you can take a little trip into crazyville, with results that leave you breathless and happily thriving from the fear.

We find this wonderful. Not sure about you, but our everyday lives sometimes leave us without emotional highs and lows. This is probably a good thing- nobody really wants to be terrified at their day job. But being recreationally terrified turns out to be pretty darned fun. There’s the chemical rush, sure. But after that wears off, there’s the appreciation of the labor and artistry that went into the haunt. That’s why we are really into haunted houses.


Photo by Netherworld.

II. Netherworld

We’ve written before about our interest in haunted houses (and several times about local angles on all things Halloween-related). This year we decided to get serious about it. We’ve been to Atrox Factory in Leeds and Sloss Furnace in Birmngham, but we’ve long hoped to make the trip to Atlanta’s Netherworld. Part of a chain called America’s Haunts, this has consistently been ranked in the top ten haunted house attractions in the United States. To us, the only downside was that it’s about three hours away. But this past Sunday, we decided to make the trip.

Short version: It is worth the trip. Sure, you can pay $15 for a guy in black sweatpants and a rubber mask to jump out of the dark at you, but it’s not even going to compare to what you get at Netherworld. There, you get some of the finest Hollywood special effects (including astounding work by Montgomery special effects artist Jonathan Thornton) combined with impeccable timing, thematic organization and world-class organization to spur your scare. Plus a surprising number of chainsaw-wielding maniacs.

When we went, there were two haunts. One is called “Spliced” and appears to be thematically involved around science experiments gone awry. There were aliens and tentacles and a number of other unspeakable terrors. The other haunt was built around witches, and was tremendously versatile and cool. We debated which was the better of the two, but both were great.

You could see both for a fixed price, but since we had the dog in the car and work the next day, we paid for the Speedpass. Given the lines on an early October Sunday night, we can see the value of the Speedpass, especially as Halloween draws closer and crowds are certain to increase in size. We are also sure these people are making lots of money. They deserve it. You might spend 25 minutes walking (or sort-of running) through one of Netherworld’s two haunts, but for every minute of your entertainment, there’s probably at least 100 hours of planning, crafting and staging that goes into making your experience (whether you scream/laugh/gape) as awesome as it can be.

We were like over-stimulated children afterwards (“Can you believe that dragon?!?”) and Netherworld is amazing at unleashing a multi-sensory experience. There are rickety floorboards, compressed air bursts, atmospheric mists, compressing walls, blinding lights and loud (but not annoyingly deafening) sounds. From the demons to the living tree-people, the acting is first rate and we agreed that this was the best haunted house we had ever seen.

III. Our plan for seeing Alabama’s best

We don’t plan to limit ourselves to the out of state attractions, though we might be tempted by 13 Stories’ billboard promise of an attraction where they might touch, drench or even shock you (it’s in Newnam, just across the border). So we made a list which, as far as we can tell, represents what’s available around here. We uploaded it as a Google spreadsheet – take a look. We’ve been to Atrox before and think that it stacks up well against Netherworld. You really should go. Leeds is not even two hours away, and Atrox is a world class attraction. If you go on a day when there’s no “horror movie star,” (and we use the term “star” loosely) it’s a lot cheaper. We also plan to go back to Sloss. It’s been at least five years since we’ve been, and they’ve added a few new haunts to the tour. Even if you’re not scare material, the night tour through the furnace is pretty awesome if you enjoy seeing industrial architecture up close. We also plan to see some parts unknown to check out rural haunts and we will update by Twitter and Facebook.

IV. Montgomery needs one. Or two.

We spent more than $100 driving to Atlanta. Montgomery leaders say that we want tourists, but where is our top notch haunt to get the valuable Halloween consumer spending? We were shocked to see that there was no haunted house advertising in Montgomery. What’s up with that?

We have some ideas for places that would be great homes to haunted houses in Montgomery. Anyone want to run through an abandoned mall?

If we’re wrong and Montgomery has a sweet haunted house that we should know about, let us know. We’ll be glad to get there, wait in line, hold hands in the cooling autumn air, and share the giddy excitement with a crowd full of strangers.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, nine fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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