Oct. 1, 2012 at 9:26 AM ET
Vampires, zombies and serial killers, oh my. Officially speaking, Halloween is still a month away, but it seems the bloodsuckers and flesh munchers are already on the prowl. For now, though, they’re not showing up on people’s doorsteps, but rather, in theme parks from Orlando to Anaheim.
“Halloween to the theme parks is the equivalent of Christmas,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based theme park consulting company. “It’s the industry’s single biggest promotional event.”
It wasn't always that way. Back in 1973, Halloween was just another slow, off-season day, at least until Larry Vincent—a TV horror-movie host in Los Angeles known as Sinister Seymour—went looking for a venue where he could put on a film festival. He found Knott’s Berry Farm and the rest, as they say, is history.
“They hung some decorations from the rides and had maybe a half-dozen monsters in the street,” said park spokesperson Jennifer Blazey. “It was only three nights, but it was a huge hit.”
And destined to spread faster than the virus in “Resident Evil.”
Today, parks across the country get taken over by zombie hordes and insane clown posses almost every weekend from mid-September to the end of October. Mazes are set up, rides are transformed and evil creatures of every stripe walk the streets. At some parks, the production values rival Hollywood’s best efforts, and the experience is so intense, they’re not recommended for young children and preteens.
In fact, the scare-fests seem to get more intense every year even as they build on a concept that, psychologically at least, traces its roots to that long-ago day when a young caveman jumped out from behind a tree to frighten a potential mate.
“Scaring is an emotional high,” said Jamie O’Boyle, senior analyst at The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia. “You get a good scare, it’s very arousing.”
If that gets your heart rate up, the following haunts are all offering new ways to evoke that age-old emotion:
Horror Nights:Universal Orlando
Now in its 22nd year, Horror Nights was recently named “the country’s best Halloween event” for the fifth consecutive year by the industry trade magazine, “Amusement Today.” It may slay the competition again this year thanks to new haunted houses based on “The Walking Dead” TV show, the “Silent Hill” video game/movie franchise, the musical stylings of shock-rocker Alice Cooper and the dark, edgy magic of Penn & Teller, who, it seems, have accidentally turned Las Vegas into a smoking, radioactive ruin. Oops.
(NBC News and Universal Orlando are both owned by NBCUniversal.)
Fright Fest: SixFlags Great America
Opening Sept. 29, Fright Fest will feature the usual suspects — escaped inmates, demented demons, chainsaw-wielding zombies — along with five new shows and attractions. For the first time, the festivities will extend into Hurricane Harbor, where the “dried-up” Roaring Rapids ride has been transformed into Wicked Woods, a freaky forest inhabited by the likes of Sasquatch and Mothman.
Not creepy enough for you? Sign up for one of the park’s Friday Night Feast, and you can compete with other guests to see who can eat five live cockroaches in five minutes or less.
Halloween Haunt:Kings Island
Twelve haunted attractions, 20 dizzying rides and 500 creatures that would give Wes Craven the willies — and that’s just for starters. This year, the park is adding three new fright sites, including Madame Fatale’s Cavern of Terror, a freakish museum/maze full of oddities and wax creations. For an extra fee, hungry visitors can start their tour with a family-style dinner with the undead, although we suspect keeping the meal down could be a problem.
Howl-O-Scream: BuschGardens Williamsburg
When the sun goes down, the so-called “Dark Side of the Gardens” comes alive. On the paths, roaming hordes harass the passersby; onstage, a new live show offers a macabre musical journey, and in a new greenhouse-themed haunted house, “the seeds of evil” have purportedly been sewn. If you need a shot of courage, the vampire bartenders at the new OPEN CASKet bar have just the thing.
Halloween Haunt:Knott’s Berry Farm
What started out with a handful of monsters and a few ride decorations has now mutated into one of the biggest, scariest fright fests around. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Halloween Haunt will feature 13 mazes, including five new ones; nine live shows, four scare zones and a cast of more than 1,000 characters. For those with a sense of nostalgia — or, perhaps, a weak heart — the park has also just opened a special museum filled with memorabilia and artifacts from previous haunts.
Sinister Seymour, may he rest in peace, would be proud.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believesthe journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.