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Where theme parks become scream parks

If you're too old for trick-or-treating but still love getting spooked on Halloween, it's time to trade in the superhero costume for a ticket to a haunted house or amusement park.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you're too old for trick-or-treating but still love getting spooked on Halloween, it's time to trade in the superhero costume for a ticket to a haunted house or theme park.

But attractions like Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and Atlanta's Netherworld Haunted House are not for the faint of heart. You'll be trapped in creepy mazes, disoriented by strobe lights and fog, and confronted by crazed monsters. Experiences like these are not recommended for kids under 13, but even some grown-ups may not be able to handle them. If watching a Stephen King movie keeps you up all night, or you're prone to panic attacks in small spaces, better stick to apple-picking or the child-friendly "Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party" at Walt Disney World.

On the other hand, if you love the tingle of terror that comes with a really creepy horror movie, this is your kind of fun.

David Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, noted that a number of parks have added new elements to their Halloween events this year: "They're figuring out new ways to scare the daylights out of you."

Mandt said this year's Halloween offerings include a number of behind-the-scenes tours, including, at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia, "All-Access Insider," "Eerie Insider" and "Monster Stomp Revamped Insider" tours for the park's Howl-O-Scream. More details can be found at this website. The tours include cast introductions, front-of-the-line access to a haunted house and a chance to have your makeup done like one of the performers.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which was a real prison until 1971 and today is a National Historic Landmark, hosts an annual Halloween event called Terror Behind the Walls. The attraction also offers an after-dark VIP tour, where you get an hourlong flashlight-guided tour of cellblocks, including Al Capone's cell, isolation cells, and Death Row; Click here for more details.

Knott's Berry Farm, a theme park in Buena Park, Calif., boasts one of the oldest Halloween theme park events in the country, dating to 1973. when "it was a few decorations and a few employees putting on some masks," said spokeswoman Jennifer Blazey. The event, now called Knott's Berry Farm Haunt, has grown dramatically. This year it features 13 mazes (including "Terror of London" with foggy streets and Jack the Ripper), three "scare zones," 1,000 monster-actors, and seven live shows ranging from improv comedy to a hypnotist. While Knott's does not release attendance figures, Blazey said the month that the Haunt runs makes more money for the company than any other time of year.

And while Knott's does have a weekend daytime event for ages 3 to 11, with a costume party and trick-or-treating, the after-7 p.m. Haunt is for ages 13 and up; Click here for dates and tickets.

Universal Orlando in Florida began its Halloween attraction as "a tiny little experimental event with one haunted house over one weekend" in 1991, according to Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment. This year, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the country are expected for the park's 20th annual Halloween Horror Nights, with eight haunted houses, six scare zones and 1,000 "scareactors" in the park. The content is newly created each year for the Horror Nights, with original story lines and characters. This year's characters include an evil master named Fear who drives all the other monsters' diabolical deeds. Details about the back stories in the park attractions can be found on Universal's website; fans can then see them come to life in the park.

Timon said the costumes, stories and sets are so rich, realistic and detailed that they are "film-quality. We could literally make our own new movies from these characters. The lighting, the special effects, the visuals — we do everything we can to suspend your disbelief and take away your illusion of control."

One of Universal's haunted houses this year is called Legendary Truth, an estate home with a history of murders that have resulted in paranormal activity. Timon said the house has an unusual set-up in which visitors trigger the special effects themselves. "People are used to us scaring them," he said. "When they are the ones triggering the effects by how they are interacting with the haunted house, that's even scarier. It's a cool trick when they eventually realize, 'I'm the one causing this.'"

A note to Harry Potter fans: Universal Orlando consists of two parks. Halloween Horror Nights takes place at Universal Studios Florida, not at its sister park, Islands of Adventure, where The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is located.

Universal Studios Hollywood theme park in Los Angeles has its own Halloween Horror Nights, which are mostly themed on horror films like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th." For a new maze this year unrelated to the movies, Universal created an original graphic novella, "Vampyre: Castle of the Undead," which can be seen online. The park also created a new scare zone haunted by La Llorona, based on a Latin American legend of a crying woman who drowned her children in anger over her philandering husband.

Details and tickets for Universal parks on either coasts can be found at this website.

Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., is also counting two decades of Halloween events with the 20th season of "Fright Fest." The park's new "Saw Live" haunted house is themed on the "Saw" movie series, with props, characters and scenes from the films. For younger children, the park has spook-free zones. Details can be found by clicking here.

Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta ranks No. 1 on a list of top scariest attractions compiled by Larry Kirchner, editor of Hauntworld Magazine, an online industry publication. Netherworld promises that visitors will find themselves fleeing flying gargoyles, escaping from a house where the floors crack open and furniture comes to life, and trying to avoid capture by a mad scientist known as the Mangler, whose victims meet their fate in a drowning tank, flesh compactor and acid room.

"When you go through a haunted house on the level of Netherworld, you're totally immersed in an environment as detailed as a movie," Kirchner said.

But he added that there's a major difference between watching a movie and visiting a haunted house. "When you see a horror movie, you're sitting in a theater seat 100 feet away from a screen and nothing is going to shake your seat or fall in your face. In a haunted house, you're living in the horror movie," Kirchner said.

He added that part of what makes haunted houses so compelling is that they are also "unscripted live shows" that change every night depending on how the actors interact with guests, so no two visits will be exactly alike. The complete list of Kirchner's 13 favorite Halloween attractions is at this website.

Another list of Halloween bests comes from Haunted Attraction Magazine, which lists "Must-See Haunted Houses" at this website, starting with House of Shock in New Orleans. Others in the Haunted Attraction top 10 are Kevin McCurdy's Haunted Mansion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Scarehouse in Pittsburgh; Dead Acres in Columbus, Ohio; House of Torment, Austin, Texas; Fear Itself, Mishawaka, Ind.; Dent School House, Cincinnati; Nightmare on 13th, Salt Lake City; Wisconsin Feargrounds, Waukesha, Wis.; and Blood Manor, New York City.

But how do the creators make these experiences so scary? Timon, from Universal, said one of the fundamentals at the Orlando park is disorientation. Strobe lights and ultraviolet lights dilate your eyes; maze-like corridors and darkness make it hard for you to figure out where you're going; mirrors make you think someone is next to you when they're actually some distance away.

"People are terrified of losing control," Timon said. "So we love taking away that control."

Another technique is distracting guests with an elaborate scene, like a gory body on a gurney. "You're focused on it because it's really elaborate, so you're not paying attention to the four people who are sneaking up on you," Timon said.

Just remember at all of these attractions, actors are trained to invade your space without ever touching or harming you, so you're always safe even when you're scared out of your wits.

It's terror "as a form of entertainment," said Timon. "People like the scare, but they know they're in a safe environment."