Since its first rollout in 2009, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride in Griffith Park has been a trip into Halloween past, with tractors, trailers and staged scenes that, despite the presence of theatrics and effects, has brought more traditional, timeless scares than those increasingly offered by Southern California’s bigger, louder theme parks.
This Halloween season, however, the Haunted Hayride and its surrounding scare environments will boast three escape rooms and a fully fleshed-out community called Midnight Falls, part of a thematic expansion that will dial into a specific era: the mid-1980s.
It’s a period that’s in vogue, especially when it comes to spooky offerings, from “Stranger Things” to next month’s “American Horror Story: 1984,” which is said to be an homage to the ‘80s run of “Friday the 13th” films. But the Haunted Hayride will also aim to tap an increased hunger for vibrantly detailed participatory entertainment, as evidenced by the proliferation of theme park-like take-overs of public spaces.
In addition to a town square with a returning psychic booth, the ‘80s-trapped Midnight Falls will be populated by some 250 actors playing a cast of characters that range from city councilman to pageant queen. Expect a mortuary-themed haunted house with hidden details about what’s likely a less-than-legit family business as well as a cornfield maze themed to the town ranch.
Even the larger returning areas, such as a trick-or-treat maze, have been revamped from the ground up with a dozen new houses and residents to encounter, all themed to the mid-’80s aesthetic -- so don’t be surprised to bump into a little bit of camp. The overarching Midnight Falls town will be an environment where, Haunted Hayride founder and former “Shark Tank” winner Melissa Carbone says, “suspension of disbelief is possible.”
“It’s 30 acres, where we erect a world for the entire month and then take it down and do it all over again,” says Carbone, who last year sold the company she co-founded, Ten Thirty One Productions, to haunted house specialist Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group. Thirteeen Floor, she says, has placed a greater emphasis on adding “a lot of new character narrative, a lot of new setting narrative, a lot of new plot lines.”
On Sunday, Carbone and her collaborators will present their Haunted Hayride plans at the Midsummer Scream convention in Long Beach, which this year will also host programs on the 50th anniversary of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and a preview of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights.
“We’re erecting a world in the woods, and putting down three miles of power cables to do this thing,” Carbone says. “It’s no joke.”
And it’s vital if the Haunted Hayride is going to stay competitive in the crowded Southern California market, where tourist destinations such as Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain and Disneyland each year up their Halloween-themed entertainment offerings. “This is the kind of experience people are seeking out more now,” Carbone says, “and people keep getting better and better at it. To stay relevant, and to stay at the top, you have to keep evolving.”
No more, says Jon Cooke, creative director of this year’s Haunted Hayride, can you “get away with some black walls and [ultraviolet] paint.”
“We didn’t sit down and say, ‘We’re going to create a hayride and a haunted maze.’ We wanted to create a functioning world that people are stepping into and losing themselves in,” says Cooke, who worked on haunted attractions at Knott’s Scary Farm and elsewhere. “They can engage with the characters, and what the characters are saying can pertain to the attraction. I think that’s what people are looking to do; they’re looking to go in and lose themselves. Disneyland has their ‘lands,’ and that’s the model people trying to follow.”
The story is relatively simple. Midnight Falls is cursed, and Halloween happens every night, or at least most evenings from Sept. 28 to Nov. 2. This year, the hayride will show the transformation of when the hex begins to take effect.
“You’re taking a trip through the outskirts of Midnight Falls,” Cooke says, “but as you’re traveling through, this curse that’s taking hold over the town is starting to set in. You’re seeing the sheriff’s department responding to the monsters out in the woods, and you’re caught in the middle of this outbreak.”
The maze themed to a ranch will be the most intense experience; this is where you’ll find the standard scare characters with chainsaws. The trick-or-treat town will take on a more playful vibe, with each home being themed to a specific character. Monsters live here, but the monsters are taking part in Halloween themselves; Cooke notes that a werewolf may be dressed as another creature or character, and a vampire-like figure will live in a mini castle. All, he hopes, will capture some of the tone of ‘80s-styled monsters.
“Since there are only four attractions we wanted to make sure they’re all hitting on different elements,” he says. “Trick or treating still has scares, but it’s the most lighthearted of the attractions. The mortuary is more dark and creepy and ghostly ... the hayride is the over-the-top production.”
The hayride, says Carbone, will remain the centerpiece of the event, for which tickets go on sale Aug. 9 and will range from $34.99 to $109 per person.
“When you approach [Haunted Hayride], you see this beautiful orange glow coming out of the trees,” she says. “You see the decay in the air and the fog. It’s very visceral, an Old World feeling of Halloween.”
But if the event is a success, that romantic feeling should last only so long.
“We put people in the woods at night and we annihilate them,” she says. “So from an environmental standpoint we have something you can’t find anywhere else. There’s not another space in L.A. you can go into the woods at night and get the crap scared of you.”
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