We’re at least an hour outside of the city, regularly second-guessing our route as we make our way down winding, pitch black roads, nothing but fields of crops on either side, silhouetted against the seemingly supernatural grey glow of some far away car dealership.
And then—we finally come upon the floodlights of the next haunt’s parking lot. The year-round species of parking lot zombie (wearing orange reflective vests) direct us. Getting out of the car we immediately inhale that distinct haunted house perfume: a mix of fog machine juice, barn hay ,and dust.
We wait in lines so long our bones begin to ache, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off—we don’t want to crowd one of these haunted houses and end up shuffling along, squished between other patrons. That’s the sort of thing that totally upsets the context of the experience—the monsters lose their intimidation factor when you’re waddling through and if it’s not scary, then what’s the point? The allure of the haunted house is a challenge to your fear responses, while knowing you’ll make it out unscathed.
Being an adult alive in the world basically means endlessly standing in lines anyway, so bring a few friends along to talk to, or download some e-books to your phone to keep you entertained (I can recommend “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff, “The Troop” by Nick Cutter, “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” by Mary Roach, “Haunted” by Chuck Palahniuk, or for a shorter read, “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle).
I visited eight haunted attractions within a two-hour driving radius of Baltimore City. The usual scoring system (seven out of 10 spooky skulls!) is largely unhelpful, I opted instead for a “Best of” approach, and awarded each haunt according to the trait that made it stand out the most.
Best Injurious Disney Ride: Trimper's Haunted House
Boardwalk, Ocean City, MD
As good a place to start our Halloween experience as any. We plunked down $5 and stepped through the gates. Trimper’s is considered a “dark ride”: you sit in a little car that takes you through the haunted house. The origins of this kind of ride coincide with the origin of the roller coaster, and possibly, haunted attractions in general: In 18th century Russia, riders sledded down man-made ice slides taking riders past paintings of scary scenes. Trimper’s Haunted House, operating since 1964, is the last surviving ride designed by dark-ride-mogul Bill Tracy. Many of Tracy’s props have been phased out (his legacy includes a Disney-esque torture maiden with animatronically inflating breasts) as more modern effects were installed, giving the ride a weird mish-mash of oogly-eyed glow-in-the-dark cartoon skeletons and the uncanny, visceral gore seen in more modern attractions. This is a “dark ride” so there are no actors in costume, only animatronic. However it’s rumored that any attempt to touch the props will prompt a large man lurking in the shadows to come out and twist your arm completely around. Either way, the violent jerking of the car on its wobbly tracks is going to leave you with some pretty banged up knees by the time it’s over.
Hours of operation are not guaranteed, but the ride is generally open from March—late November.
Best Up-And-Coming Haunt: Laurel's House of Horror
I’m in Laurel’s House of Horror, and the namby-pambys I’m with want me to huddle in with them, but I’m trying to “maximize my spook” by going off on my own. My fearful friends are yelling my name, calling to me—but that only gets all the creeps and demons around us mimicking them—yelling “Charlieeeee!!” in creepy voices and animalistic growls. I get trapped by a group of demons—one with Donald Trump’s face!—and I really do get split off from my friends and chased outside by the (annoyingly) ubiquitous chainsaw maniac into a parking lot I don’t recognize. I have just an instant of doubt about their pretend-maliciousness before a friend yells to show me the correct exit. Year round, LHoH operates a series of escape rooms inside an abandoned strip-mall movie theater adjacent to a Chuck E. Cheese, and is now in it’s fourth year operating a haunt during the Halloween season, as well as a “Halfway to Halloween” event in the spring. A nice aspect of this smaller, newer haunt is that they change things up as the season goes on—you likely won’t have the same experience if you pay a return visit. You’ll get the same essential menu of classic scares that most haunts deliver—the Victorian ghost, the cannibalistic butcher, the “Deliverance” redneck—Laurel makes up for a smaller production with plenty of ingenuity and some pretty impressive set design. While occasionally a cast member will do little more than leer at you for invading their creepy “cubicle,” many of them exhibit fully-developed characters and will spend some time interacting with you.
Laurel’s House of Horrors runs weekends and select weekdays through Nov. 4, with the remaining “blackout” date on Oct. 19.
Best Existential Fake-Out: Kim's Krypt Haunted Mill
Spring Grove, PA
Each time I told someone I was going to Kim’s Krypt I’d get a funny look, and the explanation: “Kim does things a . . . little differently.” I’m still not exactly sure what they meant, but it’s possible that my immersion in the world of haunted houses has left me somewhat jaded. Kim’s offers six separate attractions: three haunted houses, a haunted trail, a maze, and their newest attraction, “Dark Despair.” The indoor haunts certainly had an air of authenticity, being set up inside a few abandoned buildings on the site of a former mill. And the attention given to more “kinetic” scares (unreliable footing, etc.) as opposed to relying only on jump scares or just plain ol’ gore was refreshing and appreciated. “Dark Despair” is a one-story structure consisting of a series of black vinyl tarps connected by inflatable black vinyl columns—imagine if Juggalos built a model of the Parthenon. Patrons (“victims”) enter alone, and navigate a maze in total dark. As always, I did my best to amplify my experience by getting good and lost. Being in total darkness for long enough will eventually put you in a state of dreamlike unreality—the self, now out of sight, becomes out of mind. I floated woozily toward a glowing evil clown head, floating in nothingness. When the head turned away from me, a new horror occurred: So used to getting instant, vigorous attention from all the creatures in these haunted attractions, to suddenly be ignored by one, combined with the dreamy feeling and loss of self, hit me with the possibility of my own nonexistence—until the clown head casually turned to me, with a big loud “Boo . . . go that way,” He jerked a thumb at a slit of light on the ground: the exit.
Kim’s Krypt Haunted Mill runs weekends through Nov. 5.
Most Give-It-To-You-Straight Staff: Legends of the Fog
Legends of the Fog features four attractions: a circus, a hotel, a hayride, and a corn maze. Higher-end haunts like this one that have been collecting quality props and effects over the course of many years, with the help of seasoned haunt-builders and actors, provide an experience that you can’t really go wrong with—although they do tend to copy one another’s material quite a bit. LotF however incorporates plenty of clever and unique elements into their attractions (no spoilers!). Like many haunts, there is a main “yard,” or midway, with concessions kiosks or horror-themed carnival games and activities. One such activity, featured at this and several other haunts, was the “Coffin Ride,” a small hut with a large flatscreen monitor out front. When we asked the attendant what it was all about, they explained wryly, “You get told a story while being shaken around inside a coffin. Everyone gets to watch [on the screen].” When I asked for clarification, they repeated the statement with a shrug. I smiled, nodded, and we moved on.
Legends of the Fog runs weekends through Nov. 4, with “blackout” dates on Nov. 3 and 4.
Most Authentic Props: Field of Screams
One of the longest running haunts, FoS (no relation to the Maryland-based haunt of the same name) has been in operation for 25 years and features four attractions: Den of Darkness, Frightmare Asylum, Nocturnal Wasteland, and a haunted hayride. The standout feature of FoS was their props; not only the variety but the sheer quantity—just the courtyard itself had enough high-end props for a fifth attraction—although some were looking a little shopworn and “patchy” (a motion-activated dog, snarling and jolting out of a doghouse, was just a head dangling off the end of its mechanized metal arm). At one point I passed through a corridor lined with morgue cabinets—all animated, flapping open and closed, some with fake corpses popping out, some with live actors in costume reaching out from inside. Even the remarkably authentic smell will grab you at FoS; we pinpointed it a few weeks later when we discovered a long-lost dirty dish that had been neglected long enough to harbor maggots!
Field of Screams runs weekends and select weekdays through Nov. 1.
Most Creative Scares: Bates Motel
Glen Mills, PA
Bates Motel has been running about 27 years now, and it shows in their attention to detail, variety and quality of props, and ingenuity. They even sell ponchos (without ripping you off!) essential to our drizzly visit. We got there right when it opened (and on a weekday) so we had the luxury of no lines. We could take our time going through the haunts and get thoroughly and properly spooked. I was really impressed to see unique themes never used in any of the other haunts we went to. The Hotel portion of the haunt and the hayride simply blew my mind into zombie souffle. They had built practically a whole town, and some of the set design rivaled that of major theme parks. Maybe it was my high expectations after the first two features, but the corn maze, “Revenge of the Scarecrows Haunted Trail,” felt a little lackluster, and I wondered if it had started as a repository for unused or broken props: Long stretches through the trail just had nothing going on. Overall, however, this was probably the spookiest and very best haunt we visited this season.
Bates Motel runs every night throughout October.
Best Location: Terror Behind the Walls
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA
Another very good haunt with a kind of fucked up background: It is set at the Eastern State Penitentiary and turning a prison into a scary tourist attraction is well, just something to note and wrestle with. Eastern State, an imposing, ancient-looking structure that hasn’t been operational as a penitentiary for nearly a half a century, could do well as a haunted attraction without so much as a spiderweb—and there is nothing scarier than the prison industrial complex! Still, this ambitious haunt has six sections and you go through each section one at a time (as opposed to other multiple-attraction haunts which allow you to choose your own adventure). And all six of the sections are spectacular. At ESP, you are given the option of wearing a glowing neck tube, to signify to the actors that you are willing to be tickled, grabbed, pulled into one of the actual cells, and/or forced into what seemed to be an authentic prison dentist chair. Unfortunately, despite going on a Wednesday night, the line wrapped around the block (and it’s a big block), which meant we were shuffling butt-to-gut through the haunt—shoved from behind and having every scare spoiled by people ahead of us. My firm recommendation is that you try to go to all the haunts early, and if possible, on a weekday. Despite this having been one of my favorite haunts in the past, crowds of noisy, pushy people ruin most of the illusion the haunt is trying to create. You may as well just enjoy the inherent creepiness of the old prison on one of their daytime tours instead.
Terror Behind the Walls runs select days throughout the week through Nov. 11.
Best Haunted DSW Shoe Warehouse: Bennett's Curse
My first visit to Bennett’s was about four years ago, when they were still operating in Blob’s Park. It was the first haunted attraction I’d been to since I was a kid, and I was unprepared for what would be a thrilling and mind-bending experience. When Bennett’s moved to an indoor location near Raven’s stadium, we again had as exhilarating an experience as one can have at a haunted attraction. It has, after all, been ranked consistently as one of the top haunted attractions in the Mid-Atlantic region and featured on the Travel Channel at least six times. So, while it was a trek to venture out to its newest location—a former DSW Shoe Warehouse in East Point Mall—we decided it would be worth it. Bennett’s had to move from its prior location because it could not get the proper fire safety requirements in place. Unfortunately, I had to pretend I wasn’t walking across the padded carpeting and breathing the stale air of a department store, even as I was surrounded by extraordinarily realistic scenes of horror. It felt a bit like I was in the showroom for the props I was walking past, like the lights in the drop-ceiling above would suddenly come on and a salesperson would jump out asking, “Whaddaya think? Can I send you home with one of our gargoyles today?” I hope they can find a worthier location next year, because—let’s face it—ending up at the mall is really a curse of its own.
Bennett’s Curse runs Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 4, as well as Oct. 30 and 31.
Other Haunted Attractions in the DMV Area
- Markoff’s Haunted Forest (Dickerson, MD) markoffshauntedforest.com
- Jason’s Woods (Lancaster, PA) jasonswoods.com
- Haunted Dungeons (Fort Howard, MD) haunteddungeons.com
- Cox’s Point Haunted Mansion (Essex, MD) coxspoint.org
- Twisted Fields of Terror (Prince Frederick, MD) twistedfieldsofterror.com
- Field of Screams (Olney, MD) screams.org
- PennHurst Haunted Asylum (Spring City, PA) pennhurstasylum.com
- Hundred Acres Manor (Pittsburgh, PA) hundredacresmanor.com
- ScareHouse (Pittsburgh, PA) scarehouse.com
- Fells Point & Mount Vernon Ghost Tours & Bar Crawls (Baltimore, MD) baltimoreghosttours.com
- New Hope & Ivyland Railroad Haunted Halloween (New Hope, PA) newhoperailroad.com/hauntedhalloween