Here's the thing about haunted houses. It's all about the details.
A truly unnerving haunted house needs two things to be memorable: A solid story that adds depth and context to the visual effects, which in turn makes it more unsettling to guests, and creative vision.
You can't just pile a bunch of fake severed limbs in a room and have a buggy, blinking light in the corner and call it scary. You need to conceptualize one or more big moments -- unexpected and unrivaled shocks -- that showcase the power of practical effects.
You also can't solely rely on jump scares -- you know, the characters who frequently and insufferably jump out of the shadows and scream in your face or ear.
The best haunted houses allow for the ghoulish ambiance of its individual areas to sink in, which can ratchet up anxiety better than 100 creepy clowns grinning silently off to the side.
If you operate a theme park, that likely means you can afford to pay creative geniuses to spend countless hours, days, weeks even, fabricating intricate illusions designed to make even grown men scream in fear. Yet, when the time comes for paying customers to finally get inside and begin winding through the rooms, they are herded through like cattle with mere seconds allowed to actually appreciate all the spooky hard work.
It doesn't make sense, but that is the norm today for big-name theme parks with annual Halloween traditions.
Case in point: Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream, which returns this year with seven haunted houses, multiple scare zones and what the park dubs as its "Inescapable Roaming Hordes." The 2016 edition is called Evil Encore, and runs through October 30, 2016.
On a rain-deluged recent Friday, BVB: Blood Violence and Babes braved the elements and made it through three houses and two scare zones before inclement weather cut the experience short.
Three of the houses on display -- Circus of Superstition, Death Water Bayou and Zombie Mortuary -- date back to at least 2014. And then there's Unearthed, the centerpiece of Howl-O-Scream 2015, which was heavily promoted due to the involvement of a producer of the original "The Blair Witch Project."
Of the seven haunted houses, only two are new -- Motel Hell and The Black Spot. Thankfully, one of those is exceptional.
Motel Hell is the kind of signature staple that horror fans love. It's effectively low-key at the beginning before exploding into delirious madness halfway through. The premise is simple: You stumble across the kind of roadside motel that populated the American southwest in the 1950's and '60s. There's a weird guy shuffling out front next to an abandoned car. The neon sign is blinking but several bulbs are out. What could possibly go wrong?
From the second you enter the motel lobby, it's clear that something awful has happened here. The period decor is trashed. Mounds of dirt are suffocating the floor. As you move through the impressive rooms -- the laundromat, in particular, with body parts spilling out of stacked dryers and ghostly figures shrouded in sheets, is chillingly good -- you feel as if you have been transported to a different time, a different world, where bad things can and do happen. The courtyard swimming pool is perfectly represented with a body floating face down. Chainsaws stick out of motel doors, stuck mid-saw. The house culminates inside a room that has literally been turned upside down, a portal to hell punctuated by an acrobatic demon spawn that flies forth from a closet too close to your head for comfort.
Then there's The Black Spot, which is essentially Gasparilla as a haunted house.
If you've lived in Tampa for any length of time, then you know the city's affinity for pirates. But how scary are pirates, really?
The Black Spot is a case study in missed opportunities that begins before you even step foot inside the ruined shipwreck. A ghastly wench lurks near the entrance, using her siren charms to lure people over to be marked with a fluorescent stamp -- yes, you guessed it, the titular black spot.
What would be really cool is if that mark, at some point during your passage through the house, actually meant you were marked, as in identified to be pulled away from your group and made part of an interactive experience. It's not that cool, sadly. And there is no further mention made of the stamp on your hand.
The best part of The Black Spot, again, is blink-and-you'll-miss-it good. An exotic yet terrifying live mermaid waits about midway through, her mouth widening in a blood-curdling scream. If only you could stop and gander and get an appreciative look at her design. Even on a rainy Friday with minimal crowds, no suck luck.
Unearthed, last year's focal attraction, also is a good example of the difficult journey from concept to realization in designing an effective haunted house.
There is a story -- maintenance crews supposedly discovered the house while excavating on the property and inadvertently unleashed a terrible entity -- but the story doesn't match the experience. Unearthed suffers from too many characters leaping out to go Boo! And, at times, those characters feel ripped straight from a local production of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Some rooms are simply too dark to actually see the designs. And the big reveal, which features something trying to burst forth from the dirt in a dimly lit mining cavern, isn't discernible enough to make sense or be very scary.
More impressive this year, are the scare zones, which feature horrifically awesome props that you can actually stand and soak in. One dark passage boasts a number of ridiculously cool werewolf statues that any card-carrying, lifetime horror fan would proudly display in their front yard year-round.
Another zone, aptly titled Wasteland, offers realistic burned corpses bound to stakes looming overhead from carefully crafted trash-bin memorials. On a dreary night, with smoke machines pumping fog along the path and random sprinkles of rain beating down, you truly feel like you've stepped into an apocalyptic nightmare.
So what's the final verdict? Even on a truncated night cut short by thunderstorms, the care and attention to detail invested in Motel Hell, as well as the effective scare zones, likely justifies the ticket cost.
Moving forward, Howl-O-Scream would be wise to keep Motel Hell and scrap the rest of its perpetual roster of familiar haunts and instead envision a more immersive, interactive thrust in coming years. People travel to Orlando to Universal's Halloween Horror Nights to see their favorite horror films brought to life. By capitalizing on originality and amplifying the scares, Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream could distinguish itself as the better alternative destination for truly unique and memorable frights.
If You're Going:
Where: Busch Gardens, 10165 N. McKinley Dr., Tampa, FL 33612
When: Thursday through Sunday, October 6-9, 13-16, 20-23 and 27-30, from 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Tickets: Starting at $65.99 with upgrades available.
For More Information: Buy tickets, research the haunted houses and more here.