It’s Beginning to Feel A Lot Like the Season for Screaming

I’ve always been an avid fan of crime dramas and novels, horror stories, Halloween, and the like.  No doubt about it, I’m the only person in my drab office eagerly anticipating this year’s batch of haunts, mapping out my must-see’s with the concentration of a four star general on whose shoulders rest the fate of an entire nation.  From my first foray as a trembling eight-year old to a Jaycees haunted house in Atlanta, gripping my dad’s hand and wheezing through what would turn out to be a wretched case of pneumonia, to last year’s trips to Pennhurst Asylum and the legendary Bates Motel in Pennsylvania, I’m a haunted house addict.  So, with the leaves starting to turn and that first faint whiff of autumn in the air, I’ve started to itch with anticipation.  If you happen to follow me on Pinterest, no doubt you’ll soon witness an epic number of pins to my “Autumn Leaves” and “Scares & Screams on Halloween” boards.  Fall can’t get here fast enough!

With that in mind, I thought I’d take a moment to revisit past haunts and explore this year’s options – For those of you in the South Jersey/Philly area, feel free to chime in with suggestions & comments.  This is the first installment, featuring the now-defunct Haunted Woods and Eastern State Penitentiary (an upcoming post will feature Night of Terror at Creamy Acres, the Bates Motel, and Pennhurst Asylum).

The Haunted Woods (closed???)

Ah, the Haunted Woods.  Most spectacular of all New Jersey haunts.  You’re sorely missed.  I only visited this haunt twice before its untimely demise, but the one time their corn maze was functioning was a truly epic evening.  The place wasn’t much to see on first arrival, and was easily missed as the entrance was obscured by a large cornfield on a dark country road.  Being used to overdone, commercial types of haunts, my friend and I weren’t sure what we’d gotten ourselves into, but we figured we’d driven 45 minutes and may as well give it a shot.  This place was a prime example of why you should never judge a book by its cover.

The haunted trail was a long, dark walk through the woods with about eight other visitors and one guide.  After years of being disappointed by haunted houses with signs informing visitors of prohibitions against “creatures” touching guests, imagine my IMMENSE glee when one creepy, masked murderer stuck a REAL KNIFE in a tree about two inches above my left shoulder!!!!  I was SOLD.  Add to that the trip through the dark, plastic-wrapped maze which finished off with all of us falling in a heap in a giant leaf-filled hole (my lawyer mind thinks this is probably why there is no more Haunted Woods), and I knew I’d found my perfect haunt.  The trail was capped off by a frenzied attack from four or five chainsaw-wielding maniacs, and I figured it couldn’t get any better than that.

But we still had the corn maze……Could it get better?  Yes, my friends.  YES.  IT COULD.  Let me preface this by saying, being from the Atlanta area, my friend and I were prepared for something geared toward children.  We were completely unfamiliar with the practice of constructing terrifying nightmare worlds in cornfields.

It was the PERFECT night for our first corn maze – Full moon overhead, a breeze rustling through the corn and masking the sound of approaching predators, and my overactive imagination running full steam ahead.  I mean, seriously, if you were a killer, what better place to get your jollies than a haunted corn maze on Halloween?  This thing was in a cornfield on the side of the road.  Actors were scattered throughout in masks with real chainsaws and knives.  People were EXPECTING to be attacked.  How easy would it be to walk in, score a kill, and walk out with no one the wiser until someone got around to searching the corn?  Sick, I know, but that’s exactly what was running through my head as we entered the maze and started down the first path.  After ten minutes with no exit and nothing scaring us, I started thinking it was just a maze for kids, but it was still a nice stroll on a beautiful evening, so we kept going.  Needless to say, when the guy with the Jason mask and the chainsaw JUMPED OUT OF THE CORN, I freaked the hell out and hauled ass!!!

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This pretty much sums up my take on running. If you value your life and you ever see me doing anything more than a brisk walk, you will heed this advice.

My friend was clearly lacking in the reaction time department (I still pat myself on the back for my quick response, and am glad to know I won’t hesitate to ditch my companions and run for my life if ever attacked by a maniac in a farm field).  I didn’t realize she wasn’t behind me until I made it around a couple more bends in the maze.  When I finally stopped, I was serenaded by the sounds of rustling corn, a chainsaw, and screams.  I was starting to think I might have been right about this whole real serial killer in the corn thing, but I crept back to check on my friend nonetheless.  She was cornered in a dead end, screaming “I’m a lawyer!!!  I’m a lawyer!!!  GET AWAY!!!” while the corn maze killer ran the saw about three inches from her face.  Do I need to tell you how TOTALLY AWESOME this was?!?!?!?  Finally, he stopped, looked at her, and quietly walked back into the corn.  CHILLS.  We were on pins and needles for the rest of the maze.  Between the eerie corn maze and the obstacle-ridden trail, I rank the Haunted Woods right up there with the best haunts of all times.  A+ all the way.

Unfortunately, the next year the corn didn’t grow (WTF?) so the maze was a no-show.  The trail, however, was as awesome as ever, as proven by the excruciating bump on my head from colliding with my neighbor as we ran full speed into a field to escape a crazed killer with yet another chainsaw, but I was very disappointed by the maze’s absence.  That was the last season for the Woods, and I’ve yet to find another maze as terrifying.

Eastern State Penitentiary: Terror Behind the Walls

If you’re not from the area, ESP is a wagon-wheel shaped prison that opened in 1829 in Philadelphia, PA.  It closed in 1971, after 142 years, during which time it housed such notable inmates as Al Capone and “Slick” Willie Sutton.  In 1991, preservation efforts commenced and continue to this day.  I haven’t visited the site during the day, but I’d absolutely love to.  Since I saw Alcatraz as a kid, I’ve been fascinated with prisons and institutions in general, especially old, crumbling, abandoned ones.  I was extremely excited when I found out they host an annual haunted house at the prison, which I have repeatedly seen ranked as one of the best haunts in the country.

It’s been about ten years since I visited Terror Behind the Walls, but, to me, it was the king of all let-downs.  We paid a lot of money for advance tickets, and then stood in line for over two hours.  When we finally got inside, we were escorted through a wing of the prison in a single file line, with my friend and I near the rear.  Ghouls reached out from prison cells, and various other standard haunted house tricks occurred along the way, but despite being hyped up on the anticipation of a haunt in a REAL prison, we found ourselves at the end of the tour totally unimpressed.  I think our reaction might have been different if we had been near the front of the line – Unfortunately, the single file method meant that people around the third person in line were shocked and scared, while those of us near the back of the line already knew what to expect when it was our turn.  The surprise element was lost, and we ended up with really nothing more than a nighttime tour of the prison wing.  The best part was the fried Snickers bar at the end, and the prison museum.

Reviewing their site for 2012, however, I’m tempted to give the place another chance.  They’re up to six events now, so I’m thinking there must be something truly terrifying in the mix – With all that potential, how can there not be?  They’ve added a section where you’re left with flashlights and no guide, which sounds promising.  Honestly, all they’d have to do would be lock me in a cell in the dark and leave me there for an hour.  I’m pretty damn sure I’d freak myself out more than any blood-spattered psych ward prison inmate ever could.  That being said, it’s made my tentative list for this season.  I’d really love to be able to report back with a glowing review, but I was so disappointed the first time around, I don’t know what to expect.