As a hard-core haunt hunter, I’ve already explored 2013’s big-budget Halloween offerings. But that’s just the beginning of this year’s boos, because the best seasonal scares sometimes come from passionate individuals, not multinational corporations. Over October’s first two weekends, I crisscrossed Central Florida’s darkest corners in search of the area’s top independent haunted houses, and have escaped with information on a couple that can go toe-to-rotting toe with the big boys. And at worst, you’re paying $15 for 15 minutes of frights at each, a far cheaper bet than chancing crushing theme park crowds. (Thanks to Michael “the Paranormal Paparazzi” Gavin for putting me in touch with some of these attractions.)
The Shallow Grave
Winter Haven (theshallowgrave.com)
At first glance, the scariest thing about my first stop was its remote location in the Winter Haven wilderness an hour from home, as the anonymous industrial warehouse exterior and bare-bones lobby don’t adequately advertise the terrors lurking within. Inside awaits hatchet-faced Thaddeus Van Buren (played by the haunt’s creator, whose wife and mother run the box office), an undertaker-turned-cannibal with a penchant for dragging screaming victims through the packed waiting room.
Guests tour Thaddeus’s home and business – from fetid kitchen and murderous morgue to ghastly graveyard – in six-person groups departing every two minutes, making for a slow-moving line, but the intimacy and intensity is worth the wait. I was impressed by the length, scenic detail and gooey gore of the Grave, which rivaled or exceeded Universal’s mazes in most respects. Most importantly, this is the only area haunt I’ve visited that allows its actors to touch guests (albeit lightly and nonsexually). The doggedly demonic cast is supplemented by a couple of eye-popping animatronics, including a bizarro finale effect. I got more genuine jumps from these aggressive ankle-grabbers than any other cast of scarers this season, making the two-hour round trip recommended for Orlando’s serious haunt connoisseurs.
The Petrified Forest
Altamonte Springs (www.apetrifiedforest.com)
For several years, this unique haunted attraction has set up in a wooded lot on 436 just west of 17-92. It starts strong, with an impressive exterior facade and “museum of mayhem” theming in the first few rooms. Soon you are outside, stumbling through the scarcely lit forest (be sure to wear sensible shoes) and into the occasional screeching actor (beware the bungee jumpers). This aspect makes Petrified Forest the area’s largest haunt, strictly speaking, but with many darkened dead areas the scare-per-square-foot ratio is relatively low.
Environments include a gas station, cornfield, black-lit Wonderland and clown-ridden carnival, in no discernible order. The cast can be quite chatty, if you take the time to converse, but they don’t seem to have been provided any story to speak of. There are a couple of cool effects (a falling engine block, laser-lit fog) but store-bought masks and tarp walls speak to the design’s neighborhood-quality ambitions. On the other hand, there’s little to no blood, and a few additional attractions (like “lazor tag” and a backstage tour) are available, making it an attractive evening option for families.
A Haunting in Old Town
The Legends Dark Amusements team – led by designer Jim Shackelford and Skull Kingdom and Terror on Church Street veteran Dan Carro – have resurrected Old Town’s Grimm House, which closed after a quarter-century of operation, into a brand-new year-round haunt.
Your tour of Archibald Ashdown’s Victorian funeral parlor begins with a live guide (a devilishly ditzy Clare Ghezzi during my visit) giving a goofy stage-setting soliloquy, establishing the mirthfully macabre tone. Smart use is made of the compact two-story space – multiple staircases must be navigated – and the half-dozen actors are so active they seem like at least a dozen; the climactic chapel scene is a symphony of creepy chaos. Even with only a couple of actors (which the attraction will use in the off-season) the projection effects and numerous animatronics created by Distortions Unlimited of the Travel Channel’s Making Monsters should make this a satisfying experience.
After the scares, there’s a small gift shop stocked with vintage Halloween tchotchkes, and a “ghost tour” of the locale’s spirited history will soon be offered. Here’s hoping that Legends Dark’s mix of horror and humor will help it thrive where its forebears foundered, and that they’ll be around to haunt for many Halloweens to come.