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Halloween haunts 

Those of us with a taste for the morbid can thank our lucky stars that Halloween is quickly becoming Orlando's holiday of choice. Every year, the spooky season gets longer, offering up more and more entertainment options that promise at least as many chills as the Central Boulevard Lynx terminal on a Friday night.

Already an area tradition, "Halloween Horror Nights" at Universal Studios Florida are good pagan fun. Ghouls roam the dimly-lit backlots, mingling with the paying customers for a mounting sense of disassociation and unease. After a few hours of being unable to immediately determine who's who and what's what, a chance meeting with a German tourist with a harelip is enough to inspire severe trauma.

The three haunted houses are less successful, relying on cheap shocks in place of genuine creativity. The Museum of Horror is so dark, and its layout so confusing, that we lost our way three times, always coming smack-dab against an employee exit or behind-the-scenes cul de sac. It was an effective reminder that a twisted ankle is still one of life's most natural terrors.

The true enjoyment of Horror Nights lies in watching so much outright unholiness being celebrated right here in the cradle of Southern Baptism. From the room in "Hotel Hell" full of zombie hookers (I kid you not) to the orgiastic, satanist dance rituals of the "Frightmares" revue, you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to realize that there's more going on here than just a good scare. Praise be to Universal for imparting the important lesson that sex is evil, and vice versa. Bring the kids.

For a humbler but still charming fright night, consider a visit to International Drive's Skull Kingdom. The skull-shaped edifice stares imposingly at the neighboring Wet 'n Wild, looking for all the world like Tim Burton's neighborhood gone condo. Once inside, thrill-seekers are treated to a nicely varied tableau of quality scare scenes. Before the tour begins, you are assured that the staff will not touch you (music to the ears of those who prefer to be entertained than accosted). But by the time the pubescent rednecks you've been grouped with have made it clear that they intend to spend the entire evening taunting the harried tour guides, you find yourself wishing that an exception could be made, just this once. Kids, one day, you yourself may be Rollins theater majors in search of side work. Do not push these people.

What would the holiday be without at least one attraction that pushes the cheese-o-meter into the red zone? "The Haunted Fairgrounds," at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, are one step up from a church basement fund-raiser. Endless, zero-budget catacombs link the sadly tame scenarios, most of which use more cheap black light than a Hendrix fan's bedroom. After a while, the earnest limpness of the whole affair even begins to seem mildly endearing until you realize you've paid Steven Spielberg prices for an Ed Wood experience.

Despite their huge difference in caliber, Skull Kingdom and "The Haunted Fairgrounds" both feature nearly identical electrocution sequences, in which a condemned prisoner is put to death in front of a rabid crowd. At Skull Kingdom, guests are encouraged to weigh in with a loud verdict of "guilty" before the switch is thrown. What's next, a bus trip to Starke?

If we really wanted to be reminded that we're all monsters at heart, we'd be beating a path to the Assembly of God in Apopka, where the annual "hell" pageant now allegedly includes scenes of domestic violence, in addition to the usual morality playlets about the evils of abortion and drug addiction. Sorry, but watching a costumed Promise Keeper beat his spouse for effect is just not high on our list of leisure-time activities.

With all these Jason-come-latelies vying for your time, don't forget that the Mount Everest of haunted houses has been under our noses all the while. The Haunted Mansion at Disney's Magic Kingdom is still the world's classiest home of the undead. The scenery is breathtaking, the gore level is zero, and the exhibits don't spit water in your eyes (the Mad Scientist at Skull Kingdom owes at least one of us a new contact lens). One trip through the Mansion is enough to convince even the most discriminating fan of the macabre that Disney does horror right.

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