The calendar not only forecasts the changing of the seasons but also our annual culture patterns. With summer blockbusters and barbecues long gone but the winter still a ways away from sweeping everyone up in the holiday spirit, it’s a special time indeed. Nights are cooling, leaves are changing (although perhaps not in Los Angeles) and, most important of all, the ravenous hordes of Hell are breaking free to fill our heads with nightmares. Yes, all ye faithful, it’s time for Halloween.
The second most commercially successful holiday behind Christmas, All Hallow’s Eve means something different for everyone. For children, it’s all about the trick-or-treating. The target demographic of this fine publication has a bevy of costume parties currently in the “stock up on beverages and more-sultry-than-average attire” phase. But then there are those who really get into the spirit: the horror junkie, the fear enthusiast, the scare nut. By any other name, these are the people who thrive on that primal adrenaline rush, that fight-or-flight high generated by good old reliable terror.
Sure, fear might be a negative response, but it can come mixed with such fun that, on occasion, we choose to be scared. And a select few simply can’t get enough. For them, there’s no time like October, and it’s not hard to see why. When scares are the goal, what could compare to the way the culture engine panders to that very desire?
It’s a month when the cinematic landscape is dominated not by action or comedy, but week after week of offerings from the oft-maligned horror genre. Sure, the truly effective ones are few and far between, but if there’s one time of the year when the odds of a must-see scary movie are favorable, there’s no question this is it. This year, the chief contender is Sinister, the tale of an obsessive true-crime writer who, in pursuit of his next big hit, moves his wife and children to the same home where a family was recently slaughtered. It’s not quite a classic, but the content of a box of home movies he finds in his attic might set even some fairly jaded horror film fans on edge.
For those in the market for slightly less original fare, there’s the already-traditional Paranormal Activity franchise, with its shaky “real” camera work based on “real” events. The fourth installment was released to significantly less critical acclaim than the first three, but for a yearly series to maintain a streak of quality for even that long is a feat in and of itself.
That’s not to say the forces behind these found footage flicks don’t have anything worthwhile in store for horror fans this year — but they might be found beyond a theater. A couple blocks away from LA Live lies a new spooky attraction: The Blumhouse of Horrors, from Paranormal Activity and Insidious producer Jason Blum. Open until Nov. 3, this big-budget haunted house will appeal to anyone looking for something a little more involving than your run-of-the-mill demon possession movie. It features a giant cast and a wealth of disturbing tableaux to keep guests impressed, scared and entertained for the 30-plus minutes required to traverse its depths.
Far more than horror films, haunted houses like these are a Halloween experience. There are scary movies released at other times of the year, after all, and, of course, the classics can be watched anytime. Physically walking through an environment designed to terrify, on the other hand, can’t be done with a Netflix account.
That’s why theme parks capitalize on this opportunity with attractions like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights and Knott’s Scary Farm. There’s nothing quite like the fear that comes from being in the thick of it yourself.
When it comes to these attractions, there’s an undisputed master. The Blackout Haunted House, from Vortex Productions, is supposedly an experience like no other. Since its appearance in New York in 2009, it’s built a reputation as the single most terrifying piece of entertainment patrons can willingly subject themselves to. Participants must be older than 18, go through alone and sign a lengthy waiver beforehand that confirms they know what they’ll be getting into. From that point, they’ll suffer through terror that encompasses much more than just actors jumping out of corners. Participants will be physically harassed, humiliated and bombarded with violent and sexual imagery. Last year’s incarnation (for it changes drastically every time) apparently went so far as to waterboard its patrons. Yes, to brave Blackout is akin to volunteering to be tortured.
The fact that it grows in popularity as it becomes ever more notoriously intense confirms that if there’s a threshold for the level of horror people can enjoy experiencing, those in the fear business haven’t quite reached it yet. And with Blackout expanding for the first time to a second location right here in Los Angeles, a whole new audience has the opportunity to test its mettle by embracing the most extreme elements that Halloween has to offer.
Whatever the level of fright one is comfortable with facing, whether it’s the gut-wrenching end of the spectrum that Blackout dominates, the more tame films being offered or merely costumed partying and candy consumption, this is certainly the time to enjoy it. But don’t forget that it’s also a perfect opportunity to take a few risks and step out of that comfort zone. For these few weeks, there’s nothing so dear as fear itself.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.