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Scare Tactics: Haunted Houses From West Palm to Miami

Tweenaged visitors at Miami's House of Horror Amusement Park in Doral were having a rough time last weekend. It was long before they plunged into claustrophobic darkness of a cemetery littered with chainsaw-wielding psycho killers.

The curtain was just rising on the 25-room haunted mansion, and already, a girl clutched her boyfriend tightly, crying out, "Make it stop! Make it stop!"

Needless to say, they chickened out, following an early exit sign to the motley mirth of the carnival outside.

Eighty miles north, at the South Florida Fairgrounds' Fright Nights attraction, girls also screamed like tortured grind-house damsels. But there was just as much laughter emanating from its five haunted walk-throughs. The actors cast as zombies, psychos, and monsters were clearly enjoying their roles.

Once, an oversized baby approached my wife, happy at first to communicate with its "mommy." Its sinister smile dissipated after it glanced at me and said, "Mommy, Daddy touched me!"

Later on, a brute in a meatpacking plant repeatedly slammed a baby doll on a chopping block, reprimanding his offspring with cries of "Bad baby! Bad baby!"

For the actors, the houses of horror that have popped up across South Florida in recent weeks aren't Shakespeare at the Globe. But during my visits to a trio of them this past week, they looked like a lot more fun — provided you land the right part. The actors at these events aren't supposed to break character, but in one attraction, my wife offered a struggling monster a sip of her rum runner, and he gazed at his shoes forlornly and said, "I wish."

I tried out House of Horror and Fright Nights, along with the Festival of Souls at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, and my digestive system still regrets the double whammy of funnel cake and elephant ear.

All three attractions adhere to the same fundamentals: demonic clowns, squalid insane asylums, and gruesome slaughterhouse tableaux — B-movie fodder. All three shroud the visitor in darkness and disorient him with mazy pathways and pulsing strobe lights. And all are filled with heavily made-up actors, wielding weapons and hiding in nooks and crannies — or imitating corpses in full view — planning their next scare.

The differences among these besotted hovels of terror come down to the grace notes: the small details and creative staging that transcend the now-predictable formula.

The largest attraction of the three is undoubtedly West Palm's Fright Nights ($25; includes unlimited midway rides), where the action is divided among five expansive haunts with long lines. In "The Creature," visitors crawl inside the mouth of an inflatable prehistoric reptile, dodging its epiglottis and sundry internal organs. The scare-actors have very little to work with here, and it would be an accomplishment if they manage to frighten an infant.

Things pick up nicely with "Santa's Workshop" and "Carnival of Souls," haunts devoted to Christmas and clowns that mix macabre humor with jolting scares. The latter features a particularly impressive vision of mutilated chickens in bloody cages and includes, for a few brave souls who choose to sit down for it, a "magic show."

Without question, the best haunt at the fairgrounds is "The Manor," a cobwebby gothic mansion overrun by psychos — like Great Expectations as scripted by Herschell Gordon Lewis. It wallows in brilliantly executed decrepitude, highlighted by a real, broken-down hearse and a creepy piano player. The final attraction is the zombie-themed "Kill Shot," an OK haunt whose pièce de résistance is a disturbing, strobe-lit hallway full of hanging corpses, some more animated than others.

In all, you can easily spend an entire night at the fairgrounds and not even catch every haunt.

At Gulfstream Park's Festival of Souls, by contrast, visitors get the least bang for their ghoulish buck, if only because they are in and out of the lone attraction in ten minutes' time ($25 for adults, $20 for students).

It's hard to complain about the production quality once you're inside, however. The venue specializes in sensory overload: The omnipresent crackle of gunshots and exposed electrical wire assault your ears while tiny granules of concrete and "snake venom" brush against your clothes.

Of the three houses I visited, this one has the best use of spring-loaded special effects that, if done poorly, could have the corny look of old 3-D movies. Here they enhance the atmosphere. A giant tarantula that springs from a bed is especially effective.

When all is said and done, though, both of these well-meaninged scaremongers should kiss the feet of — not to mention take notes at — South Florida's gold standard of haunted amusement, House of Horror ($23; includes midway rides). It boasts the biggest single-structure sprawl of them all, employing professional, state-of-the-art material from Hollywood — including sets, makeup, and prosthetics. You feel like you're creeping through the remains of old movie sets.

Not much happens in the corridor of an abandoned hospital, but it's an unsettling space to penetrate, with its panoply of blood-drenched medical equipment and an "infinity mirror" suggesting a fake hallway cluttered with tattered papers.

When an entire room shakes, it's unsettling, as if you are experiencing unexpected airplane turbulence. When you enter a corpse-laden freezer, you're actually freezing. When you enter a succession of small, boxy rooms decorated with severed clown heads, the effect of claustrophobia is real, because you have to discover the correct way out.

The madmen in the graveyard even carry actual chainsaws, so that smell of gasoline is the real thing. Dario Argento couldn't have orchestrated a more cinematic experience.

House of Horror is the most thrilling haunt of the three, but are any of them truly scary? The aforementioned tortured tweens aside, the answer is "not really." I'll admit to feeling startled now and then, but if you've seen a few dozen horror movies, you'll be able to anticipate most of the scares. And after all, it's hard to generate a sense of genuine terror when you know that, in at least two of these cases, you're a brisk walk from a Kohl's.

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John Thomason
Contact: John Thomason