It's shortly after sundown, and the growing crowd is getting impatient. I'm standing with a friend at the head of the VIP line for "Bloodlust," one of the two haunted houses that debuted over the weekend at Elitch Gardens as part of the park's annual "Fright Fest." We've been waiting for about 10 minutes when a park supervisor approaches and quickly apologizes for the delay. A patron in a wheelchair just knocked over one of the haunted house's temporary walls, he explains. They're fixing the damage as quckly as they can.
Before he can wrap up his spiel, a squat man decked in a blood-spattered butcher's apron and a grotesque rubber mask comes over. I'm half expecting him to brandish a phony plastic axe or, at the very least, offer some menacing growls to scare us as we wait for access. Instead, he asks his boss about the holdup and how long he'll have to wait until his next break. When he learns about the fallen wall in the haunted house, he responds in a decidedly unfrightening way.
"Shit," he mutters through his rubber mask.
A tour through the park for the first weekend of "Fright Fest" offered plenty of similar moments, sights and sounds that were memorable more for their sheer ridiculousness than for inspiring any real dread or terror.
Thick clouds of smoke constantly spurted from machines along the major walkways; phony cobwebs decorated the concession stands; fake tombstones bearing bad puns as epitaphs dotted improvised graveyards at the park's entrance. A constant soundtrack of Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and music from "The Lost Boys" and "Gremlins" piped through speakers across the park. Teenagers in a wide array of zombie and butcher costumes roamed the grounds, occasionally lunging at young kids who'd squeal in delight as they fled.
The "Reunion of Souls" vocal group seemed to epitomize the whole experience, with their an hourly rotation on a stage at the front of the park. The teenagers dressed as style-savvy zombies and offered a bizarre, saccharine mix of cover tunes. Of course, they offered their own take on "Thriller," but the group also included covers of Kiss' "Rock & Roll All Nite" and Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" in their set list.
Of course, such features aren't a big surprise for any Denver resident who's visited previous Fright Fests at Elitch Gardens. By now, the cheesy teen vocal group and the marauding teens in zombie costumes are a expected parts of the park's schtick. It's a feature designed to appeal to parkgoers younger than 16, the event's target audience.
Indeed, for the younger crowd, the camp and the cheese added to the park's regular fare of rides and overpriced concessions could be an ideal way to celebrate the season. It's an audience-specific argument that excuses the cutesiness behind the majority of "Fright Fest," which staff touts as family friendly, in a specifically inoffensive way.
But the park also bills its two haunted houses specifically for adults. They charge $10 on top of the park's $40 gate fee to get access to both "The Suffering" and "Bloodlust," neither of which offer any signficant scares.
When we were finally admitted to "Bloodlust," for example, the run-in with the disgruntled butcher outside seemed far more memorable. The haunted house was a rapid succession of darkened rooms, each holding a costumed employee who screamed, jumped or chased us when we were halfway out.
There was a vague sort of theme to the house; we were told at the entrance that the building was once a high school before the janitor, Randy, went nuts and started slaughtering students.
Apart from a dim locker room and a series of bathroom stalls, however, the interior bore little resemblence to any real high school. We passed through at least two pipe rooms, a butcher room with fake plastic meat hanging from the ceiling and too many featureless hallways to count.
In all, it took five minutes to pass through "Bloodlust."
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"The Suffering" didn't take any longer to complete. It lacked the backstory and ostensible theme of "Bloodlust," but "The Suffering" relied on the same dynamic: a hodgepodge of loosely designed rooms populated by costumed teenagers hiding in the corners and jumping out at the last minute. The most creative sneak attack was from a kid on a bungee cord, but by the end, the effect was far too predictable to elicit even a startled response.
Walking past the tongue-in-cheek effects in the rest of the park didn't seem as much as an affront to the holiday. I imagine that for any 8-year-old kid, a group of zombies singing "Hot Blooded" in front of a Ferris wheel would seem pretty damned awesome, and running from a teenager wearing makeup and a top hot could be positively thrilling.
But considering the haunted houses are touted as an option for adults at the otherwise "family friendly" event, the added cost and the measly duration seemed like a rip-off. We had to settle for the real fright induced by the roller coasters.
Fright Fest will run every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 31 at Elitch Gardens, 2000 Elitch Circle. Admission is $40 at the gate and $6 for separate haunted houses, or $10 for both.