People like to be scared. We love roller coasters, scary movies, and Ouija boards. But we only truly enjoy fear when it’s couched in a safe environment. In that context, the elimination of that doubting voice in your head, the sharpening of your reflexes, and the rush of adrenaline that accompany terror can be euphoric. This is why scary mazes, haunted houses, and ghostly prison events are so popular. In 2013, NBC reported that haunted houses were a 300 million dollar per year industry. Their popularity has dramatically spiked in the years since.
Haunted attractions manufacture fear. They begin by breaking down our desire to remain rational and force us to react to stimuli, overpowering our better logic. The best haunted houses do this seamlessly and beautifully. Or so damn immersively that we have to beg for mercy at the end.
What follows aren’t the sort of strip mall scare mills run by community organizations and staffed by people who thought pretending to be an undead clown was better than spinning a “FLATSCREEN TV” sign like a baton. These are the kind of big-budget horror-fests with staff sociologists (seriously, at least one of them has a Ph.D. holder on staff as a “scare specialist”). They are looking at the science of fear and devising ways to trigger panic and terror in your brain.
Check the list and hit them up before or just after Halloween. All of these attractions still want to terrify you for a few days after the 31st.
Knotts Scary Farm (Buena Park, CA)
This is the classic. Theme Park Insider (yes, that’s a thing) declared it the “first, largest, and longest-running theme park Halloween event in the world” in 2010, and argued that all other Halloween events at theme parks are copycats. In fairness, Knotts has been operating their Scary Farm even since 1973, so the others do appear to be creepies-come-lately.
This year, they introduced two new mazes (Origins: The Curse of Calico and Wax Works) and a raunchy new show (Puppet Up! Uncensored). If you want the big scares, hit classic mazes like Dark Ride, Red Barn, Voodoo, and Paranormal Inc. Or, brave a new one like Dark Entities or The Depths.
Terror Behind the Walls Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia, PA)
In 1991, The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. started to run Halloween events to raise money for the architecturally significant prison. In 1995, they hit upon a winner with Terror Behind the Walls — a wet your pants scary immersive experience. They have always committed to the cutting edge of horror and to high-quality costumes and props. In 2001, the event included one of the first 3D haunted houses in the country and the only one in Southeastern PA. It’s consistently ranked among the best attractions of this type in the country. Hell, Forbes named it #1.
Guests can decide whether they would like to remain an observer or participate in an interactive experience when they enter the event. If you opt for interactive, you can be grabbed, detained, removed from the group, etc. This year, Terror Behind the Walls has six attractions, so you can choose between things like quarantine situations with hallucinations and being trapped by inmates during a breakout, or you can buy tickets to hit up all six and forgo sleeping until December.
Halloween Horror Nights (Hollywood, CA and Orlando, FL)
You may know Halloween Horror Nights by the name Fright Nights, which is what it was called when the haunt was initiated in Orlando in 1991 with a single haunted house, The Dungeon of Terror. Universal Studios Hollywood had its own Halloween events in 1986 and 1992, but it didn’t launch Halloween Horror Nights until 1997. Now, Orlando and Hollywood both host the event, as do locations in Japan and Singapore.
The great thing about Universal is that they have the rights to a lot of scary things, which is why this year’s event includes Stranger Things, Creepshow, Ghostbusters, and Killer Klownz from Outer Space. And that doesn’t just mean someone dressed like a character. No. It means the creators met with the theme park staff to capture the environments, characters, and unbridled terror from the show and translated it into something that will leave you breathing hard and afraid of the dark.
The ScareHouse (Pittsburgh, PA)
You know that your haunted house is legit when Guillermo del Toro, the director of Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak, says “It really is beautiful. With the sound design and the atmospherics, it is beautiful. I could live here!” When Michael Dougherty, the director of Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, adds “I left so happy and inspired. You guys nailed it!” there’s no room left to question. Launched in 1999, ScareHouse is currently housed in a historic building that used to be the location for the Etna First National Bank, and they tap into that history when developing their scares, as we learned when we interviewed Creative Director Scott Simmons.
Each year, ScareHouse does three attractions. This year, however, there have been issues and they are only hosting The Basement. This is a sign-the-waiver type of situation. Only two adults enter at a time, and it’s not a linear walkthrough. It’s completely interactive (that means strangers will be up on you). They use psych research to exploit fears, but they maintain them in good taste to avoid exploiting vulnerable populations.
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Netherworld Haunted House (Atlanta, GA)
When Netherworld launched in 1997, it was rather unique in that it crafted an original storyline for visitors at a time when other haunted attractions were depending on existing film tropes as themes. It was founded by television and film professionals, including costume, makeup, and creature designers and fabricators. FYI: a lot of the crew are involved with the production of The Walking Dead. All this expertise is why the haunts are known for their innovative lighting sound, effects, and sets.
This is an attraction that keeps its focus narrow to achieve the scariest experience possible. This year, there are only two haunts, but they are goodies. Night of the Gorgon features and Apocalyptic cult using evil powers to create an army of stone warriors, and Cold Blooded is all about prehistoric lifeforms spliced with the DNA of reptilian alien subjects.
Also, be prepared for nightmarishly costumed actors to stalk you through the parking lot before you even buy a ticket or enter the event.
Hundred Acres Manor (Bethel Park, PA)
This is another Pennsylvania location. I don’t know what it is about this state, but they know how to scare people senseless. Hundred Acres Manor opened in 2003 on a location previously associated with an attraction called Phantoms in the Park and established itself as one of the best attractions in the country, if not the world. Seriously, experts like The Scare Factor, Haunt World, and Fright Tour have all lauded it with top spots on their “best of” lists. This is the only charity haunt on this list, having donated over a million dollars to the Homeless Children’s Educations Fund and Animal Friends, two Pittsburgh charities. But, that’s where the sweetness ends.
This haunt is positioned squarely in the center of the woods with no nearby structures or comings and goings to protect visitors. Instead, a sense of total isolation pervades the space. The building where the attraction is set used to house an old swimming pool, and tales of drownings, murders, and evil-doing were well established. Even the staff think it’s haunted. Guests take an elevator to the catacombs, where they are herded through a series of close corridors, filled with demented scenes and exceptionally costumed actors doing classic jump scares.
Cutting Edge Haunted House (Fort Worth, TX)
Three words: abandoned meat-packing factory. Maybe four words if you want to argue about how hyphens work. Regardless, we’re talking about a 100-year-old plant in the center of an area that used to be called “Hell’s Half Acre.” Not only is the setting for Cutting Edge perfect, but it’s also huge. In 2009, this haunt was literally awarded the Guinness World Record for “World’s Largest Haunted House.” In 2015, the illustrious awards for “World’s Largest Haunted Attraction” and “World’s Largest Walk-Through Haunted House” were bestowed upon them. It takes close to an hour to get through the whole thing. That’s a lot of time to risk puking in terror.
They take full advantage of the setting, using meat packing equipment from the Old West in a two-story arrangement that hoists up realistic mannequins to the second level, conveys them through the second floor of horrors, and delivers butchered corpses back to the first floor. There are also animations, live sets, and actors in disturbing costumes wandering around to terrify visitors. One year, there was a foam pit. That’s right. Foam. Pit. It’s like scary Ibiza.
Dent Schoolhouse (Cincinnati, OH)
This one has a special place in our hearts, as it takes place in a genuine schoolhouse with its own grisly history. If you follow American folklore (yes, fine, and urban legends), you may know the story of the schoolhouse and its janitor Charlie McFree, who slowly amassed the broken, bloodied bodies of missing schoolchildren in the building’s basement in the 40s and 50s. It’s a history of which the current owners have taken full advantage since 2005. And it’s so well produced because they are obsessed with detail, making sure things look authentic and freaking scary.
This haunt reveals itself in the style of a film. Like something out of Nightmare on Elm Street, visitors walk through hallways, classrooms, and a cafeteria ripe with darkness and menace. There are perverse teachers, grisly monsters, and abused students. Cries for help fill the air. But, the scariest area, by far, is the basement — home to dear old Charlie McFree. That’s where shit gets real. Suddenly, the terror of the earlier portions of the school comes to a climax when Charlie’s deeds are revealed and visitors come face to face with the murderous janitor.
The 13th Gate (Baton Rouge, LA)
The 13th Gate has been around for a while, but they didn’t get a lot of attention before Haunt World started shouting them out. Why are they such a fave among experts? The realism. Each area of the haunt is purposefully designed like a Hollywood set. The snake pit? Yep. Those are real snakes. Actors have developed full characters; they taunt and scare with focus and energy. Visitors are fully drawn into an immersive experience with characters appearing and disappearing, losing limbs, and disguised as animatronics. People who say they don’t frighten easily find themselves screaming in full voice and pulling away from scares.
Housed in two adjacent structures, the haunt is themed as a grimy industrial basement. The walls, rather than being cheap plastic or latex are cold, hard plaster and they are covered in rust and rot. A bank of four elevators greets visitors, who are led into them a few at a time. Upon exiting, you hit gate number two and work your way consecutively through the next ten. This means you may get to spend time in a house of wax, a claustrophobia tunnel, a crematorium, and a voodoo bayou, among other areas. Each is immaculately staged and sure to leave you flushed and shaking.
Freakling Bros: Death of the Vampyre (Las Vegas, NV)
This is actually one part — the R-rated part — of the larger Trilogy of Terror. No one under 17 gets to roll up in here, which seems like hype, but this shit is legit scary. Adult scary. This haunt was established in 2011 as the first-ever adults-only haunted attraction in Nevada. Today, it remains the one and only in the state. The Freakling Bros. website describes it as “sadistic experiment in absolute sensory overload.” This isn’t a typical, linear walkabout evening. Nope.
Haunted attractions have done a very good job over the last decade dialing in on what truly scares people. So, it often feels like there isn’t much room for originality. Death of the Vampyre is a Frealing classic, and it will be guests’ last time to explore the castle that has been part of their horror hijinks for years. Scares don’t stop, which means being grabbed a lot. Visitors have their feet, shoulders, and arms pulled and groped. And, characters will physically push guests and bar them from moving forward. You gotta be down with that to enjoy the experience.
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McKamey Manor (Summertown, TN; Huntsville, AL)
Okay, the description “nonprofit haunted house run out of a backyard” does not seem to fit in a list of best scares in the nation. But, McKamey Manor is an attraction legendary for its violence and cruelty. It’s what is called an extreme haunt and we’re not outright advising you to attend. It runs year-round and there is a waiting list that exceeds 25,000. Each weekend, a few people trade a payment of dog food to Russ McKamey in exchange for up to eight hours of torture. The haunt could go longer, but no one has yet been able to make it to the end, even though there is no safe word. Why would anyone do this? Some say it blurs the line between attraction and survival, and there are people who want to know if they can survive.
If being grabbed by a man or woman in spooky or grotesque make-up is something that gives you pause, this will make you cry. Literally cry. The goal is a genuine panic mode. It is achieved by covering people in fake blood, shoving them in a coffin with a screaming person, forcing them to eat and drink unknown substances, and gagging and blindfolding them. Bad, but not terrible, right? Well, we didn’t mention the times where people were given unwanted haircuts or drugs that made them hallucinate. This brutal experience is reserved for hardcore fear junkies and not the faint of heart.
EREBUS (Pontiac, MI)
Yes, Cutting Edge Haunted House has held the Guinness World Record for “Largest Walk-Through Haunted Attraction,” but Erebus held it longer, from 2005-2009. This four-story haunt opened in an abandoned parking garage in 2000. The space had been abandoned for 50 years and was functioning as an indoor junkyard when the owners used their background making haunted attractions to turn it into one of the best in the country. Over 100,000 square feet is Hell on Earth and the rest of the building is storage and shop space, where one of a kind animatronics are made. The owners also publish Fear Finder, a seasonal publication that enables people in Michigan to locate haunted attractions.
As with the other haunts on this list, the events and effects change every year, but the basic theme is constant. Guests get sent to a number of eras in history by a mad scientist. The sets are really intricate and include things like obstacle course walls that move, giant animatronics that eat patrons, bodies that fly out of coffins and on to people, and mushy-floored swamps. They feed on basic fears, so there are things like small areas to trigger claustrophobia and times when spiders may rain from the sky to get your arachnophobia in full gear. But the best part is the wimp out scoreboard tallying “wimps” and “wetters.”
Yes, this attraction has literally been wet your pants scary for hundreds of folks.
Legends of Fear (Shelton, CT)
Legends of Fear has been going for a few decades, and though locals are more than familiar with it, it wasn’t until a few years ago that word started spreading across the country. One of the big draws is the Haunted Hayride during which guests are loaded into hay wagons and pulled by a tractor through fields and forest by a tractor. The darkness of the night is punctuated by the sounds of chainsaws, maniacal laughter, and screams. And there is something about being pulled along outside of your control that ratchets up the fear factor considerably. A lot of what makes this haunt a goodie is that it presents wholesome tropes that make you let your guard down before scaring the crap out of you.
Visitors can also opt to walk the grounds on the Melon Head Revenge Trail, visit Edgar the Mortician in the Hemlock Manor Mortuary, seek absolution in the Pine Hills Parish, brave a Scarecrow Village in The Dark Harvest, or contend with circus folk in The Funhouse of Fear. All of them excel at switching up their scares, so you never see them coming.
Evil Intentions Haunted House (Elgin, IL)
When the 2018 season came to a close, Evil Intentions had to shutter their space at Elgin Casket Factory because the lease had come to an end. It was a sad farewell, as that location was steeped in the appropriate ambiance for a night of fright. But as they searched the area for an alternative, they were lucky to receive an offer to relocate within the factory. It turned out to be an overall improvement in their situation, as they got a space that was twice the size and equally spooky. If anything, the challenge this year was how to expand their haunt into this larger area. But they more than succeeded. An attraction known more for actors and sets than animatronics, Evil Intentions has unleashed a new evil.
Guests will be moved through scenes set in a swamp, a deserted backroad area, catacombs, a church, and a medical area. There is also a maze. Throughout, devoted performers unnerve and frighten with skilled aplomb. Each new space presents scare after scare until you are thoroughly worn out.