Text and photos by SCOTT FEINBLATT
The first week of this trip was great fun and included a nice variety of experiences. For week two, the whole trip got next-level. For starters, it became a proper road trip with hundreds of miles in between some of the attractions. Beyond that, well, you’ll see as you check out Part 2 of The Great Haunt Hop, 2023.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 12
1525 S. 8th St.
St. Louis, Missouri
Week two began in St. Louis, where haunt maven Larry Kirchner, who runs hauntworld.com, operates three highly regarded haunted attractions (and many subsidiary attractions). For the first night, we checked out The Darkness, which includes Terror Visions 3D.
The Darkness is located in the midst of the city within a large brick building adorned at the top with a string of lights. An enormous banner hangs across the front, indicating that it is The Darkness. An additional banner identifies several other attractions that Kirchner’s company, Blacklight Attractions, runs.
Inside the building, guests get their first glance at the scale and detail of the world they are about to enter as a towering, animated demon standing among equally large, magnificently designed stone ruins and skeletal guards, welcomes them. Once they enter, the experience is overwhelming, with rooms designed with such care that there is a sense of tragedy for a haunt lover like me, who could have spent hours marveling at every room but had to keep moving through the various chasms and tight corridors of the maze.
The themes are wonderfully executed and very well organized. For some of the initial sequences, there is a castle/cavern motif with appropriate sub-themes, including a tomb, an alien lair, an arctic zone, serpents, devils and several scenes based on ancient and modern mythologies such as Medusa and Cthulhu. Then, there is a staircase that leads to an additional series of overarching sub-themes.
Upstairs, there is a creepy mansion, gardens with killer vines, various ghosts, maniacs and slashers, a doll room, zombies and a lovely IT sequence, which serves as a nice transition to the clown-themed Terror Vision 3D sub-maze. Throughout the menacing decorations and creatively lit creepy scenarios, there are scores of animatronics of all sizes. Some of which pop out and surprise guests. Others function as centerpieces. And there are plenty of scare actors ready to catch the guests on the rebound from being startled by the animatronics.
Getting back to the clowns… This is the last year for Terror Visions 3D, as the event’s advertising indicates that it will be replaced by something new in the future. However, at the moment, the creative staging of circus critters and clowns among the ghoulish dayglow-painted walls (enhanced by the special glasses provided for this segment) furnish such a delightfully immersive, twisted environment that it is difficult not to smile, even as the demonic big-top creatures and props menace you.
The experience concludes in a museum/game room. The incredible detail of the haunt’s design continues here alongside horror posters, display cases showcasing an extensive collection of rare horror toys and memorabilia, film props, vintage pinball machines, photo ops and a huge wall of celebrity-autographed photos. Adjacent to this, there is a huge gift shop with plenty of Darkness-branded merch and lots of popular and uncommon horror merch and memorabilia.
It was difficult to leave this place, but in the end, exhaustion started to set in. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg of Larry Kirchner’s haunted empire.
FRIDAY: OCTOBER 13
1400 S. Old Hwy. 141
If you take all that stuff I wrote about The Darkness and multiply it by eight, you’ll have an idea of Creepyworld’s scope. That’s right. This sucker has eight uniquely-themed haunted attractions – seven mazes and a hayride. Also sharing the site is Creepyworld’s Jack O’Lantern Spooktacular, a kid-friendly showcase of 2,500 carved pumpkins with a light show, animatronics, video components, various lifesize creature and character props and a heavily atmospheric overall design.
Regarding the details of the respective mazes, I may have exhausted my supply of relevant adjectives while describing The Darkness. Although I’ve attended many large-scale haunted theme parks (Six Flags, Knott’s, Universal Studios, etc.), Creepyworld is different in that it is a highly concentrated experience. The journey begins with a stage show featuring Bobo Slaughterhouse and Fright High before they enter the first maze, a good ol’ creepy house that’s every bit as carefully designed as The Darkness, although not as big. But remember, there are seven more haunted attractions at this place.
Other themed mazes include a Crystal Lake camp, a Friday the 13th-themed maze (with a guest appearance by Leatherface); a cemetery with a mausoleum; a Krampus-themed maze featuring decapitated Santas, evil elves and snowmen; a bloody prom scene that includes pathways and some proper mazes; an alien ship that transitions into a military zone with a downed-fighter plane and a complicated-to-navigate battlefield maze (replete as always with animatronics and stalkers); a slaughterhouse with a great cannibalistic bbq vibe, lots of heads hanging on hooks; and one sequence that has so much smoke that guests have to feel their way along (surrounded by monsters) before they find themselves face-to-face with an enormous pig chef.
The pathway obstacles include tilted and slanted walkways, spinning corridors and splits in the path that either dead-end or eventually re-connect with other pathways. Between each of the attractions, there is a new queue. The brief downtime provides respites between bouts of potential sensory overload. The hayride also provides a nice change of pace. Guests are carted on a trailer bed through several vignettes depicting characters from horror films and other creatures. At times, scare actors hop aboard the bed and menace the riders to the amusement of all.
The aforementioned Jack O’Lantern Spooktacular is a much freer-form experience. After entering through the faux cemetery gates, there is no need for guests to hasten through, especially as there are thousands of uniquely and intricately designed plastic pumpkins to marvel at, with designs depicting everything from traditional jack-o’-lantern faces to popular cartoon characters and celebrities to haunted houses. Beyond the pumpkins and their accompanying animatronics and life-size horror characters, there is a small midway where guests can buy refreshments and merch, watch a movie projected on the side of a barn or take selfies at the elaborate photo op stations.
After having gone through all of the Creepyworld attractions, I spoke with Kirchner, and he proudly stated that there were no haunted attractions of this scale anywhere else in the world, emphasizing the number of animatronic creatures and characters throughout the attractions. He threw shade at many of his competitors, including more than one from my overall itinerary. He also regaled me with tales of acquiring some of the signed portraits that occupy his massive wall of photos at The Darkness.
By the end, I was pretty overwhelmed. Kirchner was right. There was nothing else of this scale and intensity anywhere else, and I definitely felt a bit of sensory overload. In any case, I’m glad I took lots of photos because, just flipping back through them, it’s still difficult to conceive the volume of high-quality creepy content visitors experience in roughly two hours.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 14
The City Museum: Fright at the Museum
750 N. 16th St.
St. Louis, Missouri
This next one wasn’t on the itinerary, but it just so happened that The City Museum in downtown St. Louis was hosting an exhibit on Halloween attractions called “Fright at the Museum.” A visit here before leaving town seemed like a nice way to start the day.
With or without the Halloween exhibit, this is an amazing museum. There are four floors, all of which have highly stylized jungle gym-like structures and crawlspaces for children. They line the floors and the walls and continue along elevated walkways – you name it. On the first floor, there is a series of intricate caves and an enormous faux whale to walk through; On the second floor, there is an impressive aquatic area (with plenty of fish and critters) as well as a giant bank vault; On the third floor, there is a cafe, giftshop, pinball zone, and skateless skatepark. The fourth floor features an art center, another cafe and a Louis Sullivan exhibit. Many exhibits fill these floors. There are various giant slides, including a series of spirals rising from the cave area that stretches the entire height of the building. There are exhibits on the roof, as well.
The entire museum contains flourishes of Halloween. There are skeletons, pumpkins, human-size webbed cocoons and other eerie things hanging about most everywhere. However, the principal exhibit is on the third floor. This exhibit, curated by the entire museum team of over 30 people, is brilliant. There are free-standing horror vignettes, including a scary campground scene and a graveyard. There’s a hallway of animated horror portraits and dark areas with decor, animatronics, creative lighting and plenty of smoke. There is a wonderful taxidermy exhibit (compliments to Bea Ostrowska), featuring mice placed in vignettes of popular horror films and franchises. An atmospherically appropriate specialty cafe, The Vampire Bar, serves specialty cocktails. There are even live performances at Doc Terminuns’ Odditorium (a circus-like zone featuring more animatronics, freakshow posters and a stage.
When we asked the museum’s director of sales and marketing, Katy Enrique, about the history of the event, she said that this was its second year. (Last year, it was called “Misfit Halloween.”) Regarding how this over-a-month-long exhibit got started, Enrique said, “City Museum’s space lends itself to easily become a premier Halloween destination in St. Louis. It has all the right vibes. Halloween is second only to Christmas in retail spending, so we know that guests are looking for fun ways to spend the month of October. And we offer a fun family environment and uniquely curious adult environment.”
If you’re ever in St. Louis (around Halloween time or not), this place is definitely worth a visit!
Hanna Haunted Acres
7323 E. Hanna Ave.
For the final haunted attraction on the list (not the final destination, mind you. there’s still one more entry after this), we hit Hanna Haunted Acres in Indianapolis. One of the first interesting things that occurred to me about this one was that, while Indianapolis has a fairly bustling metropolitan area, the city line extends beyond to include areas that are so remote that they might as well be in another state. Following the directions dictated by Google’s navigator, we exited the main highway and drove down long stretches of isolated road until, finally, some lights and signs indicated that we had arrived.
Hanna Haunted Acres consists of five mazes and a haunted hayride. The fairgrounds are somewhat expansive, so between the mazes, there is a lot of area to mill about and check out themed concessions, carnival games, elaborate photo op stations, an axe-throwing station, a VR zombie-shooting game, a tarot card reader’s tent, a merch shack and more.
This attraction is not as notable for intensely detailed mazes chock-full of every modern whistle and bell imaginable as for the general spirits of its creators and environment. Most of the scare actors are teens or twenty-somethings, and they go about their business with great zeal. The mazes seem a bit underlit at times. Some of the props, set designs and animatronics are difficult to see, but they are all fun to go through. The themes of the mazes include a cannibalistic slaughterhouse, a haunted mansion, a circus “freakshow” and an underworld cavern of ghosts and demons. The real charm of Hanna is its country fairground setting. Regarding the haunted attractions, this is most evident in the Haunted Hayride and the cornfield maze of The Horror Fields.
The hayride is a pleasant, long experience (about 20 minutes) that guests enjoy while sitting on a trailer furnished with a cushy bed of hay. Along the way, scare actors occasionally hop aboard to leer at guests; overhanging animatronic creatures lash out and grasp at the visitors; and, in addition to various scenarios that you get carted past, there are several centerpiece bridges adorned with various creatures, characters, and scenarios that the tractor tows you under. At one point, the trailer is even stalked by a maniac driving a thresher that approaches at a startlingly quick pace.
The cornfield maze is a proper maze. Guests get lost in there. Roaming among the stalks that line the spacious trail areas are scare actors (many in the guises of popular horror franchise characters) bearing chainsaws and other prop weapons. The Horror Fields strikes this writer as a particularly effective maze that stands out from anything else on this list. For starters, it’s a big, actual maze. Guests bump into one another as they search for the way out, exclaiming, “Nope. It’s not that way.” Additionally, cornfields inherently have an eerie vibe. The sound of wind blowing the cornstalks around is highly atmospheric, and the relative levels of darkness behind the rows is unnerving because, you know, maniacs could be lying in wait anywhere. Finally, since you can hear the sounds of folks walking around elsewhere in the field (as well as the joyous sounds from the fairground in the distance) while your vision remains hindered by the high stalks and shadows from the moonlight, there is a sensation of safety being nearby – but not quite within reach.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 14
Never Trust the Living Pop-Up (at The Dandy Crown)
694 North Milwaukee Ave.
By the time we reached our final destination, a few drinks were in order. So, it was a good thing that the final destination was the Never Trust the Living pop-up at Chicago’s The Dandy Crown bar and restaurant.
In addition to a nice array of spooky design elements, including a beautifully designed front window, skeletons, cobwebs, animated projections and a variety of “Beetlejuice”-themed decorations, this pop-up features several free-of-charge activities depending on the day guests visit. On the day we stopped in, it was pumpkin carving day.
The Dandy Crown’s award-winning beverage director, Sarah Syman (Star Chefs Rising Star Bartender, 2022 USBG World Class Regional Winner, and Judge’s Choice Winner) concocted a bevy of themed cocktails for this event – sixteen in all – including non-alcoholic options but not including the surprise off-menu options.
We started with ‘Til Death (bourbon, brandy, kummel, passionfruit, lime and habanero) and The (Jungle) Birds (Barbados and overproof rum, Italian bitters, strawberry, pineapple, lime and citrus cordial). After that, I honestly don’t remember what we drank. My notes of the experience are oddly truncated. Perhaps it was Say it Three Times (rye whiskey, Italian vermouth, ancho chili, spiced pear, island spices and Angostura Cocoa) or Ghost with the Most (blanco tequila, melon, Malört, cucumber, lime and honey). In any event, I do have the distinct impression that what we had was very enjoyable.
The food options on the decently sized pop-up menu include some pretty gourmet stuff, such as the Burrata with Fall Vegetables (burrata, cherry tomato, mushroom, carrot, celery and pickled red onion with crostini), Roasted Brussel Sprouts (kimchi and butternut squash puree, sesame seed, scallion, cilantro) and the Jumbo Crab Cakes (served with brandied cocktail sauce and mixed greens).
Visitors have the option of dining inside or out. Each choice is elaborately decorated, and while the outside area does expose guests to the chilly October weather, there are heat lamps and fire pits to supplement the warmth supplied by the beverages.
Never Trust the Living is the third pop-up that The Dandy Crown has hosted this year, and while all of their pop-ups may not be horror-themed, they’re just as likely to get your blood flowing.