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The Great Haunt Hop 2023: Part1

Monday, October 30, 2023 | Events

Text and photos by SCOTT FEINBLATT

Over the years, I’ve experienced plenty of Southern California’s Halloween attractions. However, I’ve always wondered about the ones that take place in faraway lands – like the Midwest. There are several online sources that rank Halloween haunts throughout the U.S., and some seem pretty impressive, so a Halloween haunted house road trip seemed like a good way to experience some unfamiliar haunts. 

Scare actors from HELL’s GATE

The mission started with plotting the journey. Using several resources, I located a cross-section of destinations, intending to hit two weekends’ worth of spooky spots. Driving straight through for a week or two was not feasible since haunted attractions are generally not open Mondays through Wednesdays.

Wherever possible, I doubled up on events at the given locations to maximize spooky saturation. There were also Halloween and horror-themed events along the way that were not haunted houses. Since they fit the theme, I included them as well. Ultimately, I decided that the expedition would take place over two extended weekends, each consisting of a Thursday through a Sunday, and would be based, for personal reasons, out of Chicago.

The first weekend was based in and around the Windy City, with each day’s destinations requiring a slight commute (more or less) in a given direction. For the second weekend, the expedition consisted of a proper road trip with two nights in St. Louis,  one night in Indianapolis, and a homecoming event back in Chicago. Now, without further ado, RUE MORGUE (in conjunction with @theoriginalhorrorworks) is pleased to present part one of The Great Haunt Hop, 2023.

1213 Butterfield Rd., Downers Grove, Illinois 

The first destination is in Chicago’s western suburb of Downers Grove. The product of creator David Seneker, Disturbia is one of two haunt destinations that he currently runs in the Chicagoland area – the other being Basement of the Dead /Shattered 3D, which has been his flagship for many years. Due to scheduling and logistics, I chose Disturbia, and it turned out to be a fine decision.

Launched in 2020, Disturbia occupies 15,000 square feet, is populated by 50 to 75 scare actors (depending on the night) and also serves the forces of darkness in the off-season with colorful events such as Twisted Elves in December, Cupid’s Curse in February (for St. Valentine’s Day) and LeprecHaunted House in March.

Creepy scare actors tease and torment folks outside of the maze where a ghastly specter hovers in front of a gigantic skull. This site is visible from hundreds of feet away, so guests can see what lies in wait while they park their vehicles and make their way through the lot to the ticket booth.

Once admitted into the maze, an enormous animatronic skeleton welcomes visitors, explains the rules and bids them farewell before the real torment begins. As they walk through the haunt, guests are immersed and disoriented by the length of the maze, the plethora of scenes and the onslaught of actors and animatronics (big and small), coming out of the walls and ceilings. And, if you pay for the VIP experience, you get the personalized treatment.

Some of the themed rooms and zones include a haunted forest, a dollhouse, a spider room, a swamp area, Area 51, a medical ward and an insect infestation zone, among others. Each of these areas is beautifully designed and meticulously detailed. The scare actors clearly have a lot of fun with their characters and terrorizing the guests by emerging suddenly from behind various facades or peeking out through cracks in the walls. They also work well in tandem so that one might scare a guest, and then, as soon as they turn away, another one waits to get in a second jolt. 

The entire walkthrough takes nearly 30 minutes, and once visitors emerge, they can take selfies at a display of vignettes and buy merch. Disturbia was definitely a great way to start the trip.

Downtown Bensenville Display
S. Center St., W. Green St.
Bensenville, Illinios

The second destination was a yard display that went supernova (so to speak). Evidently, the Wilkes family has established such a reputation with their annual yard displays in the suburb of Bensenville that they have cut a deal with their township. Thus, the town square now hosts the Wilkes family display.

The theme is predominantly based on the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. However, the various installations that occupy the grassy block at the town’s center also feature characters and scenarios from other Stephen King stories, non-King franchises and some non-affiliated spooky stuff as well.

The display is very impressive and features interactive screens, animated and creative lighting, large murals and some pretty grisly vistas. One of the many creative vignettes is a white wall adorned with a carnivalesque poster soliciting people to come and see Pennywise the dancing clown and a series of missing-person fliers, all depicting children, of course. There is also a pet cemetery, a hearse, a Michael Myers display and a large welcoming ghost flanked by skulls with beaming, lit eyes and a sign identifying Bensenville as the Halloween capital.

Chicago Outdoor Escape Game: Haunted City
Chicago History Museum
1601 N Clark St, Chicago, Illinois

The first event on day two was an app-based scavenger hunt. Questo’s Chicago Outdoor Escape Game: Haunted City provides users with a hybrid of historical discovery, creepy realities, a nice walking tour, a fictional narrative and some puzzle-solving.

Starting at the Chicago History Museum, the story-based tour begins with the guest meeting a date near the fountain at the back of the museum. There is a series of bronze cranes surrounding the fountain, and in the story, one of the characters believes they saw one of them move. The user is prompted to enter the number of cranes located around the fountain. Then, they are rewarded with a clue to reach the next destination along the walking tour.

Throughout the experience, guests learn about old graveyards, sites of mass suicides and other dark, historical facts. They are required to observe and locate physical structures and details on landmarks to solve the various puzzles, and all of this is linked to a fantastical horror narrative that involves both natural and supernatural threats. Plus, you get a nice walk throughout Chicago’s beautiful Lincoln Park.

None of the challenges are too difficult, but if you get stuck, you can cash in some reward points from solving the easier puzzles to receive hints. Or, if all else fails, you can call or message an app support number. Overall, this was a pleasant, spooky daytime activity, and the app, which also has a function to allow users to make their own games, is a fun novelty.

Black Lagoon Pop-Up (at Homestead on the Roof)
1924 W. Chicago Ave. Chicago, Illinois

Black Lagoon hosts pop-up events at locations around the globe. As luck would have it, there is currently one in Chicago at Homestead on the Roof. Situated between the neighborhoods of East Village and West Town, patrons access Homestead by entering Roots Handmade Pizza and climbing the stairs.

Black Lagoon’s influence is immediately seen in the spooky adornments that decorate the stairwell. Once folks reach the top, a ghastly array of skeletons, tentacles, chains and altars, all colorfully lit, await them. Guests can experience Black Lagoon’s designer menu of drinks and food inside or outside, as both are well-decorated.

Black Lagoon features ten themed cocktails, including drinks such as the Hellfire Fizz (Lot No. 40 Dark Oak Rye Whiskey, Lustau Amontillado Sherry, carrot, turmeric, lemon, yogurt, seltzer) and the Death Rattle (Ford’s Gin, Lustau Brandy de Jerez, pineapple, spiced oat orgeat, lime, Bitter Queens Caribbean Spice) and two shooters called Eye of Newt (Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, pineapple, lime) and Toe of Frog (Lot No. 40 Rye Whiskey, passionfruit, cinnamon). There are also wine and beer options, non-alcoholic drinks and glass and cup souvenirs, including a very nicely designed mermaid mug by Tiki Farm.

The bar food menu has a dozen quality items, including a charcuterie board, whipped feta, beef sliders and the Anarchy Pizza (fennel, wild mushrooms, gouda cheese, black garlic sauce). Additionally, the Black Lagoon’s menu itself is very fun, featuring classy, ghoulish artwork and a link to a Spotify playlist. All in all, it was an exciting, creepy place to tie one on.

Six Flags Great America Fright Fest
542 N. Riverside Dr.
Gurnee, Illinois 

As I have enjoyed the Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, it was quite a scientific decision to check out another Six Flags Fright Fest for comparison. Great America did not disappoint. During the daytime, the park currently hosts an Octoberfest, wherein beer, “Munich Munchies” and “Bavarian Bites” are served up in a festive little zone with games and live music. There are also several kid-friendly Halloween-themed areas, but when they close at 4 p.m. (CDT), beware!

Before long, the monsters come out in a bloody musical showcase that concludes with a parade of horrors. Then, as the sun sets, the creative lighting and smoke machines turn on, the scare zones become populated by roving monsters (each stylized according to their respective scare zone theme) and the mazes open up.

Of the six mazes, my favorites were The Estate at Wretched Meadows, which featured a classic Victorian haunted house vibe, filled with animated cockroaches and a general sense of creepiness; Big Top Terror, which featured some nice twists and turns, harlequinesque skeletons and a little proper maze action; and Gates of Hell, which was sort of a mish-mash, thematically, but made excellent use of the space going into and between the various covered areas it occupies.

In addition to the mazes and the nine scare zones, there were random fun decorative installations, such as a graveyard of rides past composed of tombstones, with the names of decommissioned attractions. Those included beginning and ending dates, as well as fun epitaphs, like “Cajun Cliffhanger, 1976 – 2000. Went Round and Round, Now It’s Six Foot Underground.” Some of the graves even had portions of the old rides displayed (bedecked by skeletons, of course).

Apart from that, there were theme park rides, seasonal concessions (pumpkin spice funnel cake, anyone?), and various magical and musical performances. It’s a great destination to experience some Halloween fun!

The Old Joliet Haunted Prison
401 Woodruff Rd.
Joliet, Illinois 

An old prison doesn’t need much to make it creepy. Just visiting a place where criminals lived (and died) in small cells behind stone walls and barbed wire is pretty eerie. However, once Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group recreated the place into a proper Halloween haunt, it attained a new level of glory.

The destination consists of three haunted attractions. The first is called Cellblock 13, which is the actual prison. This maze gives guests a chance to walk through the courtyards, down the cell blocks and through the larger areas of the building. The design of the haunt features a cellblock riot and plenty of criminally insane characters popping out from individual cells and various nooks and crannies. It’s a creepy marvel to walk through.

The second is a fairly brief (but fun) Zombie Lazer Tag, which allows guests to zap props and scare actors adorned with targeting devices that indicate when they have scored a kill. Within the kill zone is a secret bar where thirsty zombie killers can stop for a beverage before resuming their hunt. The third maze is called Slaughterhouse: The Rot Shop. This one features disorienting strobes, slanted floors, and some of that good ol’ proper maze stuff. Naturally, there are also plenty of maniacal characters to keep you on your toes.

Once guests have completed the three mazes, there is a small quad where they can imbibe a cocktail at The Commissary, buy some merch and even check out a mini escape room. The Old Joliet Haunt is a great place to visit. You just wouldn’t want to be locked up there!

Hell’s Gate
3101 Canal St.
Lockport, Illinois 

Hell’s Gate was a great way to wrap up the first weekend of activities. This surprisingly large haunt allegedly occupies 66.6 acres, and it requires parking at a remote location and then queuing up to be bussed in with the rest of the victims. After the drop-off, guests check in and have an opportunity to fortify themselves with some social lubricant (beer and cocktails are available) before joining the next line, skipping over to the VIP line or skipping all lines with the Instant Entry option.

The first segment is a forest path. Evidently, this was originally part of the queue, but it has since been developed to be part of the overall maze – or at least a preamble to the main maze. In any case, the woods are decked out with decorations and characters, and there is a cabin in the midst of it where grisly sights await. At this point, the experience is already quite spooky, but, again, the woods are just the tip of the iceberg.

Once visitors emerge, an enormous, Victorian-style haunted house can be seen just beyond a guarded metal gate. Guests take a brief respite here while a ghoulishly painted young lady performs a fire dance to keep them entertained. Then, they are admitted into the main maze.

Initially, the guests are assembled into lines of about eight people inside a large receiving room. A pair of creepy twins greets them from a second-floor platform, and before long, the gruesome twosome propels themselves over the guests as ghosts burst through the walls and fly overhead. Row by row, the guests are then told to enter the maze. The house is rife with tight corridors (some shaped like coffins), nonstop scares, plenty of loud noises, misdirection, lots of brilliant art and animatronics (including an assortment of very impressive dragons) and frequently acrobatic, contorting scare actors. 

At certain points, the walkthrough is halted so the guests can be corralled into manageable groups. This is both logistically pleasing (no one likes to get caught up in a sluggish line) and done with panache, as there are actors, scenarios and diversions (like. insect collections) to make the process very entertaining. Elsewhere in the house, there is even a slide that guests are required to go down.

In total, the woods experience is about ten minutes long, and the house maze lasts around twenty. The whole experience goes pretty fast and furiously and when it’s all over, guests exit through the gift shop, which is also a lovely experience, as it showcases plenty of macabre and gory masks, props and works of art from resident designers and local artists. There is plenty of branded clothing as well.

Beyond the gift shop, there is a large, colorful area bedecked with creatures, carnivalesque posters depicting the principal scare characters, a smoke bubble machine, plenty of photo ops, and a mini escape room. There are also benches and refreshments that visitors can imbibe before hitting the trail back to the busses, which returns them safely to reality.

As Lockport is a bit off the beaten path, the drive back to the nearest expressway allows for folks to drive through its charming downtown area, which also has some nice Halloween decorations, and then a stretch of fairly desolate road, along which the keen-of-eye will observe a cemetery – directly across the street from a Montessori school. Overall, Hell’s Gate provides a great evening of chills and thrills!

Coming Soon: Part II of The Great Haunt Hop 2023