Halloween has always been my favorite time of year. It's the only holiday that's really for kids. It's all fun: no rituals, no observances, no propaganda. Why aren't more holidays this cool?
This year's graveside crop of scary attractions is loaded with chances to test your limits and indulge your paranoia. These are some of our favorites. It's the best time you'll ever have being chased by a fiend with a chainsaw.
Chambers of Horror
1601 S. University Blvd., Middletown, Exit 32 off I-75, www.thechambers.org
Chambers is a fantastic and shocking low-fi exhibition, proving that deep pockets don't make a great haunted house — creativity does. You're charged with finding your way to the center of an elaborate maze, complete with bloodthirsty denizens, dozens (maybe a hundred) doors and walls that move. Then you have to escape.
I was thoroughly impressed with the old-school prop design, using wheels, pulleys and savvy operators to do what computers can't: react to your fear. The house's crew keeps time with one another like a Jazz ensemble, anticipating your moves and keeping the experience on a beat so that you're not right on the heels of the folks in front of you. Some haunts go flat when you see somebody get scared up the hall and you know exactly when the monster is supposed to jump. That never happened in this one. For all I knew, my companion and I were the only ones in the building besides the bevy of killers. That's simply magic.
Plan on spending more than an hour. Lines can be long, and the tour lasts more than 20 minutes. Open 8 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27 and 8-10 p.m. on Halloween.
What´s Unique: Character interaction. The Devil remembered my friend's name when we passed him for a second time. That's a personal touch.
The Damage: $9. Coupon available online.
Rated: NC-17 (not that they'll stop you if you're under...)
Dent School House/ WEBN Haunted House
5963 Harrison Ave., Harrison, Exit 11 off I-74, 513-598-4600, www.frightsite.com
If you hated school, maybe you'll be glad to see everyone there dead. The School House is crafted as the site of a deranged janitor's hideous child murders. Guests are greeted by a decayed school marm and must wind through narrow ghoul-infested halls and classrooms.
This is the USS Nightmare's primary competition, and most people interested in haunted attractions hit one or the other or both. The Dent School House pulls ahead of the competition by a rotting nose this year. It's slightly scarier (by that we mean terrifying) and offers unique surprises. I won't disclose how they did it, but there was a point at which I thought — for just a split second — that I'd been shot.
It's a crazy miasma of fright featuring seasoned performers. The animatronics were a little cheesy, but that's my only complaint. Open 7:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27 and 7:30-10 p.m. Sundays and Halloween.
What´s Unique: Offers a lights-on tour for kids 4-7 p.m. Oct. 28.
The Damage: $12 or $18 for line jumping; $5 for the lights-on tour. This is also part of the Cincy Haunts Bus Tour, which offers a bus tour and line jumping at three popular haunts for $40. See www.cincyhaunts.com.
Dungeons of Delhi
362 Anderson Ferry Road, Delhi, 513-451-7549, www.dungeonsofdelhihauntedhouse.com
The Dungeons' all-volunteer cast, many of them children, is probably the largest in the area, with more than 50 goons active during the tour. Creative use of theatrical props, more than a dozen coffins and a hyperactively enthusiastic crew makes for a great time. The attention to detail in the sets is fabulous. The Frankenstein room practically vibrates. It's a great value, too. Open 7-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 7-9 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 28.
What´s Unique: Offers a lights-on tour for kids 5-7 p.m. every Sunday. This is probably the best value for your money that you'll find.
The Damage: $6; $3 for the lights-on tour.
The Halloween Haunt (Kings Island)
Kings Island, Exit 24 off I-71, Mason, 800-288-0808, www.pki.com/haunt
This expansive haunted romp features 10 different stand-alone scares, a handful of which are quite good. Death Row, a prison-themed maze, is extremely disorienting. No one touches you in a haunted house; those are the rules anywhere you go, so I was shocked when one of the prisoners ran right into me. But it was my reflection — every wall is either a mirror or a chain link fence.
The pro-grade, clammy haunted amusement park vibe is great — actors have excellent makeup and the entire park is covered in fog, but it belies the soft experiences in most of the houses. The actors' timing was off an we were able to see folks get scared in front of us on too many of the outdoor walks. Pulled punches like that means that the Haunt isn't that scary.
It's a reasonable destination if you have young kids. Plan on spending the whole evening. Open 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 28.
What´s Unique: Live stage shows with Halloween themes including some soft bondage. The Beast, Vortex and other thrill rides are operational. A mild sideshow suitable for families. An all-you-can-eat "Fright Feast" buffet for $14.95 at a faux funeral.
The Damage: $34.95 after 7 p.m. at the gate or purchase tickets online for $19.95 Fridays or $24.95 Saturdays. A full-day Saturday pass (morning to night) is $45.95.
Rated: PG with a few notable exceptions
Haunted Riverbanks of Hebron
Rivershore Sports Complex, 7842 River Road, Exit 8A off I-275, Hebron, 859-802-5974, www.hauntedriverbanks.com
More history than Hell, the Haunted Riverbanks weaves together tales of the real ghost stories of Northern Kentucky. Your guide, dressed in 19th century costume, walks you along a safe but still rugged river trail, offering tales of a runaway slave, the ghost of Bobby Mackey's and more. There are just a handful of scares but the guide does a great job telling the stories and punctuating the gruesome parts with his gestures. It's a really creative alternative to the normal fare. Open dusk to 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays and dusk to 11 p.m. the rest of the week through Halloween.
What´s Unique: This is the only haunted tour that features authentic local lore. It's also open every day.
The Damage: $12, less for groups if you call ahead.
Land of Illusion
8762 Thomas Road, Middletown, Exit 36 off I-75, 513-423-9960, www.landofillusion.com
The Land is a Halloween theme park that's focused more on illusions than scares. Four haunted journeys including the Temple of Terror and the venerable Middletown Haunted Trail surround a live-music area and fire pit, which makes it as much a place to hang out for an evening as it is a fright show.
The tours are heavy on animatronics and the air is thick with the smell of latex and sounds of pneumatic pops. Some are quite good — the headless horseman rearing up on two legs is a delicate mechanical rendering that's shocking in its intensity. Others, like the bogmen of Area 49, jump out of the water like toast from a toaster and left me cold. The Trail, almost a mile long, had one teen girl in tears, swearing that she couldn't go on.
Think of it as rough, rural, frightful version of Disney World. Plan on staying the entire evening as lines can last more than two hours. Open dusk to 12:30 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays and dusk to 11 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 3.
What´s Unique: Hundreds of animations.
The Damage: $14 for the Haunted Trail, $12 for the Temple of Terror, $10 for Dr. Psycho's Haunted Estate, $10 for Killer Klowns; all four for $30. Parking is $2.
Mt. Healthy Haunted Hall
7700 Seward Ave., Mount Healthy, Exit 10A off Ronald Reagan Highway, 513-729-1974, www.mthealthyhauntedhall.com
The Haunted Hall is a really solid old-school haunted house. The scares come in rapid succession with few off-beat misses. The dropping chandelier, hall of mirrors and the vertigo tunnel are standard fare but well used. Many live actors with a lot of heart and snaky, narrow passages make the experience lively and keep you off balance.
You'll feel eerily alone in the pitch-black maze. I couldn't see my hands, much less the exit, and had to grope around until I found my way out. Plan on spending more than an hour. Lines move fast, and the tour lasts around 25 minutes. Open 8-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 7-9 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 27.
What´s Unique: Every wall in the Hall can be moved, so it's a new experience every year. Lights-on tour for kids 3-5 p.m. Oct. 21.
The Damage: $10 or $15 for line-jumping. Save $2 with a canned good donation. This is also part of the Cincy Haunts Bus Tour, which offers a bus tour and line jumping at three popular haunts for $40. See www.cincyhaunts.com.
St. Rita's Haunted House
1720 Glendale Milford Road, Evendale, Exit 14 off I-75, 513-771-1060, www.srsdeaf.org/events
I was pretty disappointed after my quick tour of this decades-old Cincinnati tradition. The props and scenes were all there — a mad scientist's lab, a cobweb draped dining hall of the dead, a ghost ship room — but the fog and sound effects were missing and it just didn't feel that scary. The actors were not well timed and weren't very intimidating.
A friend pointed out that this is one of the few remaining family haunts and is a place you can take your kid without them needing therapy afterwards. On those standards, I'll say this cheesy but well-designed old dormitory is a good choice for the mild at heart. Plan on spending up to 45 minutes. The tour is about 15 minutes. Open 7-10 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 28; children's matinee 3-5 p.m. Oct. 27-28.
What´s Unique: The not-that-scary vibe that allows for families to enjoy the experience together is part of what makes this a classic, homegrown haunt.
The Damage: $10 or $3 off with a coupon from the St. Rita Web site. Children's matinee $2.
Rated: G to PG
4172 Belleview Road, Petersberg, Exit 11 off I-275, 859-689-4283, www.sandylandacres.com
The older sibling to the Verona Field of Screams, SandyLand executes a fun, though less scary, hayride among the children of the corn. Excellent lighting, mesh grain silos that are used as cages for sinister creatures and a constricted trail through the corn sets a nightmarish backdrop. The acting is adequate — and intense at times — though performances trail when the fiends skip off the trailer, and, I have to say, killers just shouldn't skip. The ride stops for monsters to get on the trailer, which dulls the excitement as well. (Dark rides elsewhere keep on moving.)
The headless horseman casts a fantastic silhouette against the starry sky. It was also a nice touch to have creeps follow guests to their cars. I was startled by one breathing down my neck as I left. Plan on spending an hour or longer including waiting in line. The ride lasts around 25 minutes. Open 7-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27 and Sunday, Oct. 28.
What´s Unique: A separate corn maze, pumpkins and concessions available.
The Damage: $10 or $15 for line-jumping privileges; $5 for the corn maze. This is also part of the Cincy Haunts Bus Tour, which offers a bus tour and line jumping at three popular haunts for $40. See www.cincyhaunts.com.
The Spook Coop
4753 E. Lower Springboro Road, Waynesville, Exit 28 off I-71, 937-603-5228, www.hauntedspookcoop.com
A haunted chicken coop doesn't sound like much, and the full-lights-on start makes it look like it's going to be dead (not in the good way). But, wow, what a terrifying show! The shock starts with being subtly told, "Hold onto the shirt in front of you." And then the light drops and you're left to hobble around in the complete darkness of a winding maze.
Make it through and a demonic set of characters reach, claw and grab for you. Frights from all directions, including overhead throw you off balance. The journey can last more than 30 minutes. Open 8 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27.
What´s Unique: One member of our group was seized and dragged away screaming during the walkthrough. And we didn't know he was an actor until it happened. That's entertainment!
The Damage: $10. Coupon available online.
Rated: NC-17 (not that they'll stop you if you are under...)
Springboro Haunted Hayride
6070 Springboro Road, Lebanon, Exit 29 off I-75, 937-748-2272, www.bullrunfarms.com
Easily the best of the dark rides in Cincinnati, the Springboro Hayride features a mile of terror that's been honed through 19 years of experience. Actors leap on the trailer from all sides, crawling toward and reaching for guests.
Themes are heavily based on popular horror movies. Expect chainsaws, guns and knives to be wielded close to your face. Ghost-driven hotrods chase and spew fire and drive recklessly close to the trailer. It's a wild drive through hell and there's no turning back. Sundown until the last rider finishes. Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27. Come early, as lines are long and the ticket office closes at 11:30 p.m.
What´s Unique: The Black Bog corn maze, concessions, BMX bicycle stunts as a sideshow.
The Damage: $12, $8 for the Bog, $15 for both.
101 Riverboat Row, Newport on the Levee, 859-392-7568, www.ussnightmare.com
Slick and well-packaged, the Nightmare probably has more cash sunk into it than any other rusty old boat around. In some of circles the Nightmare is considered one of the top haunted amusements in the nation (and there are circles of people who go on national haunted house tours; check out www.hauntworld.com). There's a good reason for that.
The onboard experience is rattling and has the industry's best gadgets and props, including my favorite: the suffocation room. I won't give details except to say that it feels like someone has covered your face with a hefty bag and is trying to kill you. In one area of the ship guests can choose between two types of music for their walk through: Rob Zombie or Classical.
The set design is a magnificent blend of realistic props and the naturally creeptastic interior of a dreary boat. Acting is solid and animatronics aren't overdone. That said, there were some poorly timed scares that didn't work, and I prefer the raw, indie experience of smaller budget rural houses to this degree of detail. Open 7-11 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Nov. 3.
What´s Unique: The pro-grade Pickled Brothers Sideshow with sword swallowing, bed of nails and more; remote-controlled scares in the house that guests can use for a quarter.
The Damage: $15 or $20 for line jumping privileges; the Pickled Brothers Sideshow is $6. Coupons available at online.
Verona Field of Screams
14553 Walton Verona Road, Verona, Exit 171 off I-75, 859-643-2315, www.veronafieldofscreams.com
Though in its first year of business, this dark ride offers a hell of a good time. You'll ride a creeky wagon through a spooky corn field and forested trail loaded with surprises. Actors are energetic and glom onto the cart, getting right up into your face. A derelict barn that looks like it's about to fall down adds to the atmosphere (luckily you don't have to go through it). The heavy machinery swerving after the trailer looked remarkably dangerous. There's a demon-infested barn with Hannibal Lecter to face before you can escape.
I was impressed by the tenacious actors following the visitors, sometimes surrounding them on either side. One guy following you with a machete is novelty, but two is just unnerving. Plan on spending an hour including waiting in line. The ride itself is around 25 minutes. Open 7-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Oct. 27 plus Oct. 30-31.
What´s Unique: Concessions, pumpkins and hay for sale.
The Damage: $10 or $15 for line-jumping privileges.
Turtle Creek Flea Market, 320 N. Garver Road, Monroe, Exit 29 off I-75, 513-539-4497, www.terrorwithin.com
While doing these reviews I developed a mental list of all the things I wanted to see at a haunted attraction: a linear plot, someone getting killed rather than just the aftermath and a chase instead of a stroll. Zombie Island does all of this and more.
Actors immerse you in a live performance tribute to Lovecraft's Re-Animator. Unique characters and effects — specifically designed for this outdoor trail — prod, corner and chase guests as they try to escape a mad scientist's nightmare. One satanic character I met in a graveyard left me puzzled as to whether he was part of the show or really a psycho who had wandered in. It's that good. At one point I turned to my friend and realized that, "Oh God, he's really chasing us with that chainsaw!" We ran for more than 100 yards.
Filled with dead ends, sustained tension and madness, Zombie Island will leave you breathless. Plan on spending a couple of hours including your time in line. The chase lasts around 30 minutes. Open 8 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Nov. 3.
What´s Unique: A plot and extended chases.
The Damage: $15.
Rated: NC-17 (not that they'll stop you if you are under...) ©