by Annie Lesser
As we say goodbye to summer, some people may be already craving a certain pie-spiced, autumnal latte, while the rest of us are hungering for edgier fare — dead bodies, blood, witches, faux Satanic rituals, etc. In the Bay Area, Halloween goes way beyond candy and costumes to get at something primal, as we shake off the monotony of everyday life, don alter egos, and seek out some spooky, mind-altering times.
The Bay is lucky that there are dozens of annual haunted experiences to seek out, and the industry of creepy entertainments seems to grow every Halloween. Here are a few that caught our eye this spooky season.
Producers Joshua Grannell (a.k.a. Peaches Christ) and David Flower are taking over the San Francisco Mint for the second year in a row with a revamped immersive Terror Vault haunted house, a brand new 80s-themed zombie survival game called “Apocalypse,” and a “Morbid Midway” featuring Halloween-themed bars, vintage arcade games, and vendors such as Kreepsville 666. Grannell says he recognized the need for a spooky escape for Bay Area fans early on. “Southern California has a really huge haunt fanbase," he says. "We realized last year that the fanbase was already here and that was a lot of relief. People were coming up to me saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, we’ve been waiting for something like this in San Francisco.’” Peaches acts as MC for your evening, and Grannell explains that his alter ego, “is the Elvira of the haunt.”
Terror Vault is an almost hour-long experience for 10 people at a time that tries to hit all your senses, including unique scents in every room. There’s a strong sense of what they do and don’t want to be part of the experience, breaking up the frights with comedy and avoiding themes like violence against women — which is a theme that has come up in some haunts in SoCal. Grannell and Flower were lucky enough to partner with venue managers and event producers Non Plus Ultra aka NPU (not to be confused with the LA DIY music venue of the same name), who facilitate unique events in unique spaces around San Francisco. Because NPU were able to arrange permits and fire marshal occupancy standards for The Old Mint, Terror Vault can pull from the site’s historic past to find storylines such as how a bank teller used to smuggle gold out through feeding it to rats then cutting it out of the creatures’ stomachs.
Meanwhile, "Apocalypse" is a 1980s-themed, 30-minute cooperative game where groups of eight try to rack up points by checking into "power stations" — some are easy to find while others require you to solve escape-room-style puzzles to find them. Also, there are lots of zombies.
Old Mint, 5th Street and Mission, San Francisco; tickets are $10-$92 depending on which combination of attractions you attend, but Terror Vault is $62; runs from October 10 to November 10.
Some of the best things in SF start underground, and not only is The Cellar about the dark underbelly of a home, but it’s also being produced at a very secret, underground location in The Mission. With only 4 people per group and 10 groups per evening, this spooky and slightly self-guided experience is the most intimate and the hardest to get a ticket for on this list.
While SFist was not able to check out this haunt in action or rehearsal, we do know it is designed to have no strobe lights, and creator Shelli Frew has included some DIY masks made that use real teeth, animal remnants as props, edible “human organs,”and creepy contortions from cast member Rebekah Cavinder. (Frew is a contortionist in her own right and has choreographed some very haunting sequences for very small spaces.)
Frew grew up in the South where there was a surplus of “terrifying root cellars in houses,” she tells us. "For a long time I used to sneak into abandoned houses in Virginia... [the cellars were] one of the areas we were most afraid to go into because it is so confined and unknown. It feels like there really is no escape.”
If you are scared of traversing this underground space, Frew is also producing a less scary immersive theatre experience called The Gravemind Escape, which is happening in the same DIY location.
Undisclosed location near 16th and Mission; runs through October 30; tickets are $25-$30; reservations here.
What began as a DIY home haunt in Portland is now a full-fledged, professional-level attraction with two mazes and a Satan-themed carnival known as the Midway of Terror. Between Oregon and NorCal, creator Steve Darrough has been producing Dead Time Dreams for over 20 years, building relationships with fire marshals and local police officers as he made sure he created spaces that seem extremely edgy and dangerous while actually being some of the safest hand-made haunts in the country.
Darrough and his talented collaborators make every unique item in the space either by hand or with repurposed items such as coffins and animal pelts. But don’t feel like it will be any lower quality than the name brand haunts, Darrough says he loves building the sets, and adds, "I want the sets to make people feel like they’re in a movie. That’s my personal challenge and my personal satisfaction."
The Midway of Terror is a free pre-show that is slightly more family-friendly, with live bands, fortune tellers, evil clowns, circus performers, horror movie screenings, real-life chainsaws, and photo ops with freaks like an evil mermaid.
2501 Tully Road, San Jose; runs from October 4 to November 2; tickets $20
UNHINGED at the Winchester Mystery House
The Winchester Mystery House, as many already know, has its own creepy history. Original owner Sarah Winchester — widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to the Winchester firearms fortune — believed she was unable to stop construction on the house as she tried to appease the spirits of those who had died at the hands of her husband’s family's weapons. In the past, during Halloween season, the house has featured candlelight ghost-story tours, but this year they recruited immersive set/experiential event designer Donovan Friedman of ThemeDream productions and writer Nick Olivero of San Francisco’s The Speakeasy to create a site-specific immersive theater show called "Unhinged." Before or after the show you can enjoy photo ops, a gingerbread recreation of the house by Instagram sensation Christine McConnell, a gorgeous projection-mapping light show by PaintScaping that compliments the story of "Unhinged," and a series of paid add-on attractions such as a tarot card reader, axe throwing, and midway games.
"Unhinged" utilizes 68 of the house's 165 rooms, and it is based on the idea that after Sarah’s death the building continued to collect souls, and groups of 13 people at a time tour through areas where these souls now reside. This haunt is less overtly terrifying than some of the others on this list due to its lack of "jump scares," but this experience still contains plenty of creepy images that will stay with you after the haunt has ended.
Friedman explains that an early spooking back in April kept the team from utilizing the entire house. “We really wanted to utilize the third floor because it’s spooky up there and there’s a big hall with the most haunted room in the house," he says. "We were up there late at night...me and my tech guy, and the only other person up there was the security guy down in his office and we were walking through the halls trying to get a sense of what seemed creepiest in the dark... when the door next to us slammed shut.” Friedman says that whoever haunts the house must now be used to him, and the team expects to use the third floor next year.
Winchester Mystery House, 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose; tickets $44 to $54; 'Unhinged' runs through November 2
HALLOWEEN HAUNT at Great America
Every year, the Halloween Haunt at Santa Clara's Great American tries to improve upon the previous year, and scare the be-jesus out of everyone who dares to come. With a professional team that includes makeup artists from Los Angeles, set designers and performers from around the Bay. Also, as part of the Cedar Fair theme park family, Great America’s Halloween Haunt benefits from the wisdom of the company's ten other parks, getting better with age "like a fine wine," according to its live show development lead Clayton Lawrence. And it's only a five-hour drive from spooky sibling Knott's Scary Farm at Knott's Berry Farm, which allows them to share not only information, but also set pieces each year. And for those who want to have family bonding without all the screams, Great America is introducing a Dios De Los Muertos party experience this year featuring DJs, fire performers, drummers, and live performances.
Great America's Halloween Haunt has eight mazes and two "scare zones." They've retooled one of Knott’s most popular and gruesome mazes, Tooth Fairy, about a malicious creature that takes pleasure at kidnapping children along with the teeth she rips from their mouths, by expanding it to have extra rooms and even more disturbing prosthetics. Also note, the missing-children posters in the Tooth Fairy maze are all pictures from staffers' childhoods.
Makeup artist Cheyenne Hernandez says she comes up from L.A. just to do the Halloween Haunt because of the family feel it has. “LA is more commercialized [and] structured...[while here] you get so much freedom to do whatever you want,” she told SFist. Lawrence explained that all the makeup artists get to pitch their own creatures so they can take ownership of what they're doing at the park.
4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara; runs through November 2; tickets $32 to $105 depending on days and pass options
FRIGHT FEST at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
While Six Flags is a huge national chain, each with its own Fright Fest, all the parks design their Halloween events independently of each other, playing to their own audiences and park strengths. With Discovery Kingdom being the only Six Flags theme park to also offer animal encounters, it gives them the unique opportunity include some of their scariest creatures as part of the festivities. For instance, at the start of each night, guests have the opportunity to take photos with living snakes and undead handlers; and for those visiting Captain Bloat’s Shipwreck Horror (a pirate-themed maze), not only will they have to survive the cursed crew, but also the live sharks from Discovery Kingdom’s shark exhibit.
Admission to the park includes family-friendly daytime activities like trick-or-treating in a Hay Maze, and at night there are live shows and access for braver souls to the scare zones and even scarier rides. There will also be a menu of Halloween food and drinks like skull-shaped beer mugs and coffin taps.
Fright Fest adds new haunted maze themes every year, but it keeps a lot of its houses the same while trying to adjust storylines and swap around performers. Creative mastermind David Miller explains of the haunts, which employ a cast of over 150 actors, “every actor comes up with their own [way of spooking]. That’s what I love about watching the team out there as they each discover their 'scare' and what works for them... Some people are jump-out-and-scare-you types who get in your face, other people just sneak up behind you and growl. It really depends on the individual person."
1001 Fairgrounds Dr., Vallejo; runs through November 2; tickets $36.49-$72.99 for park admission + $35 for GA haunt wristband and $45 for VIP haunt wristband