It is an anxiety-inducing scenario, being led through a truly labyrinthine set of rooms and sets, up staircases and ladders and down chutes and more staircases, inside a building that feels as already haunted as San Francisco's Old Mint.
Terror Vault, from the production company called Into the Dark, has had three previous incarnations as a Halloween season attraction at the Mint, and this year's theme is cults. Dubbed Terror Vault: Initiation, the 2023 version has a few similar set elements from previous years, but is otherwise a new immersive haunted house experience in which you and the fellow travelers in your group of ten or so race through a series of rooms as "initiates" of a cult called Insight.
Do note that if you want to be man-handled more than others, or have the actors get up in your face, you have the option of wearing a glow-stick necklace. I did not, and I felt plenty interacted-with.
There are some clever elements and requisite jump-scares to kick off the experience — which begins in a cult-like basement room with rows of folding chairs, an introductory video, and a table full of pamphlets. But soon, things go sideways, and as you're put through the paces of different "modules" in the initiation, there is a subplot you are meant to focus your energy on involving a rebel group and a captive being held somewhere in the building.
While plot devices like this may be a necessary evil of this immersive genre, it's the dialogue from the most convincing cult figures and brainwashees that illicit the biggest chills — less so than, say, the ghouls (disfigured cult members being punished for going astray) who pop out of the dark. And not enough attention was paid to making these "modules" as distressing and uncomfortable as they can be. The scariness of cult stories, after all, is how we can be instruments of our own undoing if we allow ourselves to be too taken in by charismatic leaders.
Also, the awkwardness of some of the performers' line deliveries have a tendency to pull you out of the experience rather than draw you in.
But we probably aren't meant to dwell on plot elements, and the team pulls off some terrific horror-show effects — one in particular stands out involving a naked man on an apparent funeral pyre who becomes, in a puff of smoke, a twitching and smoldering corpse.
For those who are seeking some recurring nightmares this Halloween, several moments in the experience feel genuinely disturbing — and you may, like me, continue feeling like you're being chased by something for hours or days afterward.
The Terror Vault complex at the Old Mint includes a basement level gift shop — featuring a surprising number of kitschy vintage t-shirts from Tales from the Crypt, Elvira, and more — and the Fang Bang bar, for those looking to drink. You can carry cocktails through the "Initiation" experience, but it may feel awkward at times. (They are selling sippy-cup things for this purpose, too.) And there is a VIP bar with ample couch and table space if you arrive early or want to hang out after.
All told, the pace of Terror Vault: Initiation is key to its effectiveness. The hour you spend in that warren of rooms and passages feels like far less by the time you're spat back out near the gift shop, and you'll be dazed wondering what it was you were just running so scared from.
'Terror Vault: Initiation' runs through October 31st at the Old Mint on Fifth Street. Timed-entry tickets ($65-$85) are required.