Kayla Armstrong – A Tribute

As we begin another year of reviewing haunted houses, we look forward to an exciting season filled with screams, scares, fun and friends.  Each new season is filled with anticipation and excitement and we are eager to see old friends and make new ones.

We are also looking back to previous years, reminiscing about seasons past and we realize how truly blessed we are to have the fortune of reviewing all of the amazing haunts here on the Front Range. Reviewing haunts is so much more to us than just throwing out a score and a handful of words. It is way beyond that, in ways one wouldn’t imagine for a haunted house critics team.

Each season is unique and memorable in its own way; however, the 2013 season will stay in the forefront of our minds and hearts every day for the rest of our lives.

We were honored and greatly humbled by our work on a fundraiser for Kayla Armstrong. As most of you will remember, Kayla was battling a second PNET brain tumor and at the age of 15, Kayla taught everyone around her what it truly meant to live life to its fullest. In spite of her illness, Kayla wore a smile that shined brighter than the sun, lighting up the lives of everyone she came in contact with. Her tenacity and courage were a driving force to those of us who had the privilege of knowing her, even if only for a short time. Her spirit is with us today, in everything we do.

I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know her family and they too radiated Kaylas determination, courage, strength and love. Never before had I seen such an incredible display of love and I doubt I ever will again. Kayla and her family taught everyone around them what it means to truly love one another and to love every second of life, no matter what cards you are dealt.

Kayla was called home on November 1, 2013 just after I had paid a visit to her to tell her how things went at “Four Mile Scare” haunt in Boulder. Although Kayla could not attend her haunt as planned on Halloween, she was there in spirit and everything we did, we did for her and her love of Halloween.

Although she didn’t realize it, Kayla brought countless people together from our communities and created a bond that will never be broken. I’d like to thank everyone who participated in and donated to the fundraisers for Kayla. Your donations and time are deeply appreciated to this day.

Kayla, Mike, Ann and Austin, I’d like to thank you for sharing your lives and love with all of us and for teaching us what it truly means to love and care for another in this life. Thank you for teaching us what strength and courage look like and how to laugh and enjoy life in the face of adversity. Your lessons, love and legacy will never leave us. Kaylas radiance, beauty and courage will live in our hearts forever.

Kayla, we dedicate this season to you.

Haunted Tropes #003 – Voluntary Victims

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

Some people are just asking for it...

Some people are just asking for it…

At some point, someone decided that it didn’t make sense that a serial killer or a group of cultists or a camp of cannibals would have just one group of victims. After all, if you, the haunt-goer, are meant to be walking through the home of a mass murderer, there should be some evidence to support the claims of their psychopathic murdering ways. And so, whether it was to lend credibility to the stories the haunts were trying to tell, or just to add a few more screams and chills to your wanderings throughout the haunts, actors started being cast in the role of fellow victims instead of just crazy people and monsters.

This was a great idea, or at least it was on paper. The problem, as is so often the case, came in the execution. Haunt actors are very commonly left to their own devices when it comes to creating their own parts, relying heavily on improvisation, perhaps with some occasional dialogue written for them. This is usually good, as haunt actors have a passion for what they do. Very few people, as it happens, are willing to show up at 5 PM, have 10 pounds of makeup slapped on with a trowel, and stay out until the wee small hours of the morning looking more and more hideous as the hours wear on (well, very few people who don’t hang around on Colfax Avenue, anyway), and haunt actors have a tendency to be very creative with their characters as a result of being given a lot of control.

On the other side, there’s one thing that haunt actors who aren’t given a lot of direction tend to be notoriously bad at, and that’s interacting with audience members. And the point at the intersection of improvised characterization and bad audience interaction is the unholy portal from which springs an endless slew of voluntary victims.

Picture it. You’re slowly inching along through a haunt that purports to be the home of a serial killer who’s been skinning and eating his victims. Alright, it’s a good backstory, but how does the haunt owner make you believe that you really are in the home of such a deranged person? Corpses and missing persons posters are a great idea, but someone who can speak for themselves is even better. So it’s not uncommon for actors inside a haunt to play the role of a victim instead of one of the sociopaths. Usually these people will beg for assistance when the audience walks through their scene. Maybe it says something about our society, but the general sense I get is that haunt actors never expect a shred of decency from any individual human being, ever. The entire worldview must be based on one singular idea:

People aren't chocolates. Do you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard coated bastards with bastard filling.

If you offer to help one of these poor people, their response will usually be to ignore you. They haven’t prepared for the eventuality that someone might actually offer to do something heroic or self sacrificing and help. The really unfortunate thing is that this singular act shoots any single shred of credibility the haunt had right in the foot. At point blank range. With a bazooka.

The mildest cases of this trope occur when the victim is seemingly locked in a cage or shackled to the wall or floor, with heavy hardware to which the audience does not have the key. The very worst offenders, on the other hand, will have a poor tortured individual run screaming into the room, begging the audience to, “Please, take me with you!” and then staring like a deer in the headlights when someone actually stretches out a hand and says, “Come with me.”

Here’s a nifty scientific chart that I designed to show just how bad some instances are based on others, because as we all know charts are the hallmark of a scientific publication (forget all those people who try to tell you “peer reviews” mean anything – they’re probably just trying to sell you something). Charts prove things, damnit, and I’m about to prove the hell out of this point. Check this graph out!

CONTINUUM OF VICTIM TRAPPED-NESS

As you can see, the more genuinely trapped a person is, the closer we get to the smiley faced side of the graph, showing that I’m happier when… uh… I mean, that isn’t to say that I’m happier when people are stuck in tragic situations from which there is no escape. I’m not some kind of weird pervert or anything, but then again I did stay up late on a Sunday night making an obnoxious chart in Photoshop, so you be the judge of my sanity level.

The saddest part of all this is that it can be so easily avoided, but nobody ever takes the opportunity to fix it. A person barges into a room begging me to help her escape and then refuses to come with me? Bad acting. A person barges into a room begging me to help her escape but is dragged away by a psycho before I can do anything? Authenticity!

Another actor who got this right a couple years back was a ghost wandering around a cemetery, wailing about how much he wanted to leave. When I suggested that he do exactly that, just go, he replied that he couldn’t, his soul was bound here. Simple, effective, and it added characterization to him – not only could nobody help him, but it instantly made his story that much more tragic.

The thing that’s most surprising to me about this one, is that it’s even an issue at all. Just find some way to prevent your victims from just walking out the door. It’s what a responsible serial killer would do anyway.

Haunted Tropes #002 – I’m Going To Try Science!

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

It's not going to be anywhere near as funny when that red bell pepper comes alive and eats his face off. Well, I mean... not as funny for him, anyway.

It’s not going to be anywhere near as funny when that red bell pepper comes alive and eats his face off. Well, I mean… not as funny for him, anyway. [Pictured t-shirt at XKCD]

 Science… is evil. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after spending several years crawling through haunted houses. Forget the wonders of the modern world we live in, the fantastic advances in technology and medicine. It’s not worth remembering the ways we can all breathe easier and, in general, have a nice, simple life due to the absolutely incredible advancements we’ve made in science and technology. The internet, smartphones, Twitter, modern cancer treatments, better farming… no, none of those things matter.

Pay no attention to the man behind the laboratory curtain, whenever anyone tries to do anything sciencey, all hell is bound to break loose. But this isn’t just a trope about mad scientists getting into trouble – that’s totally expected. Mad Scientists have been wreaking havoc, whether intentionally or due to sheer stupidity, in science fiction and fantasy for ages. We’ve had this kind of thing since before Gordon Freeman slotted his first carrier into the first analysis port, since before Cyberdine systems first brought Skynet out of beta, since before the Initiative started keeping vampires and demons as pets deep beneath Sunnydale. It’s been since the beginning of the modern monster story, in fact, when Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein zapped his first corpse back to life.

The thing is, it’s pretty easy to believe that an abandoned hillbilly town, abandoned theater, abandoned mental hospital, or whatever it is that’s abandoned that you, the haunt-goer, are about to enter into, is otherwise isolated from society and able to go unnoticed, to become nothing but a blip on the radar of the history books, never mentioned by anyone again. Scientific research facilities… don’t have that option. They have grants and funding to secure, they provide regular progress reports. And they document the hell out of everything because they’re scientists. Every single example we’ve seen – zombies made from mad cow disease, insane plants made in an attempt to produce super-farms and end world hunger, sketchy doctors doing experimental procedures, animal testing… all of it ends the same way. Dark, flickering corridors with dodgy lighting, cages that have been torn asunder from the inside, trails of blood, dark hand prints all over the walls, the floors, the ceiling… basically your average disaster area.

Scientists, especially researchers, seem to have a very poor track record when it comes to figuring out that this is a bad idea, because these labs with terrible working conditions continue to crop up, time and time again. That’s the real problem. The people in the world who are supposed to be really good at learning, drawing conclusions, and understanding trends can’t wrap their head around the idea that messing around with some freaky science stuff that nobody understands is not going to turn out just peachy keen. I mean, how does this all pan out? There has to come a point where everybody knows that this is going to turn out to be a terrible idea, but they have to do it anyway, whether because of arrogance or bullheadedness, groupthink or nepotism, financial obligations or government contracts, and they plow right ahead. At this point, what’s a lab assistant to do, other than shrug and scream, “Stand Back! I’m going to try science!

 

Haunted Tropes #001 – The Spontaneous Circus

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

Creepy clown says, "Go to bed."

Nighty Night!

Okay, I get it. For some reason that I don’t personally understand, clowns are scary. I always thought they were great, myself. Funny hair, big red noses, huge shoes, balloon animals, and those little honky red noses. Oh, and bicycle horns. Don’t ever forget the bicycle horns.

Here’s the thing, though. My memories of clowns are that they were associated with the circus for the most part. Oh, of course, there was always the kid whose parents were apparently rolling in dough that could hire one to come to their kid’s birthday parties, where he’d make the balloons into hats and do magic tricks for all the kids and give them candy and stuff, and of course I wanted to go but I never got invited to anything except the lame birthday parties instead because everyone thought the suspenders my mom made me wear were dorky even thought they were actually efficient and logical garments, and when Nathan Hall had his birthday he said he’d invite me because we were friends and then he never did because he was a traitor like that and Nathan if I ever find you I swear to God I will end you, you back-stabbing son of…

…*achem*

Anyway, the point was, the circus was a pretty rare event. It only came to town once a year, and if you didn’t go downtown during that week, you just missed it, until next year. The Spontaneous Circus refers to the propensity for a circus to pop up all the time, in the least expected places. The best time for the circus is anywhere, any when, if a haunt is to be believed. The setting is immaterial. Barnum and Bailey be damned, the circus is in town and they’ll set up anywhere they like, thank you very much.

Are we in the middle of a butcher shop? Don’t care, circus! A dark, damp cave in the middle of the woods? Don’t care, circus! A cornfield at the intersection of no and where, a hospital, a crypt, a mausoleum, or even up on the deranged mountains of some Redneck Extravaganza, “if you build it they will come” seems to be the motto that drives everyone who’s ever thought about a circus to put one up. I have seen a circus erupt in the rumpus room of someone’s house, for cryin’ out loud. No place, nowhere at all, is immune to the polka dots, the neon glowpaint, or the rainbow-hair-clad warriors of utter doom.

Of course, perhaps I’m the one who’s mistaken. Perhaps there’s a reason the circus is as prevalent as it is. Maybe the haunt owners are trying to tell us something. Maybe they know something we don’t. Forget the zombie apocalypse, that’s just the media trying to throw you off the scent. Maybe the real pandemic that will take humanity to its knees is Circusitis (that’s inflammation of the Circus for those who don’t speak Latin).

Think of it. Maybe there’s a creeping terror out there, that’s sweeping its way across the nation, turning entire, otherwise perfectly normal rooms into Day-Glo nightmares, multi-colored polka dots growing like malignant tumors that will eventually consume the entire structure, and once the human host is infected, the skin turns a pale white while the capillaries under the skin of the nose and mouth burst, causing the infamous red nose and painted smile. But the real trauma is to the brain, turning these once-intelligent people into laughing, maniacal shells of their former selves.

Oh man, I’m starting to get a real case of the heebie-jeebies here. The point is, if you’re striving for something authentic and believable, then every room in your attraction needs to make sense, and to tie into the overall theme in some believable way, and letting the Ringling Brothers decorate the stockroom in your little shop of horrors is the best way to crush any suspension of disbelief your audience had to begin with. Drawing people into the experience is what makes it scary, not mentally ejecting people out of the creepy mental landscape you’ve built so painstakingly over the last several rooms only to crush it dead beneath size 47 shoes.

Haunted Tropes – Introduction

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It happens every time.

I’m getting ready to start my fourth year as a haunted house critic now, and I have to say, I love them. I wasn’t sure at first – going into my very first haunt back in 2011 I had to wonder what I had gotten myself into. But it’s been a tremendous thrill ride since then and I discovered very early on that I love not only a chance to be scared, but to see the kinds of things that you don’t get a chance to experience any other way.

BUT. But, but, but…

There are a few things I’ve noticed… things that I’ve seen a bunch of places, over and over again, that I can’t quite shake off. You have to understand, I love a unique haunt experience – it’s the thing that gets me excited about every review season, each and every year. There’s this sense of excitement that picks up around mid-September every year, where I realize that soon, very soon, I’m going to see something that I’ve never seen before. Ever! And you can imagine how that might be a good thing for a guy like me, who spends most of the day every day in a rut. In fact, if you looked up the word “rut” in the dictionary there’d be… well, there’d be a little description of what it meant. But there ought to be a picture of my life in there, because that’s what it is. Get up, go to work, Be Incredible (that’s not in my job description but it’d be a fairly accurate one if it were), go home, cook dinner, a little TV, then sleep. Then I do it all again.

You can see how something to shake up the routine would appeal to me. And then every year, along comes Haunt Season! Huzzah!

BUT. But, but, but…

Then there’s the opposite. The bits of a haunt that are the same no matter where you go. The pieces and parts that start to feel a little bit… samey. The undeniable sense of deja vu when you see them… the stark realization that you’ve stumbled upon a Haunted Trope.

What’s a trope you ask? The good folks at TV Tropes define it this way:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting.

I agree with that sentiment – these things certainly aren’t dull or uninteresting, they’re just not very unique – they don’t stand out from other haunts. That’s not a bad thing. This just means that they’re the kind of thing that’s supposed to be able to frighten a large cross-section of people. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” my dad used to tell me, and despite the fact that he apparently couldn’t wax poetical without dropping into the speech patterns of a 1950s farmer, there’s definite wisdom in that statement.

So yes, there’s a reason these pieces show up again and again, but I think they’re worth a little exploration anyway (and perhaps poking a bit of fun at). Yes, these are things that get added in time and time again because they work, and because we’re familiar with them from years and years of scary movies and TV shows, but they’re also very tired, well-worn set pieces. I can understand and even appreciate that there are certain standards that one just expects from a haunt experience, but those aren’t the pieces that anyone’s going to be raving about, remembering years and years later.

"I have fond memories of that utterly generic scare from 2011 that I'd seen fifty times before. Well worth the twenty dollars!" said no one ever.

But I got a dollar off for bringing in some baked beans, so…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost’s famous poem sums it up so well. Read some of our past reviews: every year, the things we applaud are the new, the innovative, and the exciting. Sometimes you need to use the more-traveled road, but it’s nice to take the scenic route as well from time to time. So join me every Thursday for the foreseeable future as we explore Haunted Tropes, and maybe get a few ideas for forging your own road.