It’s that time of the year again, when the local theme park opens its doors after dark and is converted into a land of chills to go along with the usual thrills.
The Oracle breaks down what Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream has to offer in terms of fright and fun. This year’s theme: “The Dark Side of the Gardens.” Not sure what that means? Thankfully, the title provides a helpful subtext: “Zombies Live Here.”
Of the six haunted houses included in the regular ticket price, only a few actually induce fear. All of them take about four minutes to walk through and employ the typical scare tactics: hiding in dark corners, sudden outbursts of clichd lines such as, “You’re next!” and loud noises caused by slamming windowpanes, among other devices. But some catch you by surprise, with illusions of perspective and unexpected smells and sprays.
In “Vampire Casino,” visitors travel around slot machines and roulette wheels confined by blood-spattered walls. Near the end of the house, vampires jump from the rafters to prey on unsuspecting victims.
“Night Shade Toys” makes its return with all the creepy cha- racteristics you’d expect from a haunted toy factory. One room is filled with naked baby dolls stapled to the walls that seemingly urinate as you are sprayed with an unidentifiable liquid. Another room is filled with stuffed animals, some of which come to life.
Based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, “Nevermore” mimics a gothic nightmare, with statues scattered about the house. Some statues begin moving when you get near, providing some of the creepiest moments of your Howl-O-Scream experience. This house also sprays visitors with an unidentifiable liquid as they walk through.
“Zombie Mortuary” takes you through a morgue filled with the undead. This house offers some of the best gore and special effects in the park. In one room, a man is all but cut in half, lying on an autopsy table. Blood and guts drape off the table, but the man is still moving and calls out to you for help. This house shows what happens when zombies take over the funeral home.
The surgery-inspired house “Deconstruction” returns to scare visitors from ever going under the knife. You start out in a waiting room full of weeping widows. The rece- ptionist shouts, “Who’s next?” as you are escorted into room upon room of patients being sawed in half. This is one of the louder houses, with lots of medical equipment covered in blood and entrails. Body parts are scattered throughout and nailed to the walls. Some patients that appear dead have scare actors hiding underneath their bed sheets. Bodies wrapped in plastic wrap hang from the ceiling.
In “Death Row Vengeance,” Zombies have branched out since taking over the funeral home and now occupy the prison, as well. This house has all of your capital punishment needs: Lethal injection, the electric chair, firing squad, a guy strapped to a table getting stabbed – all the civil ways to end someone’s life in the name of justice. This house creates a 4-D environment, with the smell of the undead wafting throughout. One can only hope that was their intention.
One haunted house stands out among the rest. After reserving a spot on a waiting list in advance and paying $40 for up to four people, visitors can walk through their own, private haunted house, titled “Alone.” This house differs in that it is about three times longer than the others and you’ll have the scare actors all to yourself.
Those brave enough to enter the maze are given a time to come back for their session and a ticket in the form of a severed finger. They are also assigned a safety word that, should things become too frightening, they can shout out to be quickly escorted out.
Chloe Chucran, a freshman majoring in nursing at Hillsborough Community College, waited outside “Alone” for her boyfriend James Castillo. She looked visibly worried and frightened from having gone through all the other houses in the park.
“I’m scared of the other houses. (There’s) no way I’m going in there,” she said.
Klaus Grim and Cristina Gomez, two freshmen studying nursing at the University of Tampa, came out of the maze before Castillo, even though they went in after him.
When the man escorting them to the start of the maze insisted that Grim go through by himself, the two decided that they had had enough. They retreated to the exit out of fear after two minutes.
“We didn’t make it very far,” Grim said. “We didn’t even yell out the (safety) word, we just left our friend.”
When Castillo emerged a few minutes later, he wasn’t very impressed.
“It was more humorous than anything – kind of cheesy,” he said “They make you go down this slide and it’s a bright green Elmo’s play place slide.”
Zombies stammering around scare zones did a great job staying in character, even when drunk attendees heckled them. Though fog, lights and sparks caused by scraping metal against the concrete frightened many passersby, the environment toed the line between haunted theme park and goofy rave party.
Shot girls badgered guests to buy their multicolored test tubes and vendors sold an assortment of glow stick accessories. Between the dance show “Fiends,” disc jockeys scattered throughout and the park’s adults-only dance club “Club Virus,” pop music was the most consistent background noise at Howl-O-Scream.
As a whole, Howl-O-Scream gets a B-. Not counting getting to ride awesome roller coasters at night with little to no wait, the event seems barely worth the hefty $52.99 online price tag, nevermind the price at the gate of $77.99. Your best bet is grabbing three friends and going on a Thursday, when four people can get tickets online for $24.99 each.