Haunted houses lack thrills and chills: Howl-O-Scream nothing to shout about

Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream promises to reveal people’s deepest fears this year. And no expense was spared to provide scares around every turn of the park and add two new haunted houses to the old favorites.

Tampa’s most popular Halloween-themed event, Howl-O-Scream, takes on the theme of the Raven Twins this year, bringing visitors through the darkest recesses of their imagination.

The Raven Twins, born conjoined at the head, forcefully separated themselves to get their revenge on those who called them freaks. This October, visitors can experience the twins for themselves, along with six haunted houses, three scare zones and three continuously running shows.

Scott Swenson, entertainment special projects manager for Busch Gardens, said he wants guests to know that Howl-O-Scream is headed in an even more mature direction than last year.

Busch Gardens’ Web site for the event, raventwins.com, even has a disclaimer, warning that there will be “intense adult content such as violence, gore and blood.”

Knowing that not everything scares everyone, the design team invented horror movie situations that guests could see themselves in, Swenson said. Some people are terrified of clowns, while others fear waking up as the hideous creation of a mad doctor.

One new haunted house this year, “Reconstruction,” exhibits the terrifying creations of Dr. Edger VonAngst, a deranged surgeon whose post-op victims can hardly be called human.

The house is set in the maniacal doctor’s office with over-the-top decorations. Not only are there actors coming out of the walls in a dark maze-like hallway, there are bodies hanging from the ceiling that participants must dodge and a freezer room full of fake human remains.

Another new house, ‘Death Row Vengeance,’ is more disturbing than frightening. Brave visitors follow a path through Grey Echo Penitentiary and witness brutal executions.

None of these prisoners goes quietly, and the displays are more like torture than quick executions. It is not a house for the faint of heart.

“Even though you know people are going to be there, you don’t know when they’ll jump out,” said Julia Kendrick, a senior majoring criminology.

The new additions don’t mean the old houses have been forgotten. Each returning house has at least four or five new elements to scare visitors, Swenson said.

One house that  stands out among the rest is a repeat from 2007, “Eat Your Heart Out.” This haunted gas station holds some of the most unpredictable scares. Cast members get dangerously close, some even riding motorcycles or brandishing chainsaws. It’s full of brutality and clever hiding spots and leaves visitors unsure about what’s around the next dark corner — even after they’ve left.

Swenson said he wants people to “feel threatened or unclean” after leaving a haunted house.

Scares aren’t only in the houses — frights also await guests outside.

Last year, there were scary actors “on bungee chords jumping out of the woods,” said freshman biomedical science major Michael Massengill.

Indeed, hordes of zombies and clowns roam free and control the streets outside the houses, waiting for unsuspecting victims to turn their backs.

As in previous years, live shows also run throughout the night, including One Wild Night, which follows a young couple that gets more than they bargained for when they break into an abandoned wax museum looking for Halloween costumes.

And for those with the common fear of clowns, there is Killer Klowns, a musical show Swenson calls “one of the most visceral.”

There are no new scare zones — areas where actors scare participants — but the old ones maintain their wicked charm. Despite fewer decorations in the houses, the zones retain their terror as characters emerge from the woods, smoke or darkness. If none of the houses or zones is frightening enough, all of the usual rides are also running, and Sheikra is sure to coax a scream out of even the most iron-hearted visitor.

The houses are frighteningly fun, but it’s hard to find the event worth the full $65 — though it definitely merits a visit if cheaper tickets can be found. The wait time for most houses is around 45 minutes, and groups can move pretty slowly through some of the labyrinthine houses. Getting there early is recommended — but even then, it’s easy to end up staying until the early hours of the next morning.

Howl-O-Scream runs every Thursday-Saturday starting Thursday and running until to Nov. 1. For more information or to buy tickets, visit raventwins.com.