Friday, October 23, 2015

Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream 2015: Unearthed -- Review

Good evening, CultSig Members. It's been a long while since I've made an appearance here, but I'm back. And ready to rumble.

I was never familiar with the other Halloween events around Florida. But this past Friday night, I was able to attend Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream with a friend (Michael, as I prefer to call him). If you've ever been curious about attending Howl-O-Scream, here's a run-down of the 2015 event with a breakdown of houses, scare zones, and the annual mainstage show, Fiends.

The theme of the Howl-O-Scream 2015 is Unearthed: Scarlett's Revenge. In late June, 2015, Busch Gardens began a viral marketing campaign promoting How-O-Scream. (Quick on the draw, am I right?) The story began with breaking news from the park that “A construction team was halted yesterday when crews hit upon a mysterious object while digging in Busch Gardens Tampa. The park is currently investigating the unusual discovery. Please check back for more information.” The reports quickly evolved into a series of videos and site updates that tracked the discovery and analysis of the old, wooden house under Busch Gardens Tampa. Reports also included an organization called A.U.R.A. that was called in to investigate the archeological find. Over a period of weeks, investigators from A.U.R.A. collected information detailing the legend of a woods woman named Scarlett who was accused of witchcraft in the 1800s and was subsequently buried alive in her house. Her ghost is known to steal the eyes from her victims. Viral videos claimed that the theme park chose to open the aged house to the public for tours, despite reports of construction workers and diggers going missing. Experts from A.U.R.A. have strongly advised against inviting the public, but Busch Gardens Tampa has proceeded with plans to showcase the house as part of Howl-O-Scream 2015.

I'm familiar with adult Halloween events. I love the theming. I love the detailing of sets and costumes. Jump scares freak the hell out of me when I'm least expecting them, but especially when they're puppets. (I have a thing against puppets. But I love them when they can scare me.) Also, the alcohol; I love Halloween themed booze. Pumpkin ciders, cinnamon whiskey, caramel apple shots. Insanity. (Drink it all. Your liver will hate you, but it's worth it to drown your fears in themed adult beverages one month out of the year.) Howl-O-Scream had it all, but in varying degrees of success.

Michael and I did every house and walked through every scare zone, which was a treat and a downright miracle for any person who's ever tried to do everything at UO's Horror Nights in a single evening. Reviews and recaps are below, sectioned by experience.

The Houses

Unearthed: Scarlett's Revenge starts off with a themed queue in the style of an archeological digsite. As we walked, we meandered through a decrepit house that looked and felt like something out of an episode of the Walking Dead if the Walking Dead had taken place in the early 1800s: dirty, dusty tables and furniture, straw floors, abandoned dinner ware, jars that still contained food items and/or baby fetuses (at this point, I think Scarlett would have considered those one and the same). As we neared the exit of the dig, Scarlett, in all her horned glory, stood off to the side, growling and looking sexy, a mixture I'm sure is intentional, but not very scary. Overall, this house provided jump scares, but did nothing for me in the way of theming, probably because the story isn't clear from the get-go. I know she's a witch-demon-incubus th

Alright. Enough. I have no idea what she is. She's sexy. She's got horns. She's been dead a long time. Let's move on. 6/10

Zombie Containment Unit was unbelievably unique and great and, as Michael would say “a fucking great idea for a haunted house.” We stood in line for what seemed like an hour (we couldn't exactly tell because the houses didn't have posted wait times). After dealing with a girl would wouldn't step-the-fuck-forward because she was texting, we entered another themed queue. (Good on you, Howl-O-Scream.) Three words: Zombie. Rave. DJ. A zombie was on scaffolding about 20 feet above the queue, dancing with intense, drug-induced fervor, all while he was mixing the hell out of whatever music was blasting from the speakers nearer the floor. Once Michael and I got up to the entrance of the house, we figure out why the line was so long: the house was a laser tag battle themed as a military-style training exercise to kill zombies. They gave us laser tag guns, gave us direct orders, and sent us on our misson. We shuffled/walked gingerly through chain-link fencing, stacks of crates, and hollowed out barrels, blasting the hell out of anything that moved. (The father and son team in front of us was having a pretty good time shooting the living-dead in the chest. Family bonding at its best.) All in all, probably something I'd do again. 10/10, would shoot again.

Dead Fall takes place in what I assume to be a combination greenhouse/garden with a reference to plants dying...or people falling into the hands of plants….or…? Whatever. The site says “Victorian,” but having been a Victorian studies student in undergrad and grad school, I didn't see a lot of décor that reflected this theme besides the outside of the house and a simple graveyard near the end of the experience. This would have been one I would have forgotten except for the insane monstrosities that were the mangled and deformed Venus flytrap puppets that came out of fucking nowhere and tried to eat my hands off. Those were awesome. And terrifying. However, although I love plants and the Victorian era, I can't really give this house a good review because of lazy theming and storytelling. 6/10 (But more puppets, please. Thanks.)

Death Water Bayou was probably one of the best at theming. The fog swirled around the queue line all the way up to the entrance of the house, which was really, really well done. Spooky lights crept up the decaying planks of the wooden exterior. Pretty convincing at making me feel apprehensive about stepping foot in the place. Once inside, we were greeted by the Voodoo Queen, sitting in the middle of well-placed props and tchotchkes: skulls, taxidermied animals, bones, things in jars, straw, books, yadda yadda yadda. We filed further into the house and were met with Voodoo priests and kinda-zombie things that were genuinely spooky. Plants hung from the ceiling. It was honestly perfectly overgrown and dirty-looking for a house that was supposed to sit in the middle of a swamp, inhabited by a witchy woman. When we exited, the same fog that coursed through the house led us out. Well done. 9/10

The BASEMENT was, holy shit, disgusting. Think of all the weird, gross, unsavory fluids that can come out of a person. Now imagine them spread on the floors and walls and ceilings of your house. Now imagine your house is underground and you are trapped inside with the crazy people who have smeared all that gross shit all over your house. That's The BASEMENT. It's a fucking cannery where they put people in cans. Like, tuna. Or green beans. But with human intestines and finger bones. Gross, right? But it was wonderful. Let me explain.

The actors in this house really had their shit together. For example, one room is dedicated to a huge cauldron where a fat lady sits and laughs and stares you down as you cross her path. Whoever this lady is, she's got it. She has to sit there for hours and laugh and cackle and look at people who probably call her names, but the tiny things she does with her face and the way she moves her head and neck creeped me the fuck out. Whatever they're paying her, it isn't enough. And the kid she's stirring into that pot of human goo has a great time when he pokes his head out through the rubber hole and screams, “MISTER! Help me! Where are you going? HEL—” Gurgle. 10/10

Circus of Superstition: The Last Laugh was an interesting experience. I'm lucky in that I am not afraid of clowns. I was when I was little, but after seeing It, every time I see a clown, I think of Tim Curry, and I'm instantly desensitized to the idea that clowns can be evil. Because Tim Curry. Kind of a reverse horror conditioning, I guess. The queue line for this was long, but it moved quickly. Michael and I stopped to finish our beers, and we were met with a towering stilt-walking clown that looked like its back was hunched. It was kind of, if you can picture it, a cross between a stilt-walker and a puppeteer. More of this, please.

The house was 3D, but I couldn't wear the glasses because I wear glasses, and the paper 3D ones kept falling off, so I opted for sans-3D. Good choice. Everything was still creepy, and it seemed way more tactile and real without glasses on. There is a room, however, near the end of the house that looks an awful lot like the Jack room in Horror Nights's 25 Year house: almost identical clown mannequins and a few well-placed actors wearing identical costumes. Then, there's a room with rocking chairs that move independently. Sold. Theming was good, consistent, and interesting. 8/10

Zombie Mortuary was probably my favorite because of course there would be zombies in a mortuary. Of fucking course. I understood it. I expected it. I didn't have to do a lot of research or preparation or experience any setup for the story. It was simple and well done.

You go in. It's a mortuary. There are zombies. BUT. The sets are amazing. There's a grieving room where there are dead bodies that the zombies are feasting on. Some of those zombies are mourners themselves. Then you're led through a closet into the fucking walls where there is insulation and dead rats hanging, electrocuted, from wires that have fried them to a crisp. I've never been in a house that simulates your escape through the depths of a house through the house's asbestos-filled guts. And I think there were zombies in the ceiling? Insane. We walked out satisfied (and asbestos-free). 10/10

The Scare Zones
These were a healthy dose of jump scares that were completely unexpected at times. At other times, I felt like the actors got way too close to my face, namely the male actors. I dunno what made these dudes think it was okay to get within kissing distance of me, but I didn't like it. What I DO like in scareactors is when I can't see them and they scare me with surprise or when I can see them, and they stare me down without moving. Lack of movement makes expectation unpredictable. (This is a good rule of thumb for actors anywhere trying to scare people. Michael Myers from Halloween and Twisty the Clown from AHS are prime examples of this technique.) There were actors that did this in a section that channeled dolls and demonic, possessed children. That was my favorite. The others that caught my eye (or didn't and scared the shit out of me) were the plant people that blended in extremely well and the dudes with the chainsaws who wore gore-collars (false appendages that made it look like their faces and necks were cut). The lighting, though, was what really made the zones. Lighting is another character in theatre, and I think that's what a lot of the zones at Horror Nights really lack. Beautiful purples, reds, golds, and blues spread out over the leaves and grounds and shone in our eyes as green pin pricks of light poked through the fog. Beautiful. If you are a person who appreciates presentation, these zones are for you.

The Booze
The Scarlett mixed drink was shite. I have a low tolerance for alcohol, and when I drink at a Halloween event, I expect to be well and a sloshed by the time I reach the bottom of that plastic cup. I was not, and it was a 16 ounce drink. I couldn't even taste the warm sensation of alcohol flowing down my throat, reminding me that my 20s are drawing to an end and that my liver will only handle this type of abuse for a few more years. Nothing. I was drinking fruit punch. Fucking fruit punch. And I was even more pissed off because Michael had bought this drink for me (part of our drinking-with-friends deal; drinks for drinks). The dark beer they have on draft (the tap is marked with a raven perched atop the handle) is pretty damn good, though. Don't get a mixed drink; you'll probably get shorted the alcohol either by company plans or by human error. Beer is failsafe; opt for hops.

Fiends (Show)
The only things I can genuinely be certain about are below.
  • The story was weak. Doctor Frankenfiend has to raise money for the school for monsters because tuition is high? What do the projected numbers have to do with tuition and keeping the school open? I’m not sure. Next.
  • The nurse and dead-girl dancers were sloppy as were the hot dude-patients. You can only advertise hot nurses enough until what they deliver is subpar. Movements weren't sharp, and the dancers seemed like they were bored. However, dancing on tables is good. More of this.
  • The sub-plot with Igor and his difficulty with “getting some” came completely out of left field, and it wasn't funny. It was awkward. Blue balls jokes? The character seemed more like a creeper than a sympathetic character that I either felt sorry for or wanted to jump on board with.

Current events were only referenced through musical numbers (with pop tunes from the past year).
Really, the only saving grace was the actor who played Doctor Frankenfiend. He was lightning in a bottle. His energy carried the show and made me want to watch him more than the other performers. I hope that guy gets hired somewhere after the event closes. 3/10

Howl-O-Scream provided a fun night for Michael and I to make nerdy theatre-kid observations about set design, performance, and costumes. However, the actors in the houses seemed tired, both vocally and physically. Our suggestion? Pre-recorded audio. This is where Horror Nights does it best. Overall, this event is worth it for the $60 and the hour and ten minute drive to Tampa. We had fun, we drank (beer), and had the shit scared out of us occasionally. I’d go back next year, but only once.

What: Howl-O-Scream 2015: Unearthed
When: 7:30pm - 1am, now until October 31st
Where: Busch Gardens (Tampa, FL)
How Much: $60 - $70

With much love and spookiness,
Willa Murray
Resident Librarian

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