I had the opportunity to attend the media events at three attractions in the South of England – Shocktober Fest at Tulley's Farm, Fright Nights at Thorpe Park and Screamland at Dreamland. Let's check out what's new.
Shocktober Fest at Tulley's Farm
Taking place on a farm in, essentially, the middle of nowhere, Shocktober Fest has the benefit of feeling like you're arriving into the set up of a horror movie right from the off – driving through winding country roads and being greeted by skulls and flames at the entrance. It's also got one of the biggest line-ups in the country, with seven mazes, a Halloween-specific ride and live music around the park.
Shocktober Fest is famous among UK scare attractions for its Haunted Hayride. (Although a staple elsewhere, it's more of a novelty over here.) On a tractor-pulled wagon, we ride past supposed movie sets of an abandoned studio – which of course turns into an opportunity for actors to stalk past and jump on. It's also the closest you'll get to scareactors at the event – with guests squeezed onto the cart, the actors have no choice but to clamber around and over you. It's huge fun, and provides a change of pace from the mazes.
The new maze this year is Coven of 13. Although it's mostly indoors, it has a bit of a Blair Witch vibe, focussing more on creating a sense of dread than a stream of in-your-face jumps. There's some good, simple use of lighting and sound effects to draw you into the world, and it builds up to a cleverly executed final encounter. The result is something that feels like much more than the sum of its parts, and was the favourite maze this year of most people I spoke to – myself included.
Even on this first night, the scareactors did a great job – a consistent right across Shocktober Fest mazes. Many of the builds here are pretty simple, but elevated by the work of their inhabitants. With eight attractions across the event, it's important to create a variety of experiences. Tulley's are adept at this, ranging from the visceral chainsaws & pig-monsters extravaganza of Chop Shop through the more subtle, evocative experience of The Colony.
If you're looking for a pure scare attraction experience, this is the ticket. Plus, I doubt anywhere else can offer the experience of quality hog roast by a campfire while being serenaded by a zombie Elvis. Which, let's be honest, is worth the admission price alone. (It does take place on an actual farm however, so don't forget to wear appropriate footwear.)
Fright Nights at Thorpe Park
One of the staples of the UK parks for Halloween events, Fright Nights returns for its 15th year. The new maze Platform 15 follows in the tradition of drawing from the history and landscape of the park, turning the tracks of the now-closed Canada Creek Railway ride into the path for an outdoor haunt. It cleverly works in remnants of the ride (including, in the best set piece, an actual train) and plays its length to its advantage. The actors seemed a little lost at times in the wide paths on preview night, but I've heard this has improved during the run.
Although Platform 15 is the new maze, Thorpe Park are rightfully putting as much focus on the update of last year's addition The Big Top. As I noted in my review last year, it was a solid concept with lots of good moments, but one that didn't live up to its potential. Clearly taking feedback on board, the park have gone back to the drawing board and turned it into this year's standout maze. A simple strobe effect works wonders, and there's a genuine sense of playfulness throughout that was missing last year. (Standing by the exit for a while, I watched a stream of people roll out with giddy grins on their faces.) I'd head here first – not only did it have the longest queue we waited in, but it's one you'll want to do more than once. It's definitely the highlight of this year's event.
Regular mazes Cabin in the Woods, Saw: Alive and Blair Witch return. The last of those has seen a bit of a redesign to coincide with the movie franchise's reboot – reworking the previously wide-open path into a clamber through encroaching trees. This helps a lot, giving actors the ability to seemingly appear from nowhere, and making us more active participants. There's also a neat, unexpected twist at the end that caught out every group I saw.
My one reservation with the Fright Nights mazes are that they're still a little too reliant on having actors simply yell in your face as a way of generating scares. It quickly becomes just exhausting, rather than scary – and it's a shame given the talent they have at their disposal. But the maze designs continue to step up in quality year-on-year, the atmosphere around the park is perfect, and the park's excellent coasters in the dark are worth the admission alone. (On that note – as I've said in the past – I think it's also one of the best value Halloween events around, starting at £29.99.)
Screamland at Dreamland
Debuting at the reopened amusement park last year, Screamland 2015 managed to build on the unique character of the park to craft its own identity in a growing market of Halloween attractions. It's a smaller-scale event than some, but has a charm of its own.
On the press night, the full park wasn't open as it will be for the event proper, but we had a chance to experience four of the five mazes. The mazes here are more narratively-driven and theatrical than elsewhere. While there's not the level of jump-out scares you might expect, this focus really sets Screamland apart from other scare attractions.
Nowhere is this more evident that in one of the two new mazes, The Paradise Foundation. There's little in the way of 'boo holes' or surprise tricks, but there's a thoughtfully conceived narrative that evokes a sense of dread and heightens the stakes of the experience, as we journey into a clinic designed to transform its patients into the 'best version' of themselves. (As you can probably guess, things don't quite work out like that.) I found myself experiencing moments of genuine horror, as opposed to simply being made to jump.
It made me realise how rare an feeling this actually is in scare attractions. As we journey deeper into the facility, we see the victims who have come before us, asking our help – and the conceit of a haunt requires us to leave them behind. It made for a powerful, provocative experience, and achieved something much truer to what a proper horror movie does, playing on our deep-seated fears, and reflecting in an abstract way on social concerns. As I say, it wasn't the scariest of mazes – but for its uniqueness and theatricality, might be my favourite this season.
Elsewhere, the three strongest mazes from last year – Final Cut, Dead & Breakfast and Festino's Forgotten Funhouse – have been revived with changes. Not everything here was successful, but it's nice to see the park refresh them for repeat visitors. The general consensus was that Festino's showed the biggest improvement. I found it light on full-on scares, but some of the effects were some of the most impressive I've seen this season – including an impressive 'giant' clown.
This year's event is a notable step forward from a strong debut in 2015 – I'm looking forward to seeing what next year brings for the park.
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