Fall is my favorite time of year, in no small part because it’s when I get to put on my writing hat and review haunted attractions.
That passion led to last year’s debut of “NEPA Haunts.” And that led to questions from readers wondering how it all comes together.
Before 2007, I’d never been to a haunted attraction. Sure, I’d been to haunted houses, but never anything on the scale of Reaper’s Revenge or Dracula’s Forest. When a chance to join the Times Herald-Record’s review team opened up, I jumped at it.
For the next couple of years, our team reviewed the Hudson Valley’s five major haunted attractions. It was in that spirit that we began a similar exercise here at the Times Leader.
But unlike the Record’s comparably small review section, we’ve built the Times Leader’s NEPA Haunts section into a tri-state powerhouse, with reviews and information about the nearly 50 attractions within a two-hour drive of our area. Haunts outside New York City and Philadelphia are quoting Times Leader reviews, which for us is equal parts rewarding and awesome.
NEPA Haunts is constantly updated from early September to late October at timesleader.com/haunts, and the print section will appear in the Times Leader and Weekender on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
As we reported last year, the haunted-attraction industry is growing exponentially each year. It’s not uncommon for haunts to open the first or second weekend of September. So planning on NEPA Haunts begins in late spring.
From there, our review team maps out where in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey we’ll be each Friday and Saturday night for the next two months. We commit to reviewing all seven of our region’s haunts — Circle of Screams, Dracula’s Forest, Fear Hollow, Gravestone Manor, Horror Hall, Reaper’s Revenge and Walk of Terror — and then branch out to review as many of the other 40-plus as we can.
To keep things as fair as possible, we try reviewing each haunted attraction on its opening night. The theory there is that shows get perfected as the season goes on, so if we’re reviewing each attraction on its first night, it’s a fair standard we can carry across the board.
Some folks, like the operators of Circle of Screams in Dickson City, vehemently disagree with our policy. This year, they tried repeatedly to have our review teams come a week or two after opening night.
It’s clear why. Circle of Screams was by no means ready for its opening night, and our review reflected our experiences there.
Our opening-night policy wasn’t an issue for Circle of Screams’ two cross-town rivals, Dracula’s Forest and Reaper’s Revenge, both of which opened the exact same night. In each of those cases, we experienced near-perfect shows that were worth the price of admission.
As reviewer Sandy Tomcho wrote in our Circle of Screams recap, “If you advertise a certain date to be your opening night, all the kinks and imperfections should be worked out by then. If not, push back your opening date. Paying customers that attend opening night should be getting the same, flawless show customers will be getting two weeks from now. If not, lower your ticket price.”
As she noted, “Neither of those things happen.”
While our friends say how jealous they are that we get to visit haunted attractions and have a night of fun on company time, the truth is the process is a little stressful.
Each haunt typically has multiple attractions. So while last Friday we reviewed three haunts — Circle of Screams, Dracula’s Forest and Reaper’s Revenge — it actually entailed a total of nine attractions.
Because they all start to blur together, reviewers try to take notes (often in pitch black) to remind themselves of their favorite parts of each attraction. After leaving each venue, reviewers record themselves talking about what they liked (or didn’t like) from each attraction. Notes scribbled in darkness and voice memos recorded on our phones are how reviews are shaped.
We try posting reviews within hours of leaving for the night. It’s not uncommon for our review team to get home at 2 a.m., spend a few hours writing, then post reviews to timesleader.com at 4 in the morning.
Ironically, by time Halloween comes around, the last place any of us want to be is at a haunted attraction. In any given year, our review team will have visited over a dozen venues comprised of close to 100 attractions.
It’s grueling, rewarding and one of the best parts of my year.
George Spohr is executive editor of the Times Leader. He can be reached at [email protected].