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October 30, 2009

Creepy Chicago: Hitting up the city's haunted houses

The goal of a horror story, be it in a film or another medium, is to tap into our most primal fears and instincts. When we see something scary, usually we have the urge to turn away or shield our eyes—to protect ourselves, in other words. And yet we almost invariably turn back to look at it, or we peek through the gaps between our fingers. Why? For me, I enjoy the adrenaline rush. I enjoy the sensation of fright and the way it feels when you realize you’re perfectly safe.

Despite my love of screams and scares, I had never been to a haunted house until recently. Struck by the Halloween spirit, I felt nothing could be more fun than a visit to some haunted houses with friends. I imagined all the jumps and screams, and the laughter we would enjoy after. Unfortunately, few of my friends saw it that way. They saw only the jumps-and-screams part and politely declined my invitation. Other braver souls were just too busy to join me. So, alas, I attended two haunted houses this week…alone.

My very first haunted house experience began with The Fear at Navy Pier, located in Gateway Park just south of the Navy Pier entrance. What first came to mind as I walked up to the waiting line was the image of a tacky haunted house hastily thrown together on the fairgrounds. Actors wearing smeared face paint and only partly in character milled about the entrance, barking at patrons to haul their asses and get moving. For me, getting called “meat nugget” and “meatloaf” was more obnoxious than scary.

After finally being allowed in, I was treated to a pre-tour video setting up some kind of premise that I wasn’t even paying attention to. Does it matter? I was too busy fending off random actors leering at me and blowing on my neck. When I made it into the haunted house proper, it became a mad rush through a twisty, corner-filled maze that took maybe 10 minutes or less to speed through. It was a bombardment of bangs, shrieks, strobe lights, props, and gore with a huge actor count of about 70, which was simply overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the compact, maze-like design left nothing to the imagination, as I could hear every bang and boo inflicted upon the people ahead of me. Frankly, I was expecting a hunk of cheese to appear at the end. Instead, the end of the maze led me into a giant inflatable dragon’s stomach that I thought would pack a grand finale. But nothing happened. We walked through the dragon’s innards and came out its ass-end and that was it. It was like the actors who were supposed to be there were on break.

The real fear at Navy Pier was the uncertainty beforehand. I had no idea whether I was prepared for a haunted house. I was expecting to be frightened, but I ended up leaving unsatisfied and thinking $20 was steep for the product they were selling. I suspect the scariest part for most people is the waiting line. In fact, I was creeped out while waiting in line by a female actress wearing a bloodstained tea dress, blonde wig, and a bloody china doll mask. She enjoyed giggling softly while staring at me, her china doll face two inches from mine. But then again, I brought a book to read in line, so that alone warranted ridicule and scare efforts, I’m sure.

My second horror house adventure was at Chronicles of the Cursed, a big-budget Tribune Company-sponsored extravaganza located on Grand Avenue, just a couple blocks east of the Grand stop on the Blue Line. Housed under a cavernous tent, the atmosphere is like that of a freak show. The place is popular, so the wait is long. Fortunately for us braver souls, actors lurk in the crowd and surprise unsuspecting patrons, who risk losing their spots in line if they run away. All I will say is I had a live rat put on my shoulder, and I didn’t spaz out too much.

Past the waiting line is a fog-filled chamber with pounding drums and an actor dressed as a dead WGN radio host. Another person stalks the crowd holding what he claims is Glenn Beck’s baby. Make of that what you will. The real tour, which felt like a healthy 20 minutes or so in total, begins after exiting this chamber. There is more anticipation and tension in this design, as opposed to the Fear’s. There are fewer corners, meaning more room to move around. This also means more room and dark corners for an unexpected horror to lurk in. Actors lunge out of hidden passages, waiting for the right moment to strike; timing is this tour's greatest asset. From the acting, to the props, to the grand finale, it's a hell of a show. The sponsorship really shows through. The production is worth the $20 entry fee. Even going alone to this one I managed to have a stellar time.

The Fear at Navy Pier is open 7–11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (Halloween!), and 7–10 p.m. on Sunday, November 1. Chronicles of the Cursed is open from 7–11 p.m. Friday, Saturday (Halloween!), and Sunday. Check their respective web sites for more details. For nearby ghastly activities, check out the free Reynolds Club Haunted House on Friday, October 30 from 6:30­–9:00 p.m. Also see the Nightmare at 63rd Street Beach House on Friday, October 30 from 6:30–9:30 p.m. It’s a horror movie-themed set-up with two floors featuring 10 scary scenes from horror movies. Admission is $7. Happy Halloween!