Halloween Review: Spooky World, Zombie Apocalypse, and Barrett’s Haunted Mansion

Sometimes theatre is too passive for me. You sit down, shut up, and let the experience wash over you. Halloween attractions turn that on its head. Events INSIDER lists more than 130 places where you can get immersed in spooky action in New England! This week, I visited three south of Boston.

Spooky World presents Terror in Rhode Island (3 stars)

Spooky World presents Terror in Rhode Island is the first haunted attraction in Rhode Island that I’ve reviewed, and since it’s just a few minutes’ drive from Providence, the location couldn’t be better. You’ve heard of Spooky World of course from the carpet bomb advertising and its long history in several locations in New England, including this year in southern New Hampshire at Nightmare New England. I’m forced to confess that I was skeptical. When I visited Spooky World locations in 2003 and 2007, they seemed more like cash cows than theatrical experiences with artistic visions.

So I was pleased to find a slight improvement at the Rhode Island location in Cranston. Spooky World there is set up more like a carnival, with sideshow games, vendors, and big inflatable attractions such as the “Wrecking Ball”, where you see if a giant inflatable wrecking ball will knock you over. The way to appreciate Spooky World is to see it as a carnival night, a place to have fun, rather than getting the ultimate scare. From my theatre reviewer perspective, about half the actors did not seem thrilled to be there, and there were few special effects. All three attractions are temporary plywood constructions set up outdoors.

  • At the Festival of Fear, which is not a festival but rather an attraction, you wear sanitized 3D glasses and walk through a painted maze where the colors pop out. This was a notch above the 3D attraction I’ve seen at Witches Woods, which was mostly paint splatters, because they created faux “holes” in the wall, but despite good intentions the low production quality of the walk and random, non-thematic experiences didn’t create the suspension of disbelief I normally hope for. That’s my high-falutin’ way of saying it was more cheesy than scary.
  • The Devil’s Playground is a ‘corn field’, again using plywood rather than an actual field of corn, the metaphor further confused by there being a cemetery in the corn field. The attraction is almost entirely actors trying to startle you rather than having believably twisted or gruesome scenes, but it’s nice to be outdoors at night, and kudos especially to the women actors in this attraction.
  • Darkness Falls while still having the rough and low budget shape of a temporary installation was the most indoorsy and scariest of the three main attractions. A touch of good staging was on display with the farting blob man and human body parts chef, but the attraction did not show creativity consistently and even these were more gross out than scary. There wasn’t enough lighting for us to enjoy the scary portraits in the entranceway. I’m sorry to say that we found staffers smoking outside the entrance, and the entrance and exit had uneven footing, so watch your step.

Spooky World is not your best destination if you are a hard core Halloween enthusiast willing to drive far, but if you’re a teenager who just wants to get out for the night, the carnival experience and convenient location near Providence will make for a great time. Although the attractions deserved only 2 stars out of 5, because of the carnival atmosphere and kickin’ DJ music I’m upping it to a grade of 3 stars. Spooky World has carnival food available (they also feature alcohol, which depending on how much you like drunk people can either add to or subtract from your experience), porta-potty facilities, and not-so-scary days for younger kids on October 20 and 27. VIP tickets to rush you to the front of the line are available. Don’t forget to wear boots if there has been recent rain.

Barrett’s Haunted Mansion (5 stars)

Wherever I went at Barrett’s Haunted Mansion I heard a little girl shrieking… and I realized it was me! If you’re willing to travel 40 minutes from Boston, Barrett’s Haunted Mansion is again this year my pick as the best haunted attraction in Massachusetts, and my 2nd favorite in New England. Whereas at Spooky World you have an entire carnival walk to stroll up and down, you’ll be mostly waiting in line at Barrett’s, but your hosts have thoughtfully provided several costumed actors to work the lines, entertaining you as you wait.

We had a great dinner at the restaurant in their large heated outdoor space, and found two main attractions:

  • Barrett’s Haunted Mansion is the main house, a 15-minute walk through a permanent, year-round house. Production values are high and completely unique — custom made rather than storebought effects. Every year they gut from the inside and rebuild with sets designed around a single theme. This year the theme is a spooky Alice in Wonderland, where for example you are confronted with a dead end room with no exit, just tiny doors with a bottle that says “Drink Me”. Every actor seemed to have a well thought out place in the horrors, and my group agreed that the eeriest room was the one with plastic-wrapped corpses hanging from the ceiling. To me, someone who is not a teenager and doesn’t drink, and is impressed more by psychological thrillers than gross out horror, this was my ideal destination. I have to say as well that Barrett’s is such a local tradition that teenagers were out in force and their energy and animated shouting to each other were delightful and infectious. You can’t help but have a big smile when you’re waiting in line and see a hideous clown come up from behind an unsuspecting stranger.
  • The Cell is new this year, and a welcome addition since the house is great but a bit short. The Cell is an indoor prison themed maze that you wander, looking for the exit. Most haunted attractions force you down a single pathway, so getting to explore and return and get lost was a creative twist, and being locked in with the inmates (costumed actors) worked well. Unfortunately, to make a maze truly confusing you have to make it all look the same, and the theme of having cell bars let you see what was coming from all directions. The production quality didn’t include much beyond the cell bars, and the actors were in such close quarters that it was a challenge for them to be both menacing and believably not touching you, although there was a fog room corner. Still, a great way to get a touch more from your visit, and you can spend as much time in there as you want.

Make sure to get the coupon from the website, and consider attending on October 16 or 22 which are “blackout” nights with all lights off — not for the faint of heart! You can also get a behind-the-scenes tour. VIP tickets to hop you to the front of the line are available. Trust me, if you live anywhere near Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, you need to go.

Abington Zombie Apocalypse (4.5 stars)

The Abington Zombie Apocalypse is a brand new attraction a half mile from Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, and don’t think of them as competitors. It just gives you a reason to travel from further away and do both attractions. Despite a few first-year rough edges, the concept is completely unique and I am certain to give them a 5 star rating next year and in the future. They take interactivity to a whole new level. Instead of walking through a dark maze being yelled at by costumed actors, the event begins when you drive up and are greeted by a guard in military gear with a machine gun, who tells you where to park.

You stand in line as though waiting to be “processed” as surivors of a zombie apocalypse. Once inside the building — a permanent installation but with an interior that lacks high production quality — they put a bag over your head (they wash them, I asked) and you’re taken to “quarantine” to make sure that you’re not going to change into a zombie. While you wait, you hear all around you gun fire, with zombies. I’ve never seen anything like it, a creative way to get around the “no touching” rule and heighten your experience. Then get this, an officer hands you a fake gun and you get to run around shooting zombies, who leap out from every angle.

There were far fewer high schoolers at this event and it’s clearly designed more for adults and those who want the ultimate scare. I’m told that many choose to leave early and some even pee their pants. To me, it was the concept rather than the execution that grabbed me. With a few years’ experience of polishing, this is going to be the attraction to beat in New England, and the experience wasn’t short — it was a full 20 minutes. The lines weren’t that long, but you can pay a VIP price and go to the front if you wish.

About the rough edges I mentioned, the walk through the space was a bit random. Of course you should expect chaos when hunting zombies, but the experience would be better with a plotline, some named characters, and a heightened sense of story, complete with a “boss” at the end like in a videogame. The set design was too basic, and the actors had a big challenge, which was how to rush us headlong and yet stop before touching us so that we could shoot them. I suspect in the future the actors will leap out to startle visitors, but then more slowly advance, or in greater numbers, and not die with the first shot. At one point we had to crawl through a section of drainage pipe and I’d love to see a lot more of that. That being said, I feel heartless giving the experience only a 4.5 stars. You absolutely need to give it a “shot”!