Nightmare Acres is a Spooky Woods Walk That Needs More Woods (4 stars)

Nightmare Acres is an outdoor haunt near Hartford, Connecticut, on the grounds of but separate from Nomads Outdoor Adventure, a tree-to-tree ropes course challenge. The attraction itself takes 32 minutes, or call it 42 minutes including the pleasant stroll along a forest trail as you enter and exit. Just walking through the grounds to Nightmare Acres is attractive forest walk under the night sky, and you’ll pass by the ropes and wires in the trees as you enter, and a pond, listening to the ambient sounds of crows and monsters being played. Parking is $3.

While Nightmare Acres is technically a woods walk, every part of it is built up with walls and props, as though you are inside a haunted house. When an attraction, such as The Haunted Graveyard at Lake Compounce, has a mountain of set design, you can fill a very long, half-hour walk through the woods.

Unfortunately, Nightmare Acres does not have a mountain of set design, which undercuts its visitors having an immersive experience. Many Halloween attractions make do with what they find from construction sites or junk yards, which is why you’ll often see a rather ordinary bathtub in a Halloween haunt. Nightmare Acres takes this trend to an extreme. Household furniture creates a haunted porch, haunted bathroom, haunted bedroom with stuffed animals, and a haunted laundry room, with a clothes washer, clothes dryer, and clothes hung from clotheslines. (I always wonder as I am pushing through such hangings with my face and hands if they ever get washed). There’s a haunted dining room with some tables. Some blood and rot are added, but it was not that scary, just decrepit. There’s a haunted kitchen with pots. There’s a sitting room with two haunted comfy chairs. There’s haunted playground equipment, and a haunted outdoor table and chairs.

To me, all of this could have been cleared away, because an undecorated forest path is scarier and more attractive than filler. Take the creative energy and budget that you do have and concentrate it into a few locations, for example haunted shacks, dotted along an otherwise bare forest trail. Woods at night are naturally spooky!

We found some old cabinets. Now they’re haunted cabinets.

If you’re getting bored reading this review, then you’re getting the idea. There’s even a haunted gardening shed with a watering pot, thermometer, gardening tools, plant food, fake plants, a bird cage, two rakes, and a snow shovel. It’s just not spooky. There’s a haunted garage with garage junk such as a rotary saw and license plates. It’s interesting that, except for theme parks like Canobie Lake Park, Six Flags, and Lake Compounce, that Nightmare Acres is the only Halloween attraction I’ve ever been to — out of 60 that I have reviewed — with a metal detector for security, and yet there are blades (haunted garage) and shears (garden shed) on its walls. (Nightmare Acres is east of Hartford, but Hartford’s high-crime areas are mainly to its west, and it’s impossible to secure an outdoor location, so the heightened security seems unnecessary unless there’s been some incident I’m unaware of.) 

Most of the set design is filler, such as black-painted plywood, wooden fencing, corrugated metal, scrap wood, and wooden trellises. You’ll push through hanging sheets, hanging cloth strips, hanging foam boffers, and a squeeze walkway where both left and right walls balloon out. (Again, I wonder whether these things ever get washed.) The bare ground is even and free from tripping hazards. Sometimes, the rooms were not well-lit enough to see the props.

Despite my complaints, there are a few high points to Nightmare Acres that save the attraction from a lowest rating. There’s a whole bedroom where the entire room shakes. (Note: coming in and out of the bedroom, a touch more lighting is needed for safety.) You pass through a real, hollowed-out school bus. There’s a puppeted giant goat head, a chainsaw guy, and some very creative statues made from woven branches. There’s a “laser lake”, a plane of laser light that, with fog, creates an opaque horizontal surface, like a swamp. And there’s a laser light cone that lures you hypnotically in. There’s a carnival scene with a stage and giant clown head.

Most of the actors were dressed in thrift store street clothing, with minimal makeup, but many had real lines to say. Having some dialogue sets a scene and elevates the theatricality of the experience! I loved the actor on stilts dressed like a druid god with a deer head. Kudos to the clown contortionist, which I’ve never seen before at a Halloween attraction. Kudos to the guy in the bus, to the witch who grilled us, and to the guy who painted a face on his bare chest! The path has very few animatronics but a few good mannequins.

In some ways, Nightmare Acres shows a good knowledge of visitor psychology. For example, at the entrance, they explicitly told us that, if we got too scared, we could ask one of the actors or security staff to show us a quick exit, the opposite of the experience I had at nearby Fright Haven, where actors didn’t seem trained for that. Once you exit the attraction, there’s a common area with a food truck (just hot dogs), portable toilets, and tables, for you to sit with your friends and enjoy the night air for a while. That’s lovely, and I was told they plan to have a bonfire next year.

However, in places Nightmare Acres didn’t seem to “get” the visitor experience, making me wonder whether they attend to feedback. For example, along the path the ceiling drops to half-height, perhaps 4 feet high, so that visitors have to bend over for sixty seconds, pushing through waves of cloth strips. I guess it’s supposed to be scary because it’s claustrophobic, but upon exiting, the gal ahead of me commented, “That was annoying!” and I silently agreed. Also, slowing down your guests can lead to bunch-ups. Of course you ask guests not to use their cell phones, but it happens so rarely that you don’t need to train actors to interrupt the attraction to enforce it. (Think, for example, of a movie theatre, where people really should stay off their phones, but it’s too disruptive to have security enforce it.)

There’s another area that’s a maze of plywood, where the actors basically keep you trapped unless you can find the exit. However, you can’t feel your way along the walls, because you’ll get a splinter. This becomes frustrating after a couple of minutes. The actors — maybe they get bored — should have sensed earlier that their guests were ready to leave, and let us exit before it became annoying. Outside the attraction, in the seating area with tables, I was disappointed that their tarot card reader was a true believer. Halloween is just for fun, man. We don’t need your anti-scientific mumbo jumbo.

While Nightmare Acres is a letdown in its set design — it’s outdoors but without the natural forest beauty because it’s all-enclosed — its actors often had real scenes to act out, and it did have some special effects. The most positive thing I can say is that I did sense a drive at Nightmare Acres to be continually improving. This is no charity event where the volunteers don’t care. I am certain that Nightmare Acres will grow and thrive. But for this year, I’ll give Nightmare Acres just 4 stars. Note their special “Lights Out” and “It’s Okay to Touch Me” events.

For more, see the Nightmare Acres website.