NOTE: I apologize for not having a review up for the last couple of weeks. Real life intervened, and I didn’t have a chance to write a new post. I haven’t been slacking on the Halloween excursions, though, and I’ll be bringing you plenty of reviews in the future.
When it comes to history, most people don’t really think of Los Angeles as having a whole lot of it…history that isn’t related to the movie industry, anyway. The truth is, if you’re willing to look for it, there are lots of fascinating pockets of history in this town. One of the best and most famous is the Queen Mary, a luxury liner moored in Long Beach Harbor. It’s a gorgeous ship that now stands as a hotel and museum, and holds some fascinating stories from all of its famous guests to being a troop transport during World War II. But it’s probably best known for being one of the more famously haunted locations in Southern California.
While they have tours year round that explore the haunted history of the ship, every year at Halloween time, they exploit the ship’s ghostly reputation to its fullest extent with an expansive haunted attraction. For many years, it was an attraction called “Shipwreck” which featured a few haunted mazes within the ship that did little more than doll up some of the creepier areas with spooky decorations. Overall, a pretty unimpressive experience. A few years ago, however, a new company took over and created “Dark Harbor,” and they brought the scares and creepiness in a big, bad way. This year is no exception.
Normally having five mazes, this year they’ve added a sixth, and all of them really know how to unhinge your nerves (well, with the possible exception of one, but we’ll get to that later). There are three mazes on the ship itself and three in the area surrounding the ship. The level of work that is put into this attraction every year is some of the highest you’ll find, and the scare-sters really bring their A game. For many of them, it seems to be a point of pride to get at least a flinch out of even the most stalwart of attendee. For some, it might be annoying, but for me, I admire their tenacity. These are actors who love their job, and that makes the experience all the more fun.
So, let’s begin at the entrance to Dark Harbor. Most haunted attractions just have a front gate or a simple entrance. Dark Harbor dares you to enter by giving you a choice of three smoke-filled corridors, containing any sort of spook ready to jump out of the shadows, that you must traverse simply to get in. Once inside, there’s a large central area filled with many different food and drink providers, a stage with lives bands and DJs playing all night, and tons of ghouls wandering around. From there, you have access to any of the six mazes.
What I love about the mazes at Dark Harbor is that they put a strong emphasis on the “dark” part of it. The mazes are designed for darkness, claustrophobia, and disorientation. It ramps up your nerves when you feel turned around or so completely engulfed in darkness that you have no choice but to walk forward and pray you don’t bump into anything. A bit of advice for those who want to make the most of their night: tickets come with an optional Fast Fright Pass upgrade for an extra $20. I highly recommend it. The maze attendants only let people into the mazes in small groups with large gaps between them, so a wait in a regular line can be up to two hours. A Fast Pass can reduce that wait exponentially. I don’t think I waited more than fifteen minutes to get into any one maze. It’s well worth the extra money.
And now on to my reviews of the mazes themselves. This list goes in order from my least favorite to my most favorite.
Deadrise – This is the newest addition to Dark Harbor, and I won’t lie, it’s a bit disappointing. It’s not a bad maze generally speaking, but compared to the scares and spooky atmosphere that the others bring, this one just doesn’t quite reach their level. The theme with this one is that it’s a ghost ship that rises out of the deep every year, and its doomed crew are desperate to be rescued. The maze itself is made up of an interconnected series of cargo containers. It goes a bit heavy on the fog to try to create an atmosphere of confusion, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The actors tend to use the old trick of banging on walls to scare you, but since you’re primarily in rooms that are entirely metal, the sounds reverberate so strongly that it’s more deafening than actually scary. There were no set pieces that really stood out, and the actors all had pretty much the same shtick: warn you not to go any further. Overall, while it had impressive artistry, it wasn’t all that scary.
Containment – This maze goes through the medical wing of the Queen Mary, and it’s full of deranged doctors and crazed patients. In the past, this maze has had a more tangible theme of some tragic viral outbreak on the ship or a group of psychopathic doctors doing all sorts of unspeakable experiments. This year, it seemed to lack focus. It brought in the viral outbreak and crazy doctors, but also added some half-done zombie apocalypse. It takes a lot of twists and turns through some areas that are creepy enough on their own, and that’s all in its favor, but the unfocused theme of the maze really detracted from it to me. Still, not a bad journey through some creepy parts of the ship.
Submerged – This maze is a lot of fun. It begins in an area of the ship that once served as barracks for troops during World War II, so it has a much tighter feel to it. The theme of this maze is, as you’d expect, a part of the ship that went under and has been resurrected. The actors tend to be mostly seaweed-covered drowning victims. The best part of this maze, however, is when it leaves the barracks and takes you into the luxury liner areas of the ship. While some actors will try to scare you, others will just wander around in period costumes, creating a much more ghostly feel to the whole experience. The maze ends by taking you into the pool area of the ship, an area that is generally off limits to people who visit. This is also an area of the ship that is documented as being genuinely haunted. There doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of activity in this part outside of some creepy lights and one or two actors taunting you. You never know, you might actually encounter a real ghost in this maze.
Village of the Damned – Outside the Queen Mary is a small replica of an Alpine village…because, why not? This gets converted into one of the more impressive haunted mazes that is in no way related to the horror movie of the same name. Instead, you wander through a village where they inhabitants are psychotic cannibals and bizarre mutants. Some areas have been decorated to look like forests, and actors have tons of nooks and crannies from which to spring. This maze also features a hallway with inflatable walls. The walls close in around you until you have to push your way through. It never ceases to freak out many of the people who enter it. This year, they also added a couple brightly lit surgical rooms that stand in stark contrast to the near-pitch dark of the rest of the maze. It’s actually quite effective. This is a very creative maze with a lot of very well done artistry.
Hellfire – While the majority of the mazes at Dark Harbor are very well done, of a near-perfect length, and bring a very high level of artistry and passion for scares, there are two that stand out to me as having something special. This is the first of those two. Hellfire takes you deep into the engineering section of the ship, which is creepy enough without anything added. The makers of this maze have done their best in past years to turn this area into a gateway to Hell itself (hence the title), and they pulled it off in a way that could potentially unhinge your psyche. While they have the basic tropes of the haunted mazes like actors jumping out from hidden corners and making unsettling noises to put you on edge, the real central scare of this maze is its ability to disorient and confuse you. Most of the corridors are long and narrow, and so dark that you can barely see anything around you. There is always a sense of something lurking nearby, so when somebody finally does jump at you, the scare is that much deeper. The decorations are somewhat sparse, but highly effective, but the real kicker is the point where you have to cross a bridge over a cargo hold. The bridge is rigged with hydraulics to simulate a sudden snap once you’re on it, and even people with solid nerves of steel will feel their hearts race in that moment. When it comes to designing something that will confirm your fear of the dark, this maze is a masterwork. In my adventures, I’ve only encountered one other maze that did this even more effectively…but that’s for another review.
The Cage – This is the shortest of the mazes at Dark Harbor, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in a complete shock to your senses. While Hellfire is designed to be a gateway to Hell, The Cage is one of those circles within Hell that Dante was too freaked out to document. It begins by deliberately doing everything it can to disorient you. You walk through a tunnel that is surrounded by pulsating and spinning lights, crossing a bridge that has shifting panels. Once you make it through the tunnel, you then have to work your way through several small rooms that are pitch dark. You have no choice but to feel around for the entrance to the next room. There tends to be a bottleneck of people in this area while they try to find their way through. Once you get through those rooms, you enter what I can only describe as the deranged imagination child of Clive Barker and Trent Reznor. The corridors are made entirely of wire fences, and they’re extremely narrow. All around you, denizens of Hell are torturing victims and beckoning you to join them. The sounds of industrial music and knives being sharpened surround you. It is a complete assault on the senses that doesn’t let up. There are disembodied heads hanging from ropes, dangling bodies that you have to push your way through, and ghouls with some of the freakiest masks you’ll ever see walking up behind you. Very little has to jump out at you, because you see insanity at every angle. This is one of the few mazes where I saw people so paralyzed with fear that they couldn’t even make it the short distance to the nearest panic exit without help. It’s a brilliantly executed maze that will leave you quaking by the end.
So that’s Dark Harbor. It’s one of my favorite Halloween experiences of the year. This is an attraction that doesn’t pull punches and absolutely delights in scaring you senseless. If you’re looking for something that brings the horror in a truly satisfying way, this is not one to be missed.