My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

The Art of the Scare

by Drew Rowsome

Adrenaline is a funny drug to be hooked on. It is organic - the body manufactures it and it does no harm physical or mental - whose after-effects are incredibly calming and relaxing. And there is no need to find a shady supplier, Canada's Wonderland's Halloween Haunt is willing and able to scare you and get the adrenaline pumping through your veins in a perfectly legitimate safe manner. Adrenaline is however, addictive.

For many years now the Halloween season has kicked off with the launch of Halloween Haunt. Thousands and thousands have been frightened, delighted and been made to scream uncontrollably. It's a welcome extension of their good work in the roller coaster therapy field. One can wander and stroll - more likely walk as quickly as possible if not run in fear - the many mazes, and dodge the wandering costumed characters who are having a great time scaring the rubes. And, as a bonus, one can ride the thrill rides in the dark with the wonderful addition of fog and the disorientation that comes from being in the blackest inkiest part of the night. And, if you can open your eyes when at the height of a coaster track, the lights of the city are presented in a breathtaking sparkling vista.

Creating a good scare is a logistical art form. Wonderland's Manager of Technical and Event Services, Danusia Rogacki, who is responsible for the creation of the mazes and atmosphere, explained her techniques in an interview and in 2013 she and her team are operating at the height of their powers. Everything is bigger and better and the staff is well-versed in the distract and then startle scare technique. Classic mazes like Mother Noose, Cornstalkers and Streets of the Undead have been enlarged and spruced up. If one has the nerve to stop and look at the detail it is quite astounding. Terror of London is now a massive, immersive journey to a Dickensian London with pubs and a powerful stained glass set piece but with the added bonus of Jack the Ripper and his ilk potentially lurking in every well-crafted shadow.

In my favourite of all the dark walkthroughs, Clowns at Midnight, it took three trips through to catch the clever accents - an oversized shoe rack with an oversized nose rack right elicited laughter which can be a relief if one is in terror - and to pause long enough to figure out how the polka dot clowns detach from the polka dot walls and come to life. Apparently 20 to 30 percent of the world is terrified of clowns - hence Rogacki claiming that using clowns for a scare is "just too easy" - but I am firmly in a different percentage and would like to live there. The circus is a childhood memory that whether we experienced it ourselves, which I fortunately have, or just have absorbed through our culture is firmly ingrained. To turn wonder into fear and greasepaint into ghoulish gasps is a common literary, theatrical and filmic device but one that is done very well at Clowns at Midnight. As profoundly frightening as a visit to this big top is, it is also naggingly disturbingly erotic which is the very best part of Halloween.

Of course artfulness can almost go too far. One of the new attractions this year is Sci-Fi House and it is a visual stunner. One enters through a garden infested with Audreys from Little Shop of Horrors and a backyard that it is a suburban '50s fantasy except for the giant tarantula in the sandbox. Inside are riffs on classic campy '50s horror films and a subtle but scathing critique on the nuclear family and our entire culture of conformity. Some sections are even designed to appear to be black and white to match the television sets that families tended to be glued to and where most of us first saw many of the films referenced. A trick window into the backyard, a bathroom invaded by tentacles and a kitchen with poltergeisted cupboards all add to the fun and are wonderfully realistic trompe l'oeils.

Sci-Fi House is an intriguing hybrid of fright factory and art installation. By the end of the "haunted house" one is more horrified by the family photos carefully crafted and placed on the walls than by the monsters who have been jumping out at one. Horror films and literature have always been concerned with the horrors within but it is rare to see it expressed so succinctly in theme park attraction. But of course subtext and semiotic analysis are totally eclipsed by the adrenaline and screaming, it would be intriguing to see Sci-Fi House in a quiet gallery setting where one could savour the intricate work Rogacki and her team have done.

It should be noted that all of my pseudo-intellectual postulating was done after -at the time I was too busy jumping out of my skin, screaming and laughing, and working up the nerve to ride the Leviathan again. Not bad for an evening of terror - a huge jolt of adrenaline and a multi-faceted memory.

Halloween Haunt runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night (and Thursday, Oct 24) until Sun, Oct 27 at Canada's Wonderland, 9580 Jane St, Vaughan.