Over the weekend we went to check out our first haunted house of the season, “The Warehouse: Project 4.1” up in Rockville, MD. Late September is a little early for Halloween activities, even for me, but we were able to get a Living Social half-off deal and were going to be in the area anyway, so we went ahead and kicked off haunt-season early. I won’t go into too much detail as to not spoil anyone, but I would like to get my general thoughts about the experience out of my system.
The marketing for this house had me really excited. The website was solid (the first test anything has to pass for me) and the concept seemed interesting. Much to-do was made about it being the first and only all-indoor, “urban” haunted attraction in the area. I was particularly interested in seeing what creative ways they might utilize an indoor space since we’re hoping to do a puzzle event in a controlled indoor environment sometime soon. The promo video for the house was completely uninspired and uninspiring, but I was definitely willing to let that slide since I rarely even watch those anyway. In general, I felt like the marketing was pushing a “this is going to be something a little different” vibe.
When I imagined what “The Warehouse: Project 4.1″ was going to be like, I envisioned it taking place in, well, a warehouse. That was actually kind of a big selling point for me. Instead, I was surprised to find (and almost didn’t manage to find) that the venue was a unit in a strip mall, next-door to a Toys “R” Us. Not what I was expecting, but I was still just as interested in seeing how they utilized the space.
A staff member handed us waivers and lead us through the door and into a lobby area with some staffed tables. One big red floodlight was the only decoration, and that was good enough for me. After handing in our waivers and before doing any ticket business, we were guided to an escalator (!) heading upstairs into a decorated area with laser lights and screaming sounds and such while a security guard actor warned us about the zombie virus. Going upstairs at all surprised me, and the entire haunted house turned out to be staged on the second floor of the strip mall, spanning a couple of downstairs shops I suppose.
Upstairs and around the corner, we were finally in the actual ticket/registration area. I really liked the way they sort of made it feel like the experience was already starting (as you went up the escalator) before you had even paid for anything. The multiple stages of entry and registration also seemed to be good preparation for larger crowds later in the season. (That being said, the ticket line was a bit disorganized despite the small crowd that night.)
The waiting area post-purchase had a well-produced video being projected on the wall and a large chalkboard wall where you could “write your last words” before entering the house. We didn’t get much of a chance to check out these features since the line was pretty short, but it was nice to see some effort at keeping what probably will be large crowds entertained while they wait.
A staff member/DJ got us all lined up to enter the house, giving us the choice of being escorted or going it alone. We were both a little surprised that we would just get to go through the whole thing by ourselves and not be lumped with another group (though that might have only been the case because it wasn’t super busy). We opted for alone, of course, and made our way down the hall.
(Here is where I’ll have to refrain from getting too specific.) The theme of the house was some sort of zombie virus outbreak. There were some flavor newspaper-style posters in the front window, and then the video playing in the waiting area, but we didn’t really get a chance to check them out. The maze of the house took us through a mishmash of different room themes, including the titular “warehouse,” an operating room, some zombie holding cells, and offices, to name a few. If there was a larger narrative at play to connect these rooms, it was impossible to extract as the only characters in the entire house were zombies of some sort and their only lines were a shout or growl of some sort. (I do have to point out one exception here for a character I’m calling Clicky Doctor. He was a “normal,” white-haired, older doctor with an eerie demeanor who kept his hands behind his back and clicked something, maybe a pen, loudly and rapidly as he approached us. Nick says he didn’t hear any clicking, so maybe I’m just crazy, but it was super unsettling. Clicky Doctor stole the show for me, probably because he wasn’t a zombie.)
If you want to go ahead and call a haunted house an “interactive” experience (which works especially well in this instance since the house was self-guided) like a video game, then the “gameplay” of this house consisted solely of walking, encountering a zombie, being shouted at and/or followed, and then moving on. There was a point about a third of the way through when I realized “This is all it’s going to be the whole time, it’s not going to get any more interesting,” and I got kind of depressed. By the end, I was almost feeling like I had been duped. I’m always on the hunt for a unique, novel experience, and I really latched on to that image with this place. Instead, I got about the most stereotypical cookie-cutter “haunted house” experience imaginable, minus chainsaws. It was kind of a Doug’s Bad Trip moment for me, and made me feel a little silly.
All of that being said, the house was not without its high notes. The sets seemed quite well-made and there were some nice special effects here and there. The actors did their best with what they had, and actor placement was especially well-done with a few instances of zombies above us (nobody ever looks up) and a nice trick where we appeared to need to choose between two paths to progress, and a zombie would inevitably pop out of the one we moved toward first. The last room was great with a fun build-up and an extra surprise at the end that actually had me running a bit and scared enough to want to be out of the room quickly.
My one hope going in was to see at least one thing done in an interesting or new way, and that was definitely fulfilled, but in general this house left a lot to be desired. There were a few rooms where you could imagine that maybe the creators had some sort of vision, but for everything else it seemed like the creative direction stopped at “Put a zombie on it.” It occurred to us afterward that neither of us have actually been to very many typical haunted houses, and that Scare for a Cure was definitely coloring our perspective quite a bit. They definitely recognize that a series of awkward stalemate interactions with lineless actors who can’t even touch you is not (or at least should not be) a sustainable model for the haunted house experience.
Anyway, as the title of the post states, this haunted house experience mostly just left me frustrated. If you’re going to go through the entire process of funding, marketing, building, and running a haunted house, why not try and make it interesting and unique? I’m trying to imagine what kids tell their friends after they’ve gone to a house like this. ”There was this one part where a zombie jumped out at me!” And that’s literally ALL the parts. Arg. Now I’m really hesitant about the other haunted houses I was thinking about going to. Are they just going to be more of the same? Is that maze I was excited about actually going to be a maze, or just a maze-shaped potato? Where can I find a unique, memorable experience that I wouldn’t regret paying full price for?
Haunt season is off to a rocky start!