Queen Mary's Latest and Greatest Haunted Attraction Triggers Nostalgia
Article and Photos by: Scott Feinblatt
An Old Feeling in a New Haunt
There was a coolness in the air, and the Santa Ana winds were making a slight fuss. It was as though the early
October atmosphere was reflecting the all-but-forgotten chill I used to feel whenever my father loaded the
family into the car for our annual jaunt to Amling's Haunted House, in Melrose Park, IL. Nowadays,
experiencing the sensation of fear from either a movie or a haunted theme park is as vague and distant a
memory as the
one-time staple of Chicagoland.
Maybe I still like going to haunted houses to recall the magic.
Maybe it's because I love studying the artistry and psychology of
frightening people, so I can reflect them in my own work. Maybe
it's because I enjoy immersing myself in foreign environments to
escape the banality of modern life. It's probably a combination of
the three. Whatever the case, I was on the press list to attend
Media Night at
Queen Mary's Dark Harbor. It wasn't the first year
I'd been invited as a member of the press, but this year it was
different.

Back in the 80's, comedian
Rich Hall introduced viewers of the
HBO comedy series
Not Necessarily the News to sniglets. A
sniglet is “any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but
should”. While sniglets are no longer part of popular society's
zeitgeist, horror fans should know that there is a sniglet called
“snargle”. While the Urban Dictionary actually has an entry on the
word
snargle, it is dissimilar from the original meaning, which was
“to lessen the impact of a horror film by filtering it through one's
fingers”. Snargling, in the classical sense, is a legitimate practice
that can be witnessed in derivative forms at haunted attractions.
This year, while attending Queen
Mary's haunted attraction, Dark
Harbor, without a companion, I realized
that I have unconsciously been a
snargler all along – it just took the right
circumstances for me to come to terms
with this. Specifically, while functioning
in the capacity of “protector” for
various friends and loved ones, I had
taken refuge behind their overt
displays of terror and provided the
rock to which they could cling (or
behind which they could hide). But
without someone to protect – and
especially in the context of Dark
Harbor's new freak shows – I realized
that I can be just as vulnerable as my
frails.
I am not yet enough of a scholar on haunted
theme parks to know if the freak show
attractions are unique to Dark Harbor, but
they were an effective way to combat some
of the typical deficits of these annual
diversions. Essentially, the five freak shows
were large shipping storage containers –
each with its own theme and design. Guests
were made to experience each attraction
one group at a time or, in my case, all by
myself. Here's how it worked: a red shirt
(park employee wearing a red shirt) would
peek his head into the given freak show
attraction to ensure that the previous guest
had vacated and that the performer was
ready for his next victim; the red shirt would
then open the large metal door for the guest
and slam it shut once the guest was inside.
Each of the freak shows had its own theme. In some of them, there was a lighted vignette at the end of the
corridor with darkness and potential hiding spots for performers along the way; in others, there was no vignette,
per se – only a decorative theme that would last throughout the experience. While inside, there were no other
guests to alert you to the general whereabouts of the performers; there was no way to guarantee that there
even was a hidden performer prior to the scene at the end of the corridor; and in two of the freak shows, the
map changed – instead of a straight shoot through, there were twists leading to further corridors, adding to the
disorientation. Enter the power of the mind; trepidation overcame me within each of these walk-in canisters,
making for a very effective shock-in-the-box experience.
There were six actual mazes. Two of them
were located on the ship (Submerged and
Hellfire), and the other four (The Village
of the Damned, Containment, Deadrise
and Circus) were spread throughout the
expansive fairground. Each maze had its
own theme; collectively, the mazes at
Dark Harbor contained outstanding
production designs, featuring: great
lighting, cool animatronics (dummies that
would spring to violent life when guests
stepped on floor triggers) and terrific
performers. It was a nice surprise to
discover that some of the unexploited
potential scares that I lamented in last
year's
review of Dark Harbor had been
taken full advantage of; specifically, there
were more moments when apparent
props sprang to life, and there were more
performers subtly concealed within the
designs of the mazes.
My enjoyment of each maze correlated with the incidental guests with
whom I walked through. Being by myself, this also heightened my
awareness of the “types” of guests. There were the couples and small
groups of friends who were locked into the mode of being scared
(being in the company of these types of guests facilitated the greatest
scare factor – second only to my being totally alone, of course).
There were the “macho” types who vacillated on a spectrum that
begins with utterances like, “That's so
stupid” and concludes with:
“Dude, that was pretty cool, let me get my cellphone and take a
picture of this fool”. There were the Asian tourists who used their
cellphones to take flash pictures of various scenes within the mazes
(no stereotyping intended, folks, I'm just reporting what I
experienced). And, finally, there were the pre-teen girls who sought
security through bonding themselves into a collective mass; I
witnessed a couple of varieties of this syndrome. In one situation,
they formed a daisy chain with their hands on one another's
shoulders and actually began to sing in a chorus to keep their fear at
bay (whether they were singing a pop song or something akin to
“Kumbaya” is an unknown). In another situation, the gaggle literally
squished itself together and moved as a massive clump throughout
the maze.
The fairground at Dark Harbor
contained themed food stands, live
entertainment (including bands, Djs,
a magician), rides (featuring a zip
line, a ferris wheel and a mechanical
bull), a hookah lounge,
haunt-themed displays and
interactive performers; it seems to
be a given that most haunted
amusement parks now contain
performers who delight in sneaking
up on guests when the guests let
their guards down.
Although the environment was much more elaborate and expansive, Queen Mary's Dark Harbor did satisfy my
annual quest to recreate the sensations that I first experienced at the humble fairgrounds and haunted house of
Amling's flower shop. The fact that I started more times in one evening than I can recall doing over the past 20
years was a welcome bonus, and all it took was being utterly alone within the midst of illusory threats.
To see additional photos of Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, visit the
Horror Works
Facebook page.