I was told that Land of Illusion in Middletown was a “haunted house on steroids,” which made me apprehensive. Haunted houses are not my thing. To me, being scared is not the visceral thrill of experiencing mortal terror without actual danger. It’s just … being scared.
The last haunted house I visited was 20 years ago when I was a college student. It was a dirt-cheap affair, where I wandered in pitch blackness, using the wall to feel my way forward and waiting tensely either for somebody to jump out at me or for my hand to brush across something unidentifiable and sticky.
Fortunately, Land of Illusion didn’t exploit that particular phobia. Except for the occasional strobe light, all attractions were fairly well lit. The downside was that I showed up right when the park opened and, being a member of the media, I was given a complementary fast pass. Needless to say, this meant I had little choice initially but to sample the attractions alone, which subverted my carefully prepared plan of hiding in the middle of a good-size group and, in the event of an emergency, grab the nearest female to use as a shield.
The Temple of Terror: Probably not the best attraction if your haunted house strategy is to ease into it. You begin immediately in an enclosed room, where a demonic voice chastises you for trespassing, emphasized by a bucking and heaving floor that’s rough on anyone (me) who’s balance-challenged. Then the door opens and you proceed immediately through a smothering inflatable, which is great for claustrophobia and experiencing that universal horror movie moment where all of your friends disappear after you turn away for one second.
Fortunately, things calm down after that and you can start enjoying the theme of the place, that of an enormous Egyptian tomb filled with pharaohs, jackals and ibises. The highlights are an enormous, grasping demon and an Indiana Jones-like booby trap where the ceiling appears to collapse on top of you.
Killer Klowns: It would’ve been better if I had a clown phobia, but alas, I don’t. It’s a shame because the klowns really gave it their all, right from the very beginning where I was greeted by one who straightforwardly explained that he’s much better now.
Somehow, I was incorporated into a group consisting of a girls’ basketball coach and six or seven of his players. Our first real obstacle was a dizzy tunnel, where we moved along a catwalk through a spinning tube of brilliant colors. Anyone who lingered too long would start feeling like they were spinning, too, so it was in my best interest to move through quickly, right? Unfortunately, it turned out the coach knew the klown guarding the tunnel, and they both decided this was a great place to stop and catch up.
After the tunnel, we were herded into an outdoor maze consisting of high chain-link fencing, complicated by strobe lighting and two klowns who followed us about, barking threats and innuendos.
I’ve never been good at mazes or puzzles, especially when distracted or under duress. So I was left wondering what would’ve happened if I had been alone. Surely all the Land of Illusion attractions have a certain interest in ferrying through as many people as possible as quickly as possible, so I wondered how long it would’ve taken for one of the klowns, after several minutes of nasty taunts, to finally lay a kindly hand on my shoulder and murmur, “It’s this way, brother.”
Voodoo Bayou Shanty: While advertised as a backwoods Deep South hovel filled with Leatherface’s extended relations, the sight of several beer bottles hanging by string over the front porch looked Ohio enough for me.
This was my favorite attraction, for several reasons. Between the blood and dismemberment, the kitchen and living room from Hell, and the bizarre amount of laundry hanging along the corridors, it was like a Rob Zombie movie meets “Hoarders.” You’ll have an enjoyable time discovering that the barn is more sanitary than the house.
The Middletown Haunted Trail: Given the “trail” in the title, I expected this to be a more classical experience, greeting old-school monsters while hiking though a naturalistic setting. That turned out to be half-true. While you do meet old-school favorites like Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, the trail itself was an enclosed walkway passing in and out of various exhibits. At a mile long, this is the longest attraction by far, and a mash-up of the other attractions and other themes.
While the trail was interactive just like all the rest, there were also a lot more “scenes” that you could just walk through and enjoy without feeling pressured to have a reaction. My favorite was a restrained young girl begging and screaming at the top of her lungs for help while an axe-wielding psycho stood nearby preparing to kill her. I was impressed not only by her performance as I wandered through individually but also the question of how long her shift was.
The Zombie Sniper Patrol: Obviously, this is the newest and trendiest of Land of Illusion’s attractions. But anyone who thinks they’re going to get to be like Michonne from “The Walking Dead” will soon be disillusioned, and not just because a samurai sword is a lot cooler than a paint gun.
Groups of people are loaded onto the back of a military truck. The paint guns are attached onto the sides. I ran out of ammo quickly and the zombies were few and far between (still trying to figure out how that happened). Furthermore, for what I assume to be practical reasons (safety and visibility), the zombies don’t look like zombies, more like clones of Jason Voorhees who decided to go with a fluorescent-style hockey mask.
Final thoughts: What distinguishes the attractions at Land of Illusion from other haunted houses are the props and the decor. Otherwise, it would be just another place where kids in masks and makeup pop out and make noises that sound like me at 4 a.m. Even though there were some classic examples of girls hanging on to their boyfriend’s T-shirts for dear life, many people seemed just as interested in looking as screaming.
The in-your-face interactions with the actors are reminiscent of any awkward social encounter. What exactly are you supposed to say to someone who tells you that they “want you on their table!” or that “you look good to eat!” or worst of all, “Hey, Grandpa!” A smart-aleck remark seemed juvenile, so the best I managed was a tight, “thanks for keeping me in your thoughts” smile.
Being a “haunted house on steroids,” I’d also wondered what the boundaries were for physical contact. However, while the actors do violate your personal space worse than Seinfeld’s close talker and occasionally shadow you like a French mime, there’s generally, as might be expected, no touching.
The one exception was in the Bayou Shanty, where one floor-bound mutant developed a brief fascination for pulling my leg hairs. Once I turned around and informed her that only my wife gets that unique and highly sought-after privilege, employee-customer harmony was quickly restored.