The UK has always fallen behind the US in terms of celebrating Halloween, and it’s only been in recent years that people are starting to take it seriously. As a result more and more leisure attractions are seeing the potential for Halloween events. One attraction which has been a staple event year on year for the last nine years is Fright Nights.
Fright Nights began back in 2002 with just a couple of mazes, and has developed each year into what it is has now become. We’d not been down for a couple of years so naturally we jumped at the chance at an exclusive behind the scenes tour of one of the more intricate mazes in the events line up; “The Curse.”
We were to spend the full day at the park, and with the majority of mazes not opening until late afternoon we seized our chance to sample two of the parks newest additions both themed around the Saw horror franchise – perfect for setting the mood for what was to come later on!
Firstly ‘Saw-The Ride’, a Gerstlauer “Eurofighter” which combines a rollercoaster with a dark ride /scare maze. (HD POV is here. – Oni) The indoor section of the ride is what really stands out for me, heavily themed and a few nice surprises to keep you on your toes. The ride’s signature element is a vertical lift hill followed by a beyond vertical 95° degree drop which is an unnerving start to the ride. Unfortunately for me the rest of the ride I found to be quite uncomfortable and actually left the ride with quite a bad headache.
So onto “Saw Alive”, a permanent live action horror maze which is open year round. We had high expectations for this having experienced the Saw maze at Universal Studios ‘Halloween Horror Nights last year. The maze featured some great actors who really knew how to work the space and play to each rooms individual strengths. Whereas there seemed to be little urgency to get through 80% of the maze at Universal as we’d stop to watch each set piece play out, Thorpe Park’s Sister attraction was fast paced and full of great scares. I’d actually say Saw Alive was the better maze and although slightly shorter, the maze is rich in theming and action packed.
Lunch time fell upon us and before we knew it it was time for our behind the scenes tour. We met with the fabulous people from ScareTour and waited for Laura Sinclair, Entertainments Manager for Thorpe Park who was to be our tour guide. Laura has been in charge of Fright Nights since it’s conception and it’s easy to see how proud she is of what the event has evolved into.
The tour took place with the work lights on, which really highlighted how much effort has gone into creating the experience, much of which is subliminal and many people probably wouldn’t notice on a normal walk through. From the outside the maze is very simple with just a few hints here and there of what lies inside. With the lights on it’s easier to spot how many of the attractions many effects are triggered off. We were sworn to secrecy to much of the maze’s secrets so unfortunately I can’t divulge very much and we were banned from taking pictures to help keep the ships mystery a, well, mystery! However, Fright Nights future looks good and with the events tenth birthday next year Thorpe Park are sure to ramp it up once again with a few more surprises for us thrill seekers.
Next up were our most anticipated mazes ‘Hellgate‘ and ‘Asylum‘, both of which we’d never experienced before. Both mazes are rather more traditional in their scares, both housed in permanent structures rather than tents like the others.
We kicked off with Asylum which is themed towards a mental institute where mutiny has erupted and the patients have taken over.
Lots of loud noises and strobe lights disorientate you throughout your journey. There were one or two exceptional actors who really know how to play on your fears and aren’t afraid to get up close to bring it out. No further than ten metres into the maze a rather creepy actress with a doll had one of us “kissing her baby” as she screamed at us. The actors here are relentless and aren’t afraid to touch you. This is where Thorpe Park differs from many events in the country, with the added warning that you ‘may be touched’ you are certainly kept on your toes. One of my main criticisms of the maze was how easy it was to catch up with the groups in front and that you have to make a conscious effort to hold back. Occasionally the odd actor would stand in your path to slow you down and keep distance but by the end of our first run through we had caught up with two groups in front which in turn totally spoiled the finale. Luckily on our second trip through the finale had us running out of the door.
Asylum really does live up to its name, it’s easily the parks longest maze and you do end up by the finale wondering how long it’s going to go on for and if you will ever make it out, a bit like its residents. I’d actually like the strobes to be slowed down a little more to create more confusion and to allow the actors to use the darkness more effectively, and for more of the actors to be a bit more physical with their movements as some did feel like they were simply going through the motions, whilst other stand out actors threw their heart and soul into it. But on the whole this is a good solid maze which has a certain notoriety amongst visitors.
At this point there’s one thing I’d like to commend Thorpe on. In every maze we were sent through in groups of 8-10. Very often you find that to get throughput up staff are encouraged to get as many people through as possible. Over here we don’t really have conga lines like the US parks do, so it tends to be a much more intense experience. Generally if there’s a scare then most of the group will see it, and by keeping the group numbers down it really adds to your vulnerability throughout the mazes.
Hellgate had been played down to us by many people. Set in an old mansion it’s residents make great use of the darkness to ramp up the scares. The acting talent in here was possibly the strongest on park with the actors really improvising their roles and making them their own. One enthusiastic character blocked our path by holding herself above us, resting her feet on a handrail and leaning backwards on the opposite wall. It was clear we had to travel underneath, and as we edged forward nervously the leader of our group bolted for freedom under the actress. In a flash the actress had jumped down and was chasing the girl as we fell about laughing. From this point onwards things started to turn nasty as the actress eventually let us pass, yet kept on following us throughout the rest of the maze along with each actor or actress we met on the way. By the end I would guess we had about 6 or so scare actors behind us which really made this maze for me especially as I was at the back of the group. Every time I turned around they were getting closer and closer as I screamed to the front the urgency that we needed to get moving. For me Hellgate may look a little dated now compared to some of the theming in the newest mazes but it goes to show that you can still provide some brilliant scares if the acting talent is top notch. I can say with confidence that my Hellgate experience was my highlight of the event.
Next up was “The Curse” which didn’t seem to be attracting people like the other mazes were which seemed a great shame, Given that we’d been pretty much told where people would jump out from it certainly didn’t spoil things. With the work lights off the Curse really does fully immerse you in your surroundings. With sections in complete darkness actors really do seem to come at you from every angle. I’d argue that it’s the park’s stand out attraction in terms of full immersion, detail and all-round scares.
Last up on the maze front was “Se7en” a tented maze which zig-zags through 7 rooms based on the seven deadly sins. Theming is, although a little sparse in places, very well placed in here, and again there’s a few good scares to be had. The maze had evolved somewhat since our last visit and it was nice to have some fresh ideas. Some of the rooms although quite well themed around the edges are easy to rush through and it would be nice to be held up a little more, forcing us to stop and take in the surroundings rather than simply running for the next room. One actress that really had me spooked, and I’m not even sure why, simply walked towards us menacingly, grabbed hold of what we ‘assumed’ to be a large knife, or implement of harm, and began hoovering … yes, we were officially scared of housework, one of the lesser known sins it seems, but no matter how odd, its nice to see them improvising and thinking outside of the box. One notable room is “Gluttony” which features a extremely real looking body face down in his food bowl. The smell of vomit burns into your nostrils, the sound of flies buzzing really does turn your stomach, and even though there’s no real scares to be had in here, it really does create tension and atmosphere in the room.
Over on the other side of the park and once darkness fell, the park unveiled their new area. Simply titled ‘Dead End – Terror Zone‘, it’s a graveyard of old ride cars and props, filled heavily with smoke and populated by two or three actors. It is similar to the scare zone’s at some of the US parks with a few exceptions. Firstly guests are restricted to only going one way through the area. Secondly, guests are made to wait and go through exploring in groups rather than being allowed to just wander around freely. The zone fills just a small area and has only a handful of actors wearing cheap latex masks. Some people have commented that it’s a disappointing addition to the park although I’d personally take the stance that it’s a great starting point for things to come. I’d like to see Dead End grow, expand to one or two more actors and become less formal, allowing people wander through as they wish. I see it as more of a place where people can hang out getting some milder scares without having to face the intensity of the full blown mazes, like an introduction to fear. Its an addition to the park which can only be a good thing, a sign of progression in the right direction, and a healthy step towards becoming what I feel could end up as a separately ticketed event, such as Universal’s ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ or Busch Garden’s ‘Howl-o-Scream.’
Overall a top year for Fright Nights, an event which is growing massively …. here’s to the 10 Year Anniversary !
Oni Hartstein is a Los Angeles-based CMO and entrepreneur that is obsessed with progressive rock / metal, marketing, and nightlife. Please direct all business inquiries or review requests to the "Contact" tab on the top nav bar.
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