Fright Fest at Elitch Gardens inspires more camp than horror

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It's shortly after sundown, and the growing crowd is getting impatient. I'm standing with a friend at the head of the VIP line for "Bloodlust," one of the two haunted houses that debuted over the weekend at Elitch Gardens as part of the park's annual "Fright Fest." We've been waiting for about 10 minutes when a park supervisor approaches and quickly apologizes for the delay. A patron in a wheelchair just knocked over one of the haunted house's temporary walls, he explains. They're fixing the damage as quckly as they can.

Before he can wrap up his spiel, a squat man decked in a blood-spattered butcher's apron and a grotesque rubber mask comes over. I'm half expecting him to brandish a phony plastic axe or, at the very least, offer some menacing growls to scare us as we wait for access. Instead, he asks his boss about the holdup and how long he'll have to wait until his next break. When he learns about the fallen wall in the haunted house, he responds in a decidedly unfrightening way.

"Shit," he mutters through his rubber mask.

A tour through the park for the first weekend of "Fright Fest" offered plenty of similar moments, sights and sounds that were memorable more for their sheer ridiculousness than for inspiring any real dread or terror.

Thick clouds of smoke constantly spurted from machines along the major walkways; phony cobwebs decorated the concession stands; fake tombstones bearing bad puns as epitaphs dotted improvised graveyards at the park's entrance. A constant soundtrack of Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and music from "The Lost Boys" and "Gremlins" piped through speakers across the park. Teenagers in a wide array of zombie and butcher costumes roamed the grounds, occasionally lunging at young kids who'd squeal in delight as they fled.

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The "Reunion of Souls" vocal group seemed to epitomize the whole experience, with their an hourly rotation on a stage at the front of the park. The teenagers dressed as style-savvy zombies and offered a bizarre, saccharine mix of cover tunes. Of course, they offered their own take on "Thriller," but the group also included covers of Kiss' "Rock & Roll All Nite" and Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" in their set list.

Of course, such features aren't a big surprise for any Denver resident who's visited previous Fright Fests at Elitch Gardens. By now, the cheesy teen vocal group and the marauding teens in zombie costumes are a expected parts of the park's schtick. It's a feature designed to appeal to parkgoers younger than 16, the event's target audience.

Indeed, for the younger crowd, the camp and the cheese added to the park's regular fare of rides and overpriced concessions could be an ideal way to celebrate the season. It's an audience-specific argument that excuses the cutesiness behind the majority of "Fright Fest," which staff touts as family friendly, in a specifically inoffensive way.

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But the park also bills its two haunted houses specifically for adults. They charge $10 on top of the park's $40 gate fee to get access to both "The Suffering" and "Bloodlust," neither of which offer any signficant scares.

When we were finally admitted to "Bloodlust," for example, the run-in with the disgruntled butcher outside seemed far more memorable. The haunted house was a rapid succession of darkened rooms, each holding a costumed employee who screamed, jumped or chased us when we were halfway out.


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