The sky to the north flashed with white lightning as I pulled off the 101 onto McDowell and turned into the rutted driveway. It was after 10 on a school night, so parking was easy and the crowd was sparse. The perfect time to check out Arizona's Original Scream Park.
Scaring someone isn't difficult. You need only jump out and scream or snarl at them unexpectedly, or bang the wall or make some other loud noise. But to give someone a good scare -- to make it happen in a context of terror, and to make that terror paradoxically fun -- requires a bit of theatrical panache. I wanted to see how the Scream Park measured up in this regard.
Now in its third year, the park consists of three houses. I passed on Boo World, which is for younger kids (those under 12 aren't allowed in the other two) and started with Alice's House of Nightmares.
Arizona's Original Scream Park
McDowell Road and the 101 freeway
Continues through Saturday, November 4. 7 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays; 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. $6 for Boo World for children, $10 for Alice's House of Nightmares, $12 for Gold Miner's Revenge, $18 for all three. Call 480-947-4898, or go to
Said hostess was Lewis Carroll's heroine, or a version of her, anyway. Played by an unnerving fellow wearing a blond wig and a blue party dress (and holding a skull adorned with fuzzy pink bunny ears), "she" skulked around in front of the building, making eerie comments to the anxious, worked-up high school kids as they waited to be admitted, in groups of five. When I at last went in, with a party of four teens, I felt fairly sheepish. It occurred to me that a fortyish white guy going to a haunted house all by himself might be the creepiest thing these kids would see all night. Suddenly, and appallingly, I realized that if this actually were a horror movie, my role wouldn't be that of the intrepid hero, but rather the town weirdo who tells the kids, "You're all doomed, I tell you . . . Dooooomed . . ."
Anyway, the House of Nightmares turned out to be pretty nightmarish. One ink-black corridor would give way to another, which would then open into a larger space decked out in some horrible tableau, like a strobing movie theater with an audience full of corpses, for instance; or a mannequin vomiting acid into a barrel. Then a live ghoul of some sort would make a well-timed entrance, roar, and swoop toward us menacingly enough that we'd scurry into the next room.
A couple of these performers nodded to the "Alice" conceit -- there was a sinister version of the Cheshire Cat, for instance -- but for the most part, this was ignored in favor of horrors of the current fashion, like masked killers. This, for me, was the only disappointment, since Carroll offers all sorts of possibilities. As far as I could tell, there was no Caterpillar, no Jabberwocky, no blood-soaked Tweedledum and Tweedledee, no Queen of Hearts shouting, "Off with their heads!" and this time getting results. A missed opportunity, perhaps, but my companions, the three shrieking, giggling, sobbing teenage girls and the teenage boy trying hard to act macho around them, didn't seem let down. They hadn't brought their literary sensibilities with them, I guess.
Then came the Gold Miner's Revenge, which I went through by myself. "It takes about 20 minutes to go through it," the kid said as he punched my ticket, and then he yelled, "FRESH MEAT!!!" over his shoulder, and I ventured through the heavy doors and down the winding, wood-plank catwalks of the "mine."
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The technique here was a little different, and, for me at least, a lot scarier than Alice's House of Nightmares. Every now and then, a guy in a black cloak and some sort of gruesome mask would fall into step a few paces behind me. If I ran, he'd run faster. So I ran even faster still. I ran so fast, in fact, that at one point I heard one of my ghoulish pursuers yell, "God-damn!" admiringly. Another ghostly miner, hearing me pant as I ran, dropped character and asked, "Are you all right, sir?" in the kindest voice imaginable.
"I'm fine, thanks," I said as I passed. I hadn't known I was in such good shape, actually.
When I exited Gold Miner's Revenge shortly thereafter, chased by a fiend wielding a roaring chain saw, I'd realized two things. First, the truth of the old maxim: He travels fastest who travels alone. Twenty minutes my ass. I was bathed in sweat, but I'd cleared the freakin' thing in six flat.
Second, I'd realized that if the avant-garde theater really wants to engage its audience on a basic emotional level, they should give the lovelorn monologues a rest and go grab a chain saw.