Fright Nights: top-tier scares and fun

With incredibly high production value, and a long, illustrious history of scaring the shit out of Londoners, Thorpe Park’s annual Fright Nights event is a highlight in the horror-lovers calendar. London Student went down to their press preview night to see what lay in store for visitors to this years mazes.

The Walking Dead: Living Nightmare – 3/5

Returning from last year, Living Nightmare has some of the most impressive set and sound design of any maze at Thorpe Park (or in the UK for that matter). After entering a clearing in the woods, and being told to run for our lives, we’re plunged into, well, a living nightmare of fog, crashed school buses, prison courtyards, and dilapidated hospitals.

The actors in the maze were a cut above what we experienced at last year’s event and chased us throughout the web of fencing and corridors with almost sadistic glee. Having said that, despite the immaculate design and the best efforts of staff, the well-lit nature of the maze and the open feel of the experience mean that there’s little to truly scare audience members during the walk-through. Whenever there are ‘zombies’ waiting round the corner, you can see them standing there, waiting for you to come closer; often from many metres away. The attraction also aims to reframe the free-flow, choose your own adventure nature of The Cabin in the Woods, but does so in a way that removes the imagination from the Cabin maze, whilst also channelling visitors through a set path in any case.

All in all, it’s a good maze to start on – showcasing the fantastic attention to detail of the designers, whilst not being too hectic or scary to handle.

Platform No. 15 – 5/5

Despite a ‘4/5’ scare rating, Platform No. 15 is by far the scariest, most atmospheric, and most impressive maze in the park.

After an unsettling ghost walk with impressive sound design, the four of us were left to wander down a series of woodland paths, being pounced upon by motion-triggered noises and lurking actors at every turn. Eventually, after coming to a village – stinking, authentically, of rotting meat – we were hounded through immaculately designed houses with plenty of hiding spaces for actors to scare the shit out of us.

We then arrived at a long blackout tunnel, where we had to proceed for what felt like well over a kilometre in pitch darkness, being accosted by noise and actors with torches intermittently, but mostly being left in complete sensory deprivation, awaiting a scare at any moment. This part of the maze was absolutely terrifying, and being with such a small group made it all the more intense.

Overall, the attraction is the longest in the park – lasting around 10/15 minutes – and offers the best combination of originality, set design, special effects, and scares we saw all night. There’s real fire, incredible sound design, ethereal mist, and a fantastic atmosphere. Worth queueing for.

Dead Creek Woods – 2/5

Dead Creek Woods is a new addition for Fright Nights 2018, but lacks a reason d’etre and panache in execution. Upon entering through a gate just beside Platform No. 15, we’re given some spiel about a mysterious disease and told to proceed through a ‘quarantine zone’. What follows is a very short, disappointingly brightly lit walk through the forest, with actors doing their best to scare us but not doing very well.

What’s interesting to note is that Thorpe Park’s chainsaw, previously used to great effect, has been moved here for a finale that lacks impact or scares. All in all, a pretty pointless maze that didn’t feel like it had much of an identity, and was instead an opportunity to advertise an extra attraction at Fright Nights 2018.

Saw: Alive – 3/5

A long-standing maze (now since 2010), Saw: Alive has been a controversial presence at the park – some hating it and some enjoying its seasonal operation. For myself, the main problem with Saw is that it’s far too short – guests can proceed through the entire attraction in under 2 minutes. There’s also an issue with scaring people – the Saw films have always been based on people’s suffering as opposed to actually being scary – and as such, the maze has a lack of jump scares that make it seem ineffective.

That said, as a permanent attraction, the theming inside is absolutely fantastic – perhaps the most impressive of any at the event – and there are a number of roaming actors that manage to shock guests by appearing suddenly from around the corner – this includes Saw’s legendary ‘pig people’ conceit. It’s a maze that’s not particularly memorable, but it’s a good time whilst it lasts.

Vulcan Peak – 2/5’

Another new maze for Fright Nights 2018, Vulcan Peak sees guests hooded and led into the former I’m a Celebrity… attraction unable to see. Once in the building, we’re made to grip a rope to our left, and follow it around a short trail that weaves through a jungle setting.

The problem with this maze, chiefly, is its tone. An opening video establishes a sort of pseudo-1950’s ‘cultural’ expedition into the rainforest with ironic glee, and for the entirety of the maze, guests here a chipper, British upper-class voice telling them ‘Vulcan Peak is up ahead!’ over the speakers whilst upbeat bongo music plays in the background. This means that it’s impossible to properly scare guests.

If nothing else, however, the maze is wonderfully surreal – the ‘locals’ that you encounter are covered in fur, and make a strange bigfoot-esque wail that feels alien. The rope to the left also darts up and down with sadistic glee, meaning that groups get split up and struggle to find their way through the strange landscape. It’s all quite funny, perhaps, but if you’re looking to be scared, go elsewhere.

The Walking Dead: Do or Die – 4/5

Do or Die, replacing last year’s misguided Sanctum, is a massive improvement on its previous iteration, whilst still remaining the same container-based conceit. After an impressive pre-show on a school bus, we’re led into the ‘Sanctum’ compound, where we’re pursued round a succession of containers, going inside and outside, as chaos rages on all around us.

There were some pretty damn effective scares, as the actors were giving it their all and crawling under the scenery/jumping over obstacles to run at us from all directions. The use of the squeeze container from My Bloody Valentine was also a nice touch – providing a tense, claustrophobic end to what was a very effective maze.

Lighting and scenery were also a highlight, with a variety of interesting scenes from The Walking Dead recreated, including cult compounds, meat freezers, and execution yards. All in all, due to its brightly lit nature, this wasn’t the most terrifying maze, but it was certainly enjoyable.

The Big Top: Showtime – 1/5

By far the biggest disappointment of the night was the news that last year’s star attraction, The Big Top, was not going to be present, instead being replaced by Showtime, a sort of roaming actors ‘scare zone’ that was advertised as if it was a new maze. Instead, there was some theming inside the entrance dome, and we were accosted by a group of ‘clowns’ at the gates to the park who made us dance to ‘join their circus’. The actors were excellent, and it’s great to have roaming groups of characters, but advertising it as its own sort of maze (as with the ‘Terror at Amityville High’ ‘attraction’ which I haven’t even bothered to write about) is a little disingenuous.

Perhaps Thorpe Park’s staffing costs, or their electricity bills prevented them from having another maze, but I don’t see any problem with keeping The Big Top in its previous location (where Do or Die was this year), and having Do or Die where it was last year, by The Swarm (where, currently, there is nothing).

Blair Witch – 3/5

It was a pleasant surprise to see Blair Witch – an atmospheric favourite of past Fright Nights – return for 2018 in a revamped form. Unfortunately, with much of its length curtailed by Dead Creek Woods, it’s a brutally short piece of work – visitors on busy public days would be better off avoiding the maze altogether if the queue is over 20/30 minutes.

That said, it’s an improvement (in terms of theming) over its past incarnations, weaving through a much more remote forest path which requires guests to duck under, and step over tree branches and bushes that litter the trail. The Blair Witch symbol is hanging absolutely everywhere, and there are a fair few scenes from the latest film – including the now infamous tent sequence. Lighting is sublime, with blues, pinks, and greens illuminating the path in a strange technicolour glow. And, of course, the hut at the end of the attraction is as impressive as ever, with a myriad of actors doing their best to scare the bejeezus out of guests before they emerge into the cool night air.

Containment – 4/5

The parks surcharge escape room experience proved to be an unexpected treat at the end of the night – short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but long enough to justify the ticket price. Guests are required to escape from three very different rooms by discovering codes that are entered on keypads to unlock the door. As this is Fright Nights, two of the rooms have live actors in them, and the third room, especially, makes use of two cast members to deliver some effective frights as participants scramble to get out within the five minute time limit.

The problem that we experienced on press night was that the others in our group were drunk, apathetic, and, quite frankly, dumb, so it was left to the four of us to solve all the puzzles whilst trying to push past six other people (and two more actors) in miniscule rooms to succeed in the game. We also had a lot of trouble with the first room (something that I seem to remember from previous years, where the same first room was used) – as none of the clues seemed to point towards an actual answer. That said, with guests paying for the experience on public days, people should be much more invested in solving the riddles and actually getting out.

All in all, 2018 represents another major year for the UK’s answer to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. The biggest difference we noticed this year was how high quality all of the park’s temporary attractions looked. There wasn’t a maze, aside from perhaps Dead Creek Woods, which seemed undercooked, or cheap. And, as a plus, attendees have the opportunity to ride all of Thorpe Park’s major rollercoasters in the dark, throughout the night – which is very cool. A great night, best enjoyed with friends.

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