With Halloween fast approaching, London Student headed down to Surrey to experience Thorpe Park’s annual scare event – to riotous results. On a night of zero queuing, much junk food, and copious alcohol (sorry mum), we checked out the five seasonal attractions set to scare your pants off over the coming month:
The Walking Dead: Living Nightmare – Presumably bankrolled by AMC, the budget for this maze seemed seriously high. None of us watch the show, but some of its iconography has been ingrained onto the collective pop-culture hive-mind, and was instantly recognisable. Straight off the bat (heh), we’re on our knees with Negan waving a barbed weapon in our faces and threatening to indiscriminately murder us, before instead deciding to send us into an infected prison. Just because, I guess?
The maze involves some free-choice elements, before leading into a strobed and heavily themed area that encompasses multi-story prisons, wrecked school-buses, and a slew of iconic TWD scenes. It’s a beautifully realised piece of work, but we’re left wondering where the actors were. Throughout the entire experience, we encounter maybe ten people trying to scare us – which was a lot lower than anything else we did at Fright Nights. To be fair, this was the first maze of the night – and we must have been some of the first people ever to have experienced it – so it’s safe to assume that Thorpe will be able to improve this over the coming weeks. For now, Living Nightmare gets the benefit of the doubt on the basis of how fantastic it looks.
Platform No. 15 – As a non-branded maze, Thorpe Park have done well to craft a backstory and plot to this insanely long attraction (it must have involved at least a kilometre of walking). About a third of this is taken up by an atmospheric stroll through the woods, combined with a creepy story and some mind-blowing fire effects. We transition into a full-blown indoor and outdoor maze complete with a replica village, houses, and some absolutely fantastic retro-horror lighting. The final section took place in another very long walk through a dark, cramped tunnel. Not much happened in here, which made us question why we were being herded through it, but when the jumps inevitably came, they were very effective.
All in all, it is a delightfully creepy, atmospheric, and occasionally scary piece of work which I’d expect to find in a US-park as opposed to Staines. Worth queueing for given the length.
The Big Top – By this point in the night, we’d had quite a lot to drink – so perhaps our perception was a little jaded, but this attraction was truly exceptional. Set inside an imposing circus tent, the entrance of which resembles a screaming clown, The Big Top is a deceptively long, disorientating, and at times genuinely scary maze that’s almost assaultive in its violent commitment to confuse its audience with brutal strobing, and migraine-inducing dayglo colours.
After a brief introduction and pre-show, we’re thrust into a meshed maze area (an actual maze, I mean) in pitch blackness, with a strobe that only flashes once every second or two. As a result, it’s impossible to retain any sense of direction, and the faces of the actors that lurk around the corners burn themselves into the audience’s retinas as they stumble around, failing to escape the room. At times, it’s a genuine struggle to stay upright. It’s a divisive choice of effect (half of our group refused to go for a second run-through due to how uncomfortable it was), and inevitably splits people up – on both tries, we all ended up isolated and had to wait for each other outside. After the strobe, the attraction flits round a series of seemingly endless, impressively themed areas chock-a-block with actors – a mirror maze, a soft-play area, a free-choice section, and a final terrified sprint away from a chainsaw into the night.
It’s a maze on par with the rollercoasters: lengthy, unique, and adrenaline-pumping throughout. What’s more, it’d be worth a long queue – our second run-through took around 15-20 minutes.
Saw: Alive – A strange and slightly awkward item in the Fright Nights lineup, Saw: Alive has been a permanent feature at the park since 2010, but only lasted a year or two before the decision was taken to open it only for Halloween. As a result, it’s got a cohesive, thought-out feel and layout – as well as being filled with first-class props and effects. But since 2010, it’s aged quite badly, and feels a little stale compared to the newer attractions (which are tweaked and improved every year to increase their effectiveness). It doesn’t help that the Saw series was never particularly scary: watching people get tortured isn’t an idea ripe for an interactive horror attraction, and the maze suffers from a lack of genuine jump-scares.
But, it has to be said, there’s still a lot to like here: from the smells pumped through the ventilation, to the creepy ‘pigface’ characters, and the custom-built barge that it all sits on. Saw: Alive also feels oddly cohesive to the park, given that it sits alongside the fantastic Saw: The Ride in a (slightly surreal) ‘Saw-land’ style area of the island.
The Walking Dead: Sanctum – Another IP-based attraction from AMC, but with a far weaker setup than Living Nightmare. It’s an outdoor maze, with wide pathways and some impressive theming (not to mention an imposing façade), but the bright lighting means that the scares never land properly, and the actors aiming to terrify the audience are visible for a long time before they get to make contact. I’m not quite sure if the idea was to create a Universal-style ‘scare-zone’ with a cohesive narrative – or to create something scarier – but I am sure that my heartbeat remained flat throughout the experience.
The actors in Sanctum, however, were some of the most impressive we witnessed all night. They displayed a singular commitment to following their victims and making us feel uncomfortable by invading our personal spaces for prolonged periods of time. As a result, it’s a fun little ‘scare zone’-type walkthrough; but if I’d been visiting on a normal day and had to queue for an hour to experience it, I’d be more than a little annoyed.
Thorpe park have put considerable effort into theming for the event which extends far above the maze locations. On-ride audio for all the coasters had been changed to reflect the horror slant of the evening. Throughout the park, sinister ambient music could be heard bellowing out of invisible speakers, adding an eerie touch to the atmosphere around the rides and effectively integrating the mazes with the rest of the theme park.
By the time it had got properly dark, the pathways had also been flooded with a spectral mist that floated around ride areas like something out of a Carpenter flick: in the deserted late-night of the empty pathways, it felt more than a little cool and definitely helped the disparate themes of the mazes feel a little more cohesive and calculated than just a random assortment of horror debris. This was accentuated by flashes of Argento-esque mood lighting in shades of blood-red and toxic-green, shining through the fog with alarming lucidity: the attraction felt more like an art installation than a theme park.
All in all, it’s an insanely good event. The mazes may be hit-and-miss due to human error and luck, but Thorpe Park and AMC have done their utmost to create a slew of professional, stylish, and exciting seasonal attractions that can compete with American offerings. We never felt particularly terrified, or threatened by any of the actors – but it’s damn fun, and I suppose that’s the point of the whole affair. Impressive set design, fantastic acting under pressure, and a truly immersive set of experiences: if wondering around in the dark being chased by strange men with chainsaws is your thing, then I can’t recommend this more.
Note: this review is based on a Fright Nights press preview event, the content of mazes and on-park effects may vary after public opening.