“Why bother going through all the effort of building elaborate sets when we can just find an existing creepy place and go with that?” A very good question indeed, and it is exactly what the organizers behind City of Fears must have thought – they were able to repurpose an area used for military, police and fire department training for all of their haunt fantasies.
Immediately when we arrived the ambience was set, as we passed through barriers and fences to get to the parking lot, which was littered with car wrecks on one side. Dark hangars loomed in the distance, and echoes from chainsaws and screams could already be heard. Using this domain for their haunt is the best thing City of Fears could have done, the area features derelict industrial buildings, a nursery, an outdoor swimming pool, an actual passenger train and a number of large damaged buildings filled with creepy corridors and malfunctioning toilet stalls, among others. We were able to roam free through seven scare zones, each with at least one building to visit, and an eight zone – the Party Zone, with ample refreshments and snacks. With so much to do, and with no one seeming to mind we went through each attraction a couple of times (it wasn’t the busiest night), we easily kept ourselves busy from 8pm until 1am, and the evening only got better as we went further along with it. It also makes City of Fears quite hard to review, as to me it was one of those cases where the whole is a lot better than all separate parts. It’s easy to criticize this event, and there are quite some remarks to be made. The thing however is, as we immersed ourselves in the world Joe Tremor, the major of the city, had created, the enthusiasm of the team and the quirkiness of it all is so endearing all flaws were quickly forgiven.
So, the different zones. We started off at The Unexplainable, set in an old factory building. We were prompted to descend a metal staircase to the pitch black basement, where an actor clad in a black morph suit stalked us through the dark, occasionally tripping a light switch so our eyes could never adjust. He really used the environment to its full potential, knocking over barrels and throwing stuff at us – it came out of nowhere every time, and as we inched closer to our escape, he really got up close and personal. An impressive start! We wandered on to Dead or Alive, an area we could only reach by passing through a field of inanimate, and less inanimate scarecrows. There were three different houses to visit: a vampire infested mansion, a children’s nursery with a zombie infestation, and the house of Joe Tremor himself, where a creepy experiment played out in the basement. And we got to meet Joe’s housekeeper. Okay, that was odd. The third area featured a passenger train inhabited by Barry the butcher, and he really made himself cozy in this train. Metal music was blasting through the night, strobes lit up the different compartments, and body parts and sausages were hanging everywhere. A few compartments further on, things got more quiet, as we sneaked carefully to plastic sheeting, ever unsure of when Barry’s chainsaw would start to roar. After a hectic escape through the narrow train corridor, we could be admitted in the hospital, where we had an dentist appointment, I was added to an organ donor list, and we got the loudest shock of the night as filling in as the assistant surgeon went terribly wrong.
The disaster zone was up next, where an accident had caused the area to be radioactively contaminated. After a safety briefing by a badly burned man in a hazard suit, we were hesitantly allowed to enter, following a path that led us by a toxic swimming pool, an eerily lit boat and in between some old train tracks. As we somehow had expected, the area wasn’t exactly deserted, with a varied bunch of freaks hiding around. After passing another guy in a safety suit, who had clearly been too close when the accident had happened, we went for our fifth zone of the night, the Circus of Freaks. We were ushered in two different houses by a crazed circus director, and evidently these were filled to the brim by demented clowns, balloons and trippy light effects. The actors here were obviously having fun, one extremely high energy clown was particularly memorable, he managed to scare us multiple times in just a few seconds, sprinting through the hallway and emerging where we least expected him, bouncing around the walls as he popped balloons just next to our ears. After run-ins with a chainsaw-wielding demon clown, a girl clown that was a little too eager to play with us, a musical jester who played silly tunes on a plastic flute and several others, we finally escaped the madhouse, only to run in again immediately, we were having too much of a blast. The sixth zone, Claustrophobia, consisted of just one house, where we were forced to crawl under, through and over various obstructions in narrow, dark hallways. A number of actors used the darkness to their advantage and often scared us by coming out of nowhere, or pulling us back by our feet while we tried to crawl through tight spaces. Finally, our last zone was Arachnophobia. The web-filled corridors of this house contained the offspring and thousands of eggs of Agnes, a giant spider, and clearly a very protective mother.
In the beginning of our visit, we experienced a good number of problems with the haunts. Due to the layout of the buildings, several scenes play out in rooms or corridors that have dead ends – and sometimes the walkthroughs loop back on their own, so a group that’s entering will run into other groups going through the maze. It’s somewhat confusing to know where you are supposed to go, and the flowthrough can slow down severely with just a small number of groups inside. This doesn’t make the job of the actors any easier, scares and hiding places are revealed quickly and we had a run where all scares happened to other groups, and we experienced nothing at all. Most of the houses aren’t overpopulated with actors either, and adding some more would have been a big plus. The nursery is a good example of a haunt that suffered from all these problems. There was a great buildup of anticipation as we saw the sign of the nursery, creepy children’s music was playing. But, as soon as we entered, the exit corridor was right in front of us. Another group just about to leave walked, and the actress dwelling in the final rooms was immediately advertised to us. As we took the stairs up, the only other actor in the house had just jumped on a group in front of us, so no surprises there either. Also, the nursery theme was thrown overboard, as nothing was really done specifically with the fact that the haunt was set in a daycare center, a huge missed opportunity. The problem with groups encountering each other, going in different directions and spoiling the surprises of the maze persisted in a number of other mazes as well. Importantly, the day we visited wasn’t crowded at all, so I can imagine that on a busy night people might leave very disappointed. The use of real locations is a big plus for City of Fears, but this evidently comes with a host of its own specific problems. A little more care in route planning and haunt design might resolve some issues, at least partially, and we did see a few good examples in other houses. An actor controlling how many people can enter the houses at a time might also work, now everyone was allowed to enter whenever, apart from an exception or two where some form of flow control was used. Specifically in Claustrophobia, this would have helped a lot. In our first walkthrough, we were standing still for minutes on end, as guests in front slowly managed to overcome the obstacles in the maze. During our second run we were able to proceed at our own pace, and the maze immediately improved massively, as scares that felt really flat at first turned out to be really effective.
After we had completed all areas, it was clear that some had left us with a bitter aftertaste of what could have been. You’ve got this amazing terrain that’s immensely creepy on its own, all these decrepit, run-down buildings that are the perfect setup for a haunt, and it just doesn’t work as good as it could, or should, solely due to issues with crowd management. So, we decided to go back to the beginning and give the mazes a second shot. That was by far the best thing we could have done. By now, it had gotten pretty late already, and as we got back to where we had started, hardly anyone was in sight, and we had the chance to re-do almost every single house solo. It was here that we really saw the diamond in the rough that is City of Fears – and the passion of the actors when they get the chance to play their parts to the fullest. We danced to dubstep with Barry the Butcher, who was clearly ecstatic now that he had the train for himself. After our little dance moment, he clambered over seats to get to us, not a small feat for a man of his impressive posture, and kept on chasing us throughout the entirety of the train, making no secret of his true intentions. The scene with Joe Tremor’s housekeeper played out much longer than anticipated, as we sought for solutions to fix a broken cabinet, while the maid busied herself cleaning the windows. In the hospital, we played hide and seek with the nurses, a scene that suddenly turned somber as one of the nurses confessed that we were the first ones to play along with her. It all ended in a heartfelt plea for us to stay in the hospital forever, an interaction that oozed with a sense of loneliness and heartache, I genuinely felt bad for leaving and had to stop myself from going back inside. In the clown maze, I found a cuddly toy on the floor, after that one maniacal wall-bouncing clown had managed to scare us once again, and I decided to present it to him as a token of appreciation. Carefully, I approached the dark room where he had last disappeared into and called out to him, that I had a present for him. There was no response, and I left the stuffed bear in front of the room, telling him I’d leave the gift on the floor. We moved on to the next scene upstairs, and just when I thought nothing would come of it, we heard the clown gleefully shouting ‘TEDDY!’ from downstairs. A minute later, we were hopping and jumping through another hallway, along with that very overly enthusiastic clown girl, screaming with delight. We experienced so many great interactions with the actors, and I can’t compliment them enough for really giving it their all, late at night for just two guests, who even had walked through before (a fact that was made hilariously clear by a grinning and creepily chuckling clown in a cage, who kept counting our run-throughs in German every time we passed him – das dritte Mal, hehehehe).
Barry the Butcher – he looks hungry.
Eventually, we ended up in the Party Zone for some drinks and a snack, and not soon after actors started trickling in, which was a great who’s who moment as we tried to remember where exactly we had seen ‘em all. Hilarity soon ensued – as the scarecrow who didn’t know love was tossing a brightly coloured flashing foam tube around, and Agnes, the huge aggressive spider, was bobbing around sexily to the beat. We had a little chat with Joe Tremor, and some more off-beat talks with other actors, while guests all around us were being abducted and forced to take a seat on the electric chair that sat in the corner of the room. Executions and drinks all around! A really fun way to end the evening and to see the actors in yet another perspective.
So, where does this leave us? The concept of City of Fears is gold, that’s for sure, the use of actual buildings adds a level of creepy realism that’s very hard to come by. It also comes with a number of limitations, and it seems like the organizers are still learning how to work around this, it cannot be denied there were a good number of problems with the haunts. However, by inadvertently giving ourselves some sort of VIP tour experience, we saw the event at its best, and we truly had a brilliant time. Now obviously, it won’t be practically possible for every single visitor to get this solo run, but I hope that with a little tweaks in crowd management and route design, the City will be able to show its true potential to everyone who walks through. Thanks Mr. Tremor, for an awesome night.
Oh, as a kind of a post script, we spotted a desolate building on the site with a Spar supermarket sign. Next year, a maze in a real grocery shop setting? Pretty please?
Pictures by Boris Luyten – thanks buddy.