When I was a kid, Alton Towers had always been this mythical place for me, a place I’d love to go. I would gaze at pictures of Oblivion and Nemesis for hours. Living in Belgium, the park could however just as well be on the other side of the world. In 2013, I finally made my first trip over, and apart from experiencing my childhood dream coasters, the extreme, after-hours run of The Sanctuary made me fall in love with haunted houses. Everything about it was perfect, the theatrical buildup, that insane marmalisation corridor, the physicality of the actors, … Three years later, the time was right for a revisit – would Alton deliver its magic once again?
Maybe the question is, would that be even possible – considering the ridiculously high standards I had set for AT. The very first blow came right after entering the park. At the box office, we were told that although the extreme runs had been on offer, they had been scrapped somewhere in the previous week. As for the reason, we can only guess. Financial reasons? Not enough interest (well, the extreme versions hadn’t been advertised anywhere, remarkably)? Maybe some idiot, not reading the waiver and complaining afterwards that the actors had been too physical or too rude? A huge shame in our opinion, we had heard great things about the extreme mazes while they were running, and sincerely hope they will be returning next year.
Still, we had two days in one of our favourite parks, with three mazes, a more child friendly maze, and two scare zones on offer, this all in addition to finally being able to experience The Smiler. Here is the rundown of the scare mazes…
Terror of the Towers, AT’s household maze, is an established value by now, having been run for the first time back in 2002 and returning for almost each subsequent year. For a good reason too, the iconic ruins are a setting beyond perfect for the gothic tale of a family of vampire elders and their basement-dwelling servants. Following in the footsteps of urban explorers gone missing, we made our way through dark corridors, as the eyes of long-deceased aristocrats portrayed on dusty paintings seemed to be following our every move. Soon enough, our break-in was discovered, and the ruins’ inhabitants weren’t too pleased. Weaving through covered-up, musky furniture, the servants appeared from everywhere, until we heard one of them exclaim “Masters, they are here!!” Strobes could be seen flashing around the corner, and we all knew what was coming next… We loved how the finale section used a very slow strobe effect – as every appearance of the bloodsucking elders was branded on our retinas. The actors used this to its full potential, creating amazing otherworldly silhouettes and distorted postures as they chased us through the maze.
We’d recommend TotT as your starter maze for Scarefest, you are to conga-line through the maze, so there is strength in numbers, and while it retains its classic charm, it is less intense than the other two mazes. We also kind of missed the previous layout, where we had to descend a very ominous staircase down into the basement, making it utterly clear some very creepy stuff was about to go down. In the new layout, the buildup is a little less pronounced. However, we still very much enjoyed Terror of the Towers, and we’re sure we haven’t seen the last of the creatures within.
New for this year was Altonville Mine Tours, where we were to uncover the legend of the Skin Snatchers. Country music jangling through the speakers, we met up with a jolly hillbilly, whose family had been working in the Altonville mines for decades. Quite a character, he shifted from being a very friendly fellow to being very unnerved and twitchy, as he started talking about the myth of the skin snatchers… As we readied ourselves to tour the mines, the front, middle and back people of our group were donned with a mining helmet, complete with a little flashlight. A safety feature, or something making them an easily visible prey for whatever was lurking in the dark shafts, ready for the grabbing? Inside, we met the hillbilly’s sister (and lover?), who came up VERY close and personal, as she told us the grim details about how the skin snatchers allegedly came to inhabit the mines. We soon entered an elevator, taking us down into the bowels of the mine, and immediately, everything took a turn for the worse as the elevator malfunctioned, the lights went off and we were dragged out one by one into the mineshafts. No conga lines here, and the actors got pretty hands-on with us! With barely any other light sources than the couple of helmet lights we were equipped with, we explored the smoky, dark tunnels, filled with boiler suits and mining equipment – a very tense experience leading up to our encounter with the redneck family and skin snatchers living inside. Near the end, we stumbled through smoke and intense strobing, being grabbed and pushed, feeling our way out as we couldn’t see an inch in front of our faces.
Altonville Mine Tours is a pretty impressive maze, and the Haunted Lantern technology used in the mining helmets is awesome – quite stressful as your light malfunctions and starts to flicker in the dark passageways. Also, wearing the helmet actually made me see a lot less in the smoke and darkness of the mines, and because you are so focused on that vague ray of light, the actors can sneak up on you effectively. On the other hand, the maze was pretty hit and miss. Separating guests and offering hands-on interaction can lead to amazing, personal walkthroughs, but sometimes you get left out. We braved the skin snatchers twice, and both had one amazing, and one very uneventful run. So, loads of potential, but consistency is a bit of an issue. Another slight niggle, while the concept is really cool, maybe it isn’t used to the fullest. Actors inside could have been easily replaced by generic redneck characters, and we never really felt in danger of our skin actually being snatched. We would have loved them to push the gory idea of skin masks and suits even further. Also, while the finale was pretty disorienting and chaotic, we didn’t fully understand what was going on, explosions in the mine I’d guess? Apart from that, us being us, we would have loved it if the actors would have been even more touchy and violent, right now it felt like they were holding back a lot. Makes sense, as the general public most likely isn’t used to this amount of contact. For the more seasoned haunter, the extreme run for this maze would have been mindblowing, I’d genuinely think I wouldn’t escape with my face intact!
Finally, Sub Species: The End Games returned this year. Everyone was raving about this maze last year, and with a lot of luck and effort, I had managed to avoid most spoilers, but anticipation was high, and we left this one for last. Set in a post-apocalyptic underground shelter, a number of survivors have managed to stay alive in the sewer system. We would enter in what seems to be a betting game for them – braving the maze within and trying not to fall prey to the alien threat inside. “As rats in a maze” is a very fitting term for this one, as we all got separated, without a clear path leading to the exit. The dark, confusing rooms all have multiple ways to go, with a pitch black, rope-led corridor and a number of crawl-through sewer pipes ultimately as the only way to make it to the other side. More than once, I encountered other guests trying to find their way out, including this one Asian girl, stuck in the middle of a completely dark corridor and not daring to go either way – when I approached, she could only mutter “Are you a ghost? I am not a ghost.” Trying to contain my laughter, I left her there to fall victim to the rage of the inhabitants, it was a race for survival after all! The mad survivors inside are ready to taunt you everywhere you go, and a number of times, I ran into the alien creature, barely escaping its claws.
In the end, unfortunately, Sub Species couldn’t really convince me. The concept is fantastic, but because of the maze-like structure and multiple paths, consistency is even more of an issue here than in Skin Snatchers. Again, we went through twice, but my second run was even tamer than the first, despite me purposefully getting lost in the dark corridors and trying to spend as long as possible in the maze. I can absolutely see people having a blast in here, when everything works out as it should, but I consistently seemed to be missing a lot of the actors inside. An immense load of potential, but loss of consistency is one of the costs of creating a deliberately confusing, chaotic and non-linear experience. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing to the structure. It’s great to see a theme park go forth with something like this, it’s a pretty daring move, and I really appreciate that. Just a few more actors might make a lot of difference already. Also, like in Skin Snatchers, actors are allowed to be quite hands on with the guests, but the maze kind of falls right in the middle of a normal no touching maze, and an actual full contact experience. We craved just that little bit more. Again, the extreme run would have had me screaming and running all the way through.
So, in conclusion, although we weren’t convinced a full one hundred percent, we cannot fault Alton Towers for this. The concepts of the mazes were fantastic, Skin Snatchers was a great addition to the lineup, and we can only support that they are trying to connect a more general audience to contact haunts. This bridge between normal haunted houses and more extreme experiences is basically non-existent, so we applaud what AT is doing here. I think we may have gotten a bit too enthusiastic beforehand by the thought of two touchy mazes, and it makes sense that they weren’t as aggressive as we had hoped for them to be, AT being a family theme park and all that. A bit of work on the consistency, and both Skin Snatchers and Sub Species would have been amazing. Scarefest is definitely going in the right direction, and we can’t wait to see what will happen in the next years. We do think it’s a huge shame the extreme runs were cancelled, as they were the perfect little treat for those wanting a little bit more, without going all out with the general audience. With what we’ve seen now, we are absolutely positive our appetites for a theatrical, yet aggressive and extreme maze would have been completely fulfilled. Bring them back AT, pretty please?