Spooky Truth: A horror ranking of St. Louis' best haunted houses

Oct 19, 2013 at 4:00 am
Spooky Truth: A horror ranking of St. Louis' best haunted houses
Steve Truesdell

You know haunted houses aren't real. Those bodies hanging from the ceiling? Molded latex. The creature with the half-melted face charging at you with a cleaver? That's just some teenager in a costume. Yet your pulse is up. You jump as a jet of air blasts your neck, and a strobe light flashes, revealing that you're nose to snout with a pig-faced demon who roars "Give me your eyeballs!" You know it's not real -- but still you run.

Fear exists in your head. At the same time, you experience it bodily — in that sense, it's very, very real. That's why every October visitors enter haunted houses by the tens of thousands to inject a bit of terror into their Halloween season. The greater St. Louis area is blessed (cursed?) with a glut of haunted houses competing for your screams, and these fright factories are anything but rinky-dink. They are sometimes multimillion-dollar operations staffed by dozens of actors who've undergone extensive training. It's like a finely orchestrated Broadway play but with way more fog machines, chain saws and decapitations.

Click here for an insider's look at the Darkness' Ghoul School

So, which St. Louis-area haunting is right for you? Riverfront Times investigated, cataloged and ranked the five best haunts out there, from the sensory overload of the Darkness in Soulard to the kid-friendly attractions at Six Flags Fright Fest. It's not a power ranking — it's a horror ranking.

Pulse Rate: The intensity of the scares
Blood, Gore and More: How much carnage is packed in
Creeps and Freaks: How committed the cast is to their roles
Psych Trauma: How mentally disturbing the haunt is. Bonus points for clowns, hillbillies and creepy children.
Presentation: Production value, including things like animatronics and special effects

5. Six Flags Fright Fest
Interstate 44 & Six Flags Road, Eureka
$39.99 to $54.99, plus parking and $20 for admission to all four haunted houses

Those in search of easygoing entertainment for the whole family should head to Six Flags Fright Fest. Although the scariest part might be the steep admission and parking fees, when it comes to sheer variety of activities, Six Flags can't be beat.

Fright Fest takes over the amusement park in the evening, when zombies and witches roam through clearly marked "scare zones." If you're feeling overwhelmed by an undead bride or the white-eyed park ranger who yips like a dog, employees will happily provide you with an LED "Don't Scare Me" necklace (for $5, of course). There are four haunted houses in the park with separate admission charges: The new Total Darkness puts visitors in a pitch-black maze that should not be undertaken alone (unless you're, like, super brave). Slaughterhouse and Insanity Alley are more traditional violence-fests, while Blind Fury mixes in aspects of the other three at a demonic toy factory. The best part? You can blow through all four and still have plenty of time left to jump on Batman: The Ride.

Pulse Rate: 5/10 Geared toward easy consumption, these scares will freak the hell out of kids, but adults shouldn't expect more than mild-to-medium terror.

Blood, Gore and More: 6/10 The gore level is generally low here — though kudos to whoever designed the prosthetic baby bump being ripped open by tiny arms and legs. Nice going, you sick, sick freak.

Creeps and Freaks: 6/10 The roaming undead are a fun touch, but the haunted houses' monsters are too timid to fully turn on the heebie-jeebies.

Psych Trauma: 7/10 Total Darkness blasts heavy metal while you try to trace the wall in the dark, searching for that exit. Prepare for heavy disorientation.

Production: 8/10 Six Flags doesn't skimp, and the settings and costumes are elaborate and polished. Almost too polished, though. The place could use a coat of grime.

Pros: Lots of options.

Cons: As a "haunted attraction," Fright Fest is heavy on attraction, weak on haunted.

4. The Haunting of Lemp Brewery
3500 Lemp Avenue
$20 to $28

Three years ago parts of the old Lemp Brewery were transformed into an ambitious haunted-house project by Larry Kirchner, the horror guru behind Halloween Productions. (The company also owns the Darkness and Creepyworld.) Billed as "The Only Real Haunted House in St. Louis," the attraction plays up the true and sordid history of the Lemp family (despite the fact the infamous suicides happened at the Lemp Mansion). The only entrance is an ancient metal staircase that winds its way down, interminably, before reaching the basement five stories below. There, limestone walls drip with condensation, and visitors must navigate the mazelike rooms teeming with escaped convicts, homicidal brewery workers and a grinning butcher.

Kirchner says he has improved Lemp since its less-than-horrifying first years, and indeed, the quality of the actors, costuming and makeup achieves stomach-churning highs. Be prepared to deal with the excessive fog, which shrinks your field of vision to barely a foot in front of your face. Try not to run into anything. Or anyone.

Pulse Rate: 6/10 Underground, everyone can hear you shriek. The small spaces and heavy fog will keep you twitching around each corner.

Blood, Gore and More: 7/10 No Kirchner production is complete without a large helping of severed body parts. You won't look at table saws the same way again.

Creeps and Freaks: 8/10 Actors use the crushed spaces to their advantage, creeping close to you. Closer. Even closer — until you bolt.

Psych Trauma: 5/10 The "actually haunted" historical premise sticks with you.

Production: 8/10 The erstwhile Lemp brewery is naturally eerie, sinister and filled with shadows from a bygone era. Try to keep your knees from buckling.

Pros: Period costumes and fantastically creative characters make Lemp's army of ghouls stand out from the pack.

Cons: It's all over too quickly. You can make your way through in 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Crystal City Underground -- Haunted Maze and Barge Ride
700 Crystal Avenue, Crystal City
$15 to $30 for haunted maze, $15 to $30 for haunted barge

Crystal City Underground inhabits the gargantuan insides of a shuttered sandstone mine in Crystal City. Its entrance is a gaping black mouth filled with chilled air. (Bring a jacket.) Some 200 subterranean acres vast, the cave splits into catacomblike passages. One path leads to a deathly still lake upon which the haunted barge floats. You can buy drinks at the bar (yes, there is also a bar in the cave) to take on the spooky boat trip. Down another passageway is the underground maze. Though simply constructed with tarps and solid dividers, things turn downright nightmarish once you try to flee undead children and ax-swinging thugs. It's running on the sand that makes the experience resemble your oldest, worst dream come to life — you're being chased and you're not moving fast enough and whatever is chasing you is getting closer.

Pulse rate: 9/10 The maze is a panic-fueled workout, make no mistake. At least try to keep it together past the third dead end or everyone will think you're a wuss.

Blood, Gore and More: 5/10 A fair share of gouged faces await you in the maze, but graphic violence doesn't have much prominence here.

Creeps and Freaks: 6/10 Composed of high school students and one (extremely disturbing) little girl, the cast of fiends amply motivates you to make it back to the bar.

Psych Trauma: 4/10 The barge ride holds few thrills and is mainly an opportunity to explore the underground lake. The darkness is ominous, sure, but it's pretty tame.

Production: 9/10 The sheer scale of the cave can elicit a deep pang of existential doubt within even the heartiest visitor. The mine is a giant coffin.

Pros: Every haunted house should have a full bar.

Cons: Seriously, bring a jacket. It's always about 50 degrees inside the cave regardless of the weather outside.

2. Creepyworld
1400 South Old Highway 141, Fenton
$23 to $25

Creepyworld is a plague-riddled theme park spread over five acres in Fenton. Whereas Lemp is cramped and claustrophobic, Creepyworld is wide open under the night sky. This is a true Halloween attraction, with ten differently themed haunts, 70-plus actors and ample room for them to chase you with power tools. Seeing all Creepyworld has to offer takes close to an hour: There's a zombie-filled army base, a hillbilly farm right out of The Hills Have Eyes and a Gothic mansion strewn with cobwebs and severed limbs. Escaped mental patients scramble on the ground grasping for your ankles, and there is a visceral sense of relief when you finally emerge from a fog-choked slaughterhouse into clear night air.

Pulse Rate: 8/10 Beware the open areas — disfigured, chainsaw-wielding psychos will chase you doggedly until you locate the exit. The sound of that snarling, gas-powered machine moving closer in the dark will get your legs moving and your hands shaking.

Blood, Gore and More: 9/10 Creepyworld is fully stocked with realistic, wet-looking wounds, piles of limbs and blood — so much blood.

Creeps and Freaks: 8/10 Predators abound here. Whether they're cackling hillbillies or deformed mutants, they send a clear message: This is a hunt. You are the prey.

Psych Trauma: 6/10 The downtime between the separate, themed zones saps some of the tension, though most visitors will appreciate the chance to catch their breath.

Production: 9/10 With crisp wind in your face and the stars above, Creepyworld is a carnival of horrors so vivid you'd swear it was dragged into reality from an R.L. Stine novel.

Pros: The jagged panic of being chased doesn't dull, and a herd of cast members vie to keep you on your toes.

Cons: The interior spaces can be especially stuffy and hot.

1. The Darkness
1525 South Eighth Street
$23 to $25

There is no haunted "attraction," house or otherwise, like the Darkness. Contained in a two-story Soulard warehouse, the Darkness is a blend of astonishing gore and violence working in concert with animatronic monsters that burst out of walls with groping arms and snapping jaws. It's a blood-washed art gallery — a "showroom," as owner Larry Kirchner calls it, and the millions of dollars he has invested to improve it over the past twenty years have made the Darkness one of the best haunted houses in the country.

Laid out like a madman's labyrinth, its hallways and rooms are bathed in green-lit fog, and there is always something or someone behind you. Or maybe beneath you. Not content with merely fraying nerves, the Darkness pummels them like a boxer working a speed bag: Jets of air shoot from walls, floor panels shift and secret passages allow actors to burst out from one corner only to reappear seconds later around the next. That's called the "double scare," and it's unsettling, confusing and wrecks any sense of control you thought you had. You are at the mercy of the Darkness.

Pulse Rate: 10/10 The pace is a relentless sensory overload, wearing visitors down with sudden noises, strobe lights and demons exploding from walls.

Blood, Gore and More: 10/10 The tableau of torture is pure artistry, with bodies impaled on spikes, men eating their own flesh and endless decapitated heads hanging from the ceiling.

Creeps and Freaks: 9/10 Serial killers, escaped convicts, butchers, demons — they are everywhere, hiding in corners or behind false walls, ready to pounce. They know your name. They want your skin.

Psych Trauma: 8/10 The Darkness' gang of red-nosed Harlequins must be some of St. Louis' most disturbed haunters.

Production: 10/10 Every inch of the Darkness drips with lush, museum-grade detail.

Pros: The 3-D clown house is probably the closest you'll get to the experience of eating a dozen peyote buttons at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. (Unless, of course, you've already done that.)

Cons: Thick fog pumped into the rooms and the frantic pace make it difficult — and sometimes impossible — to stop and appreciate the craftsmanship in the Darkness' ornately designed chambers and alcoves.