Or how I learned to stop being afraid and love haunted houses
By Jesse Cole | October 11, 2023
As a kid, I hated anything scary. Just making my way past the horror section in my local Blockbuster (look it up, kids) was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. Weak in the knees I would dash towards the action movies, hoping to avoid the menacing stares from Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or whomever else might be lurking menacingly on the cover of the latest box-office slasher.
These days, I’m a horror movie fanatic. I spend most of October tucked away watching the latest teen scream or monster movie thoroughly enjoying all the thrills, chills and blood spills. But there is one thing that I’ve carried with me from those childhood years: a fear of haunted houses. Something about having the scares move off the silver screen just gives me the heebie-jeebies. And don’t even get me started on jump-scares.
It makes sense, then, that our staff decided that I should be the one to brave Fort Edmonton’s Dark this year. I mean, what better opportunity for immersive journalism than to send the new guy, knees clacking, into the depths of one of his biggest fears, right? So, here’s my account – a scaredy cat’s guide to Dark.
Six Years of Scares
I arrived at Dark on Oct. 6 – opening night for the event which runs from now until Oct. 29. As I arrived what lay before me was a thoroughly transfigured Fort Edmonton, it’s Johnny J. Jones exhibit now a creepy carnival complete with stilted killer clowns and zombified creatures roaming the grounds in anticipation of the crowds to come. I could already feel my blood pressure beginning to spike.
I didn’t have long to take it all in before I was greeted by Lacey Huculak, one of the architects of my nightmare. Huculak has been with Dark since the beginning and told me this year’s spook-show had some new tricks to play on me.
“We’ve expanded further into the park than ever before,” Huculak told me, visibly amused when I confessed that I have an almost phobic aversion to haunted houses. “We’re really able to start to go out and expand, exceed and dream big. To take bigger risks than we have before.”
Dark features three distinct haunts – Under the Big Top, 3AM and Bloodshed Passage – all of which, Huculak explained, I would be subjected to that evening.
Under The Big Top
One of Dark’s mainstay haunts, 2023 marks the last opportunity to experience Under the Big Top’s dark carnival, and Huculak assured me it would be worth making a priority.
“You’re going to meet some clowns up to no good,” she told me, ushering me into the entrance of an enormous, colourful circus tent. “Their ultimate mission is to trick you into joining the circus … cut you in half and sew you back together.”
Needless to say, I had some first-time jitters. “Start slow,” I told myself as I took my first steps into the twisted funhouse, its walkway a maze of blood-stained crates, shifting wall panels and gore. Then it happened. The jump-scares. In what felt like seconds, I came face to face with what I can only describe as a dishevelled and grimacing Harley-Quinn on steroids. I shrieked, recoiled and ran only to find myself separated from my cameraman and adrift in a disorienting hall of mirrors as more clowns seemingly appeared from nowhere, keen to chase me towards what I prayed was the exit. My adrenaline pumped. Left? Right? Forward.
Finally, I was out. I breathed in the cool night air and as my heart rate returned to normal, I realized I was actually having fun. I left with a renewed sense of confidence. I had bested the big top and was certain I could handle whatever else the night had in store for me.
Boy, was I wrong.
If there’s an area that really shines at Dark, it’s 3AM. Part homage to films like The Conjuring or The Amityville Horror, part hallucinogenic nightmare fuel, the atmosphere inside 3AM is dense. As I walked into the picturesque, 50s-inspired home I could immediately tell this was going to be more heart pounding than the big top.
I felt like I had been transported into a fever dream. Strange, haunting noises and the sound of ticking clocks hung in the air as ethereal dry ice pooled around my ankles. Then I saw them: beady, pulsating red eyes emanating from the darkness like some night terror come to life. And they were everywhere.
“3AM is when the veil between this world and supernatural is at its thinnest,” Huculak had told me prior. Now I knew what she meant.
3AMis a less in-your-face haunt than Dark’s other offerings, but that’s exactly what makes it so menacing. The ambience and the setting of something familiar turned malevolent all made me feel as if someone had spiked the drinks at the concession stand. This is a conscious choice by the team at Dark, who said the idea behind the haunt was to offer something scary for those who don’t flinch at blood and guts. It certainly pays off.
There’s a climax at the end of 3AM that I won’t ruin but suffice to say it’s very… cinematic.
A Momentary Reprieve
With my sanity relatively intact, I left 3AM and was informed I had to wait an hour for the final haunt.
Making the most of my momentary relief, I made my way towards the food trucks, intent to ease my stomach with some strawberry shortcake drenched mini-doughnuts.
Dark advertises itself as a haunt for ages 14 and up, but I couldn’t help but notice families laughing and screaming together as their young kids eagerly posed for photos with some of various scare actors roaming the park.
“Rub it in, why don’t ya?” I thought to myself.
After some well-deserved R&R, I was feeling pretty good about how I handled the night thus far and was determined to finish in style with the new-this-year Bloodshed Passage.
The final haunt makes use of Fort Edmonton’s historic buildings, sweeping those brave enough to enter into a 12-minute, alternate timeline where a zombie apocalypse is plaguing frontier-era Edmonton. Spanning multiple sections of the park, Bloodshed Passage is Dark’s most ambitious haunt yet.
With dozens of people lined up, I entered the haunt just behind another group whose screams regularly alerted me to what I had in store around each bend. Despite my protests, character actors urged me forward, imploring me to ignore the pleas of some of the soon-to-be zombies they had locked up. Before long, I found myself outside, where I bore witness to the townsfolk battling against the zombie hordes, saving Edmonton (and me) from becoming their next meal.
While not an educational tour, per se, even just being in those old buildings made me feel a little more connected to history of our city, even if it was tinted zombie-blood red.
A Triumphant Exit
I left Bloodshed Passage and returned to the land of the living, and my wonderful tour guides greeted me with laughs and congratulations. I had done it. I had survived all three haunts and I had done it without soiling any clothing or having a panic attack. Stranger still, I had really enjoyed myself.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit sentimental about leaving this fantastical experience. As I passed through the exit gates, waving goodbye to the many costumed actors I had met through the night, I found myself wanting more. One thing’s for sure. This won’t be my last haunt. Perhaps I’m not as big of a scaredy cat as I thought.