L.A. Haunts: $15 Ghost Tours and Free Smells at the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor

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In the month leading up to October 31, Grantland editor Emily Yoshida, a person who knows no fear, will visit as many Halloween attractions in the Los Angeles area as will fit into her schedule. This week: the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor.

After the first two rounds of nonstop haunts, things begin to blur together a bit. There are only so many fog tunnels and weird-smelling burlap curtains you can push through before your mind starts drifting to the rest of your life: work ish, social ish, cooking some shallots overnight in lemon juice for the salad you’re taking to the office tomorrow. The overall “horror” ambience starts to be like a light, lingering drizzle: something kind of unpleasant that you just have to suck up and deal with, but nothing worthy of terribly deep consideration. But next on my haunted itinerary I had what I thought was just the thing to mix it up: actual ghosts!

I have always wanted to see a ghost. I have had numerous friends over the years who claim to have had contact with ghosts, and it seems like something that could really shake up your worldview. I don’t think there’s a correlation between my ghost-spotter friends and my haunt-phobic friends, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder … Could seeing a ghost enhance my interest in horror?

I went to the Queen Mary alone the night after I went to Knott’s Scary Farm alone. “That place is actually haunted, though!” came the protestations of my cowardly friends this time. But honestly, if there are in fact ghosts, and they frequent the Queen Mary, are they really going to come out during a Halloween event? That’s like going to your favorite restaurant on Valentine’s Day. Ill advised. Way too hectic. They’re at home watching Netflix.

Haunt No. 3: The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor

Location: Long Beach, California

Cost of Admission: $29 on a Friday night

Bells and Whistles: Again, wanting to feel special and professional, I opted for the Fast Fright pass, which gave similar front-of-line privileges as the Fright Lane pass at Knott’s. This brought my total to $51.

Pitch: From the event website:

The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor will once again rise from the depths of a rich, haunted history to frighten those who dare October 2 through November 2. This year’s Dark Harbor is thrilled to unveil a spectacle of new attractions that include two brand new mazes and the new Voodoo Village. Beloved veteran characters including The Ringmaster and all grotesque spirits of the Queen will make a chilling return for 20 nights of delightful terror amidst freaks, food, and live entertainment.

The Queen Mary, a decommissioned ocean liner turned tourist attraction, has been voted “one of the Top 10 Most Haunted Places in America by Time magazine.” (Who was voting? Spirits???) There have been more than 100 paranormal sightings onboard, and ghost-hunt tours are available all year long. Dark Harbor, which has been running since 2010, is, if I’m being uncharitable, a literal-minded attempt to realize those legends for people with no imagination.

Which is not to say that there aren’t parts of Dark Harbor that are very cool. But a lot of it had nothing to do with the cast and elaborate production design — Dark Harbor just automatically has a leg up because of its setting. On several occasions I found myself gawking at the old historic sights of the ship and completely missing the ax murderer in the corner.

What’s the demographic? Surprisingly: older and less American. There were a lot of British and German people there? There’s no enforced age restriction, but the event website discourages bringing children, and there were far fewer kids and teens. Dark Harbor is a much more booze-centric event, unlike Halloween Horror Nights (no alcohol in the park itself) and Knott’s Scary Farm (beer and wine only). Multiple full bars dot the event, including a VIP lounge on one of the walkways connected to the outside of the ship, and several VIP cabanas and a hookah tent. I sincerely have no guess as to the kind of person who rents a VIP cabana at the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, and since there was nobody in any of them when I passed by, I never got to find out.

Was there an EDM tent? No, but when I came in, a cover band was playing Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” which segued into “Californication.”

How much fire is there? THERE IS A LOT OF FIRE. In the center of the midway area there are several fireball-belching torches, which loom over the off-ship “Deadrise” maze (vague WWII shipwreck theme?) and threaten to singe off your eyebrows every 30 seconds or so. It had been about 90 degrees the day I went to Dark Harbor, so this felt slightly unnecessary.

Personal Boundary ViolationWatch: 1 out of 5 unwanted hugs. Very similar rules as HHN, and I think the scare-ers must have been told not to prey on solo visitors, because I was left relatively unbothered outside the mazes.

What does it smell like? You know, I originally wrote this question down on a long list of potential questions to answer on my Haunt tour just because I find scent to be an underrated sense by which to analyze a situation, and never has that applied more than at Dark Harbor. Sure, the park adjacent to the ship that comprises most of the event’s real estate smells like a variation on all the others: fog machine vapor, hot dogs, California drought. But on any of the mazes that take you into the ship, of which there are four (B340, Submerged, Soulmate, and Encounters) you are constantly aware of a slightly mildewy, church-basement smell that permeates the staterooms and corridors where many of the mazes are staged. That was more transportive than a Tyvek box, to be sure.

So this gets to the problem of Dark Harbor itself: When you’ve got a genuinely creepy old place with actual ghost lore to work with, you’d think you’d let those ingredients speak for themselves a little more. But of course, Dark Harbor is in competition with all the other Southland Haunts, and so they have to deliver the same kind of shocks and screams as everyone else to seem relevant. Still, for me, the best moments were the most lo-fi ones. The Submerged maze begins with the group being led through the first-class swimming pool, which is still in its crumbling, unrestored art deco grandeur, eerily lit and empty except for a little ghost girl wandering around the edges, who continually asks us in a high-pitched, plaintive voice, “Do you want to play with me?” It was sort of trope-y, but in the setting, with the aforementioned mildew smell, it was pretty effective, and unlike anything I’d seen at any attraction so far.

What Was the Best Maze? Probably B340, which is based on the legend of “Samuel the Savage,” a third-class passenger who was apparently locked up in the titular cabin and later found in pieces. It’s a probably wildly fictionalized delve into his “madness,” which just looks like a kind of ’30s retro slasher movie. There are a lot of clocks hanging around for some reason. Reviews of Dark Harbor by Haunt enthusiasts tend to talk about what a “colorful cast of characters” the event boasts, but I didn’t find out until later on a Wikipedia search what B340 (or Submerged) was about. Still, it’s pretty impressive, and it has a jaw-dropping catwalk across a boiler room as its grand finale.

What Wanted to Be the Best Maze? I paid an extra $15 for Encounters, a new addition to the event that I’ll just let the website describe:

This new, exclusive experiment in horror puts guests in an intimate and frightening setting that will leave a lasting impression [of] jarring extreme terror. A very limited number of thrill seekers will find themselves on a terrifying top secret paranormal journey.

Intriguing, right? Even better: I had to sign a release form! MY FIRST RELEASE FORM! I barely read it, just caught the word “hood” out of the corner of my eye and took a photo of it for later reference, then joined my group of eight and our tour guide for what we were told was a very rare, exclusive ghost tour of the lower regions of the ship.

I want to be fair to Encounters, because in a way it lets the space speak for itself more than any of the other mazes. It really is just staged as a normal, non-scary tour, with a couple of “spooky events” thrown in for effect. But the spooky events are pretty tame, and borderline stupid — only one person ever has to put on a hood, and she was escorted away by some kind of pagan priest early on in the tour. The next time we saw her she was locked in a cage. Then someone pulled a lever and she was released. Shrug.

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We did get to see the door that allegedly chopped a guy in half in 1966. And a very cool propeller room where some spooky ghost lady ran at us for a second. And there were some more weird, non-mildewy smells, which are, I’m told, one possible sign of a presence from the beyond. The beyond smells a lot like egg salad. OR WAS THAT BRIMSTONE!!??

Filed Under: L.A. Haunts, The Queen Mary, Long Beach, Halloween, Horror, Los Angeles

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