Sunday, 4 October 2015

REVIEW: Shocktober Fest Scream Park 2015

Some background, for those who don't know: Tulley's Farm is a site in West Sussex that has been holding Hallowe'en-themed attractions since the mid-nineties, which in 2009 grew into Shocktober Fest, an American-style haunted farm event that sells out annually and has been voted the most popular Hallowe'en event in the UK. Every October the event is held for several weeks, encompassing the very busy half term holiday and building in anticipation (and cost) to All Hallows Eve itself. From this year there's also a revived Spooktober event for youngsters and another venue, Tulley's "The Howl," at Mead Open Farm in Bedfordshire.

This was my first trip to Shocktober Fest, although many of my friends have been to it and other themed events at Tulley's in the past. This year there are eight main attractions, or Haunts, which range from the very mild to the seriously nerve-rattling. The oldest and most well known is the Haunted Hayride, the most kid-friendly of the Haunts, a trailer ride through woods peppered with shacks and oddities and populated by zombified cowboys, murderous maniacs and, rather brilliantly, dancing phantom nuns. Because, why not? Also pretty tame is the Haunted House, which is a good entry level for the more serious haunts and gives you a taste of the various ghouls who'll leap out at you. The Haunted House in particular is very brief. 

Stronger is the Nightshade Circus, far more claustrophobic than the Haunted House, and no good at all for coulrophobes. (It's also where they send the really attractive actors, we noticed.) The Cellar is another haunted house event, but the best of the lot, the confined and twisted spaces providing ample opportunity for the various ghosts to hide before they leap out at you (and they really do get right up in your face). It's also a little trickier to find your way around, which makes it more interesting, but not as baffling as some of the more adult Haunts. 

The Colony and the Volt are extremely claustrophobic. The Colony, a post-apocalyptic island of inbred cannibals, co-opts the corn maze and involves a lengthy period through a pitch black building, feeling your way along as you can't see a damned thing. It could also do with some actual indication of where to go and when, because the snarling actors weren't really able to communicate this (and are seemingly forbidden from dropping character), and more than once we found ourselves outside the boundaries of the Haunt and having to find our way back in. Briefer, but more intense, was the genuinely unsettling Volt, which supposedly adds the risk of electric shocks to the struggle of finding your way through the darkness. In actuality, it's a psych-out; you're so on-edge waiting for the shocks that never come that you almost feel them every time you touch a wall. Of the six Haunts we went through, this was the one that shook me, and it was almost all self-inflicted.

The most popular Haunts would seem to be the Chop Shop and Hell-ements, neither of which we experienced. The Chop Shop had a 45-minute queue and we honestly couldn't be bothered with that, although from the screams and chainsaw noises we heard it was certainly frightening. Hell-ements, which has been raved about since its creation a few years ago, sounded a bit much after already fighting through pitch darkness on other Haunts. This one involves having your head completely covered while you find your way through on a rope... not for the faint of heart.

As well as the Haunts there's plenty going on in the grounds, although as we attended the preview night (for a reduced price) not everything was yet set up. The overall theme was "Horror-wood," with an American horror atmosphere pervading the site. There were many spooks wandering around entertaining people while they waited, ate and got lost; some of actors and characters were excellent, others, well, weren't. Best were the Barber Chops, two barbershop zombies who regaled us with songs. I understand that once it's fully populated there will be a good deal more general entertainment. A basic pass costs a tenner, so not bad if you don't want to see the Haunts and just want to enjoy food, spooks and music, while the "X-Scream Pass," allowing one go round each Haunt, was £25 for preview night, increasing to £30 next weekend and hitting peak at £45 on Hallowe'en. However, given that the Haunts don't open until 7.30 and the park closes at 11.30, it's hard to fit in all eight events if you don't shell out £40-£70 plus for a fast track or VIP pass. Not impossible, since they're mostly quite brief and the queuing was, generally, moving pretty quickly, but tricky. 

So, overall, this was great fun. However, there are some major problems that need addressing. I'm accepting that the preview night has a few creases that will be ironed out - there was a hitch at the Hayride which delayed its start, for example - but I'm sure that this will get sorted. Other problems are more serious. The general staff, for example, aren't permitted to go through the Haunts, which is problematic considering the lack of information regarding them. All the haunts have essentially the same warnings about darkness, sudden shocks and claustrophobia, but there's no way to tell which is going to be more severe other than by going through. While guests, naturally, enter at their own risk, this risk does need to be informed. It's hard to know quite how you'll react to a Haunt until you've experienced it, and there's no easy way for anyone panicking to get out of a Haunt once they've entered it. While there are medics standing by, their access is, by the nature of the events, limited. 

The most serious element of this is the use of inflatable walls in at least four of the Haunts (of the ones we went through, only the Hayride and the Haunted House lacked this). These are extremely claustrophobic, especially in the Colony and the Volt, essentially enclosing you in a smothering layer of fabric through which you have to force yourself in order to proceed. It's actually quite difficult to make it through these, and for some in the party the tightness and closeness of the material made it difficult to breathe. Using this to some extent on fully half of the Haunts (if not more), seems excessive, and made much of the experience unpassable for one of our party. 

While I understand the desire to keep the Haunts spoiler-free, people need to understand what they're likely to be letting themselves in for. There's a big difference between a poky shack, a black, enclosed chamber, and a smothering canvas envelope. While some of the staff were extremely helpful - a particular shout-out to the young man at the Cellar, who went to some lengths to find out what exactly was to be expected in that Haunt - others seemed undertrained or simply not bothered. The security detail also did very little to maintain order, which is quite important in a place with so many over-excited teenagers. (All the attractions are, questionably, rated 12, although anyone under fifteen is supposed to be accompanied by an adult, something that was not being enforced inside the park).

My first Shocktober Fest was great fun, and I would certainly go again (although probably not on opening night), but the management need to take some of their responsibilities more seriously when it comes to the welfare and experience of their customers.

UPDATE: Tulley's have refunded my friend the price of her ticket and have stated that allowing staff to experience the Haunts will be discussed at a management level. We thank them for the quick and considerate response.

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